Brief # 104 Foreign Policy

Biden and the American Relationship with Europe 

By Will Solomon

March 22, 2021

Policy Summary:

The Biden campaign was extremely vocal about its intention to restore a “traditional” American role in foreign affairs, an essential component of this being a restitution of America’s typical postwar role with respect to its European allies. In theory, this would reverse Trump’s erratic position towards these traditionally central alliances, which involved the imposition of tariffs on European goods, mixed rhetoric on NATO (unusual for a postwar American president), and his rhetorical hostility to the European Union, among other phenomena.

While it is tempting to read America’s shifting relationship to Europe and NATO as solely a product of the Trump administration, the reality is that it is indicative of a more complex geopolitical shift. Individual European nations and the European Union collectively are both highly attuned to the reality of waning American power and domestic American instability. Other phenomena, like the rise of China, and Europe’s reliance (potential or otherwise) on Russian fossil fuels, exist independently of the Trump administration’s geopolitical choices.

Thus, Biden’s approach to reconstructing European alliances and (attempting to) reassert a traditional American role in world affairs must be seen as connected to, but not wholly defined by, the Trump administration’s approach.


There is clearly a widespread sense in Europe that the era of American hegemony is waning, and that its protective attitude over Europe cannot be counted on in perpetuity. While most European allies were evidently pleased by a break from Trump, they simultaneously recognized that, for many reasons, the world is changing.

Myriad specific issues come up. One is the European relationship with Russia, embodied in the nearly-completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will transport natural gas from Russia to Germany. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have vocally opposed the pipeline, for fear it will give Russia increased leverage over Europe. At this point, it remains unclear how severely the Biden administration will work to undermine the project, but this challenge is likely indicative of further stress in coming years.

A similar point of tension has been the years-long negotiation of an EU-China trade deal. This occurs in the context of rising geopolitical tension between the United States and China, and growing assertiveness on both sides. But from the US perspective, it is increasingly clear that the Trump administration’s bellicose rhetoric and posture towards China was not a one-off approach—the Biden administration’s tone towards China has also been consistently antagonistic, and has been matched by actions like sending warships through the Taiwan Strait, and engaging in aggressive “vaccine diplomacy” in Asia. There is clear concern in Europe about being caught in the middle of this dispute, a possibility that will likely continue to grow in probability over the next several years.

A specific detail of this potential conflict was raised in a recent New York Times article: secondary sanctions. As the article describes, there is growing concern about the effect secondary sanctions—which could target European businesses involved with China—might have on Europe in future US/China trade disputes. The problem has already come up with respect to countries like Iran and Russia, as secondary sanctions have targeted European firms that do business with these countries (including on the aforementioned Nord Stream 2 pipeline).

Iran in particular is worth noting, because the Biden administration could (in theory) resolve this issue by removing Trump-era sanctions on Iran and recommitting to an Obama-era posture, as a meaningfully good faith attempt to restart negotiations around the JCPOA. But Biden has expressed unwillingness to do this, which may well ultimately doom the entire nuclear deal—as well as drive a bigger wedge between the US and Europe.

Ironically, if the Biden administration were seriously committed to engaging more diplomatically with Europe, its best bet would be to do so elsewhere around the world—this sort of multilateralism would avoid the American-European relationship being caught in the global crossfire. But in its burgeoning aggressiveness—behaving confrontationally towards China and Russia, and potentially neglecting to re-join the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aka the Iran Nuclear Deal) —the Biden administration is ultimately undermining its own position with respect to Europe. Thus to meaningfully re-engage with European allies, the Biden administration must reconsider how it is engaging with the rest of the world. 

Engagement Resources: — “The Quincy Institute is an action-oriented think tank that will lay the foundation for a new foreign policy centered on diplomatic engagement and military restraint. The current moment presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring together like-minded progressives and conservatives and set U.S. foreign policy on a sensible and humane footing.” — “Democracy Now! produces a daily, global, independent news hour hosted by award-winning journalists Amy Goodman and Juan González. Our reporting includes breaking daily news headlines and in-depth interviews with people on the front lines of the world’s most pressing issues.”“The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) is an award-winning international think-tank that aims to conduct cutting-edge independent research on European foreign and security policy and to provide a safe meeting space for decision-makers, activists and influencers to share ideas. We build coalitions for change at the European level and promote informed debate about Europe’s role in the world.”

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