BERLIN — A war in Afghanistan, a standoff between Europe and Washington over a Russian pipeline and an American president full of lofty promises to “defend our democratic values.”
Sound familiar? Welcome to 1981.
President Ronald Reagan, seeking to pressure the Soviet Union after its invasion of Afghanistan and attempts to quash popular dissent in Poland, wanted European allies (whom he dismissed as “Chicken Littles”) to stop helping Moscow construct a trans-Siberian pipeline, which would increase the Continent’s reliance on Russian gas.
Europe refused and Reagan eventually backed down. If that too rings a bell, it might be because Joe Biden, a young senator on the foreign relations committee in 1981, made exactly the same move in the opening months of his own presidency. The only real difference is the name of the pipeline: Nord Stream 2.
John McCain, the deceased American war hero and longtime Biden friend, liked to say that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” The maxim (often attributed to Mark Twain) would serve as a good motto for Biden’s trip to Europe this week, where he’ll participate in an alphabet soup of summits, from the G7 to NATO.
His aim is to shore up a Western alliance still shell-shocked by the Donald Trump years with a grand public display of American commitment to Europe. Behind the scenes, he’ll quietly dole out a bit of tough love, nudging Europe to move in America’s direction.
In other words, he’ll approach Europe like every other American president (save his immediate predecessor) since World War II.
Given the broad consensus among policymakers and wonks that the transatlantic alliance would never be the same after Trump, it’s almost jarring how quickly the relationship has returned to the norm.
Biden’s moves to rejoin the Paris climate accord, his pledge to steel NATO against Russian aggression and his effort to reactivate the Iran nuclear deal have left Europeans positively giddy. After just a few months in office, Tony Blinken, Biden’s French-speaking secretary of state (who happened to write a book about Reagan’s pipeline spat in the 1980s), is welcomed like an old family friend.
In fact, the EU could hardly hope for more pro-European policies if Angela Merkel were sitting in the White House. Or, as one German analyst aptly put it: “A U.S. president almost tailor-made for Europe.” Note the “almost.”
A return to normality
“Compared to Trump, the atmosphere is much better, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t tensions,” said Boris Ruge, a senior diplomat who served as Germany’s deputy chief of mission in Washington from 2016 until 2019.
Yet such tensions, which today revolve around issues such as trade, the pullout from Afghanistan and COVID-19 vaccines, have been a hallmark of transatlantic relations to varying degrees for decades.
“We’re seeing normality right now,” said John Kornblum, a former American ambassador to Germany and veteran diplomat who served in Europe under several presidents going back to Lyndon B. Johnson.
It’s often not been easy. The mutual dislike between John F. Kennedy and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was so pronounced that the two men hardly spoke to one another during the American president’s trip to Berlin, where he delivered his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.
The same was true of President Jimmy Carter and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, whose troubled relationship was documented in a book of over 500 pages called “The Quarrel.”
After Trump started lashing out at Europe, many Europeans longed for a return to the Obama years. But even then, Europe’s relationship with Washington was rife with disputes on subjects ranging from Syria to Ukraine and defense spending.
“Fuck the EU,” Victoria Nuland, a senior U.S. diplomat who oversaw Europe, was heard saying on a hacked telephone call at the time. (Nuland recently joined the Biden administration as the No. 3 in the State Department.)
Compared to that fraught history, the Biden years are likely to look like a honeymoon.
Given the EU’s inability to speak with one voice on foreign policy and its reluctance to invest significantly more into defense, some argue that Europe doesn’t matter much to Washington anymore in geostrategic terms, especially when it comes to the centerpiece of Biden’s foreign policy — China.
Yet the lengths Biden has gone to woo Europe suggest otherwise.
Europe may not be on the front line of Washington’s effort to counter Chinese influence, but Biden doesn’t want it to be. The less the EU, America’s largest trading partner, is drawn into China’s sphere, the better.
Europe experienced a dramatic increase in China’s engagement with the region during the Trump years, culminating in the landmark investment agreement Beijing signed with the EU in late December, just weeks before Biden took office.
The deal served as a wake-up call for the incoming Biden administration that it couldn’t assume Europe would be in its corner on China. Beijing’s own actions since, including the continued crackdown against its Muslim minority and the sanctioning of European politicians critical of its course, have left the accord in limbo, giving the Biden administration a welcome break.
“The China debate in Europe is shifting, not so much because of Biden, but because of [Chinese President] Xi Jinping,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, the head of the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office.
Even though Europe has started to come around to the American view that China represents a fundamental systemic threat to the world’s democracies, it’s still skeptical of U.S. motives.
“Europe distrusts the U.S.,” Kleine-Brockhoff said. “Many wonder if this is really about managing the rise of China or American hegemony.”
If history is any guide, the Europeans will eventually follow Washington’s lead, not because their concerns over American hegemony will disappear, but because they have no choice.
Europeans are loathe to acknowledge it, but for all intents and purposes, the U.S. remains the region’s organizing power.
Like it or not, Europe still depends on the U.S. for both its security and economic prosperity.
With Vladimir Putin’s Russia an ever-present threat on Europe’s doorstep and the Chinese seeking to add Europe to their sphere of influence, that reality is unlikely to change anytime soon.
While some European commentators warn of the shadow hanging over the transatlantic relationship post-Trump — and the prospect that he may return — the real lesson from his presidency might be that when the anchor of American leadership comes untethered, Europe has even more difficulty functioning.
“Yes, we Europeans are complex and yes, we are complicated, and yes, we are also not unanimous on many issues,” said Peter Beyer, a German MP who serves as the point man for transatlantic relations in Merkel’s government.
For Europeans like Beyer, the U.S. remains Europe’s indispensable ally. At a time when Europe’s future prosperity is clouded by a failure to lead in the ongoing technological revolution that is reshaping the global economy, the alliance with the U.S. is about more than just a shared culture and Western values. It’s about survival.
“Europe has to grow up,” Beyer said.
Reagan couldn’t have said it better.