The past four years have in many ways contributed towards a further unravelling of a liberal-democratic rules-based order supported by US leadership and hegemony. In their thought-provoking book ‚Exit from Hegemony‘ American political scientists Alexander Cooley and Daniel Nexon have analyzed how this hegemonic order was undermined by a number of factors, including the actions of rival powers, and transnational movements and nationalist/populist leaders, like President Trump himself. In this context, it is important to note that some trends in the alienation between the US and its European partners long predate the Trump Administration and will influence the relationship, no matter who will stay in the White House past 20 January 2021.
But some factors are particular to the Trump Administration, especially the unilateral approach of America First (disregarding allies and partners) and the transactional manner in which relationships are envisaged with a focus on bilateral trade balances and economic cost-benefit analysis. Trump’s disdain for multilateralism and his unwillingness to actively promote human rights and democratic norms have widened transatlantic rifts, as have his statements questioning NATO and security guarantees towards those allies, who do not pay enough for their own security. In fact, for the EU, the Trump Administration has posed a big challenge to the multilateral rules-based order. The US has explicitly attempted to undermine the EU integration process and threatened the EU with trade sanctions, should it not comply with US demands. Also the US withdrawal from multilateral organizations (like WHO) and agreements (e.g. the Paris Climate agreement and the Iran deal) had a serious impact on the EU’s own position as a geopolitical player with policies based on principled (values-based) pragmatism.
Both the US-China rivalry and the Russian-Chinese partnership have also had an impact on transatlantic dialogue and cooperation in dealing with the challenges posed by Russia and China to a disjointed and fragmenting West. The unilateral US approach and the EU’s soul-searching about its own geopolitical role have hardly contributed to a search for a joint approach to the wider security challenges posed by Chinese and Russian assertiveness. Partly this was due to transatlantic trade differences, but diverging views on the rules-based order and the importance of the promotion of human rights and democratic freedoms also had a major impact. In this respect, the US presidential elections posed some fundamental questions about the future of global order. In this context, most Europeans have breathed a sigh of relief upon Biden’s election victory, in which the US would, so they hope, once again provide leadership to a more united West and agree on a more values-based foreign policy. But at the same time, most Europeans also realize that they will have to take more responsibility themselves for their own defense and security. In that sense, Trump has been a wake-up call, but also a Biden Administration will continue the US pivot to Asia and put pressure on Europe to take more responsibility in dealing with security challenges in their own neighborhood and to provide for better burden-sharing.
In any case, there have been two areas where objectively speaking the US and the EU have similar or even common interests, but where the present disputes have made partners unwilling or unable to cooperate effectively in dealing with the strategic challenges, posed by two rival powers in particular: Russia and China. As both Moscow and Beijing were following with great interest the presidential election campaign in the US, many European politicians and experts are now putting their hopes on the incoming Biden Administration and a renewal of transatlantic cooperation. In this context, some recent developments have created better opportunities for a transatlantic alignment of policies towards Russia and China: Firstly, the EU’s position towards Russia seems to be toughening and even a temporary halt on the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline can no longer be excluded. President Macron’s attempt to reach out to Russia has failed, mainly because of a lack of Russian constructive response. Secondly, the EU’s approach towards China has also changed, as countries gradually realize the security risks attached to Chinese strategic investments and wider policies. Therefore, a new US Administration could find more common ground with its European partners in dealing with the strategic challenges posed by Russia and China than before. In principle, there could be a window of opportunity, depending on the US willingness to make better use of its allies and partners in dealing with these challenges together.
However, we need to realize that Russia and China are challenging not only the West’s economic and security interests, but also the values embedded in the international rules-based order. In this respect, Western societies (both in the US and Europe) have become increasingly polarized, offering ample opportunities for Moscow and Beijing to undermine Western policies and EU- and NATO-unity. What Russia and China would fear most is the promotion of these very values, which have set the West apart from authoritarian and dictatorial regimes. If the US and European states could heal the divisions in their own societies and develop a joint policy towards authoritarian challengers, this could re-unite the West as an alliance of democracies.
‘US & Europe Could Realign Russia & China Policies After Elections’ – Article by Tony van der Togt – Clingendael / The Netherlands Institute of International Relations.