Exclusive Interview With Charles A. Kupchan: ‘Biden Wants to Forge a United Front With Europe to Deal With China’

Written by | Monday, December 13th, 2021

EUBulletin has spoken with Professor Charles A. Kupchan about the latest twists and turns in the transatlantic relationship, the Biden administration’s ‘clumsy’ handling of the AUKUS deal and why it was an inadvertent, not a purposeful, insult to France and Europe, and also why Europe and the United States need to ‘stand shoulder to shoulder’ to deal with the increasingly assertive China.

Charles A. Kupchan is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Professor of International Affairs in the School of Foreign Service and the Government Department at Georgetown University. From 2014 to 2017, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European Affairs on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC) in the Barack Obama administration. He was also Director for European affairs on the NSC during the first Bill Clinton administration. Before joining the Clinton NSC, he worked in the U.S. Department of State on the policy planning staff. His most recent books are ‘Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World’ (2020), ‘No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn’ (2012), and ‘How Enemies Become Friends: The Sources of Stable Peace’ (2010).

EUBulletin: Looking at the transatlantic relationship, European and notably French leaders were taken by surprise by the launch of AUKUS — a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Can the fact that the Biden administration did not inform its European allies about the plan be interpreted as that the United States wanted to send a strong signal to Europe to ‘fall in line’ and cooperate with the U.S., particularly on China?

Kupchan: I would not read too much into the AUKUS deal about the Biden administration’s approach to Europe because I think the presentation of the deal was mishandled by Washington. I don’t have insight into why the Biden administration did not do a better job of informing its allies and try to include friends and other EU members into the initiative but I think they understand that it was not handled well.
I am guessing that what happened was that the people who manage the Asia policy were working intently on this deal, that information was not shared as well as it should have been across the government and that, as a consequence, the overall policy wasn’t well coordinated with allies. So my best guess is that it was an inadvertent insult to Europe and not a purposeful one. And it should be understood in those terms.

EUBulletin: Some experts and observes have indicated that Biden may have intended to warn its European partners not to expect that the U.S. would continue providing it with a free security guarantee, while, at the same time, Europe would carry on with its business as usual and benefit from its multibillion-dollar trade with China.

Kupchan: I think the big picture is that the Biden administration is attempting to fashion a strong relationship with Europe, to repair the damage done by the Trump administration and to forge a united front with the Europeans when it comes to China. This will, of course, involve give and take, it will involve compromise, it will involve finding a common ground on strategic issues, on trade issues. And, so, no, I don’t think that the Biden administration was attempting to send a signal to Europe.
You know having worked with Joe Biden when he was vice-president, I can say that he is an Atlanticist, a team player, the people around him are committed to the relationship between Europe and the United States, and in some ways I think they see that relationship as more important than ever precisely because we are living in an era in which liberal democracy is being threatened from within and from without. And America’s best partner when it comes to defending liberal democracy in practice and in spirit is Europe. Some people think that ‘oh it is the pivot to Asia, Europe doesn’t matter anymore’ — I don’t see it that way. I think Europe matters as much as it ever did precisely because the states right now are not just territory but the staying power of our institutions and values.

EUBulletin: How do you then interpret the fact that the AUKUS deal was announced on the same day that the European Union announced its own ‘Pacific strategy’? Looking at the United States’ pivot to Asia strategy, it looks like Washington has decided not to include its European partners in its newly built system of alliances, such as AUKUS, the ‘Five Eyes’ or the ‘Quad’. Except for the UK, its European allies are conspicuously not represented there.

Kupchan: I would begin by saying that America’s larger strategy to deal with the rise of China is still in progress. The U.S. has been preoccupied with the Middle East for 20 years — and Biden, in my mind, made the right decision to get out of Afghanistan — and so now the government is beginning to try to pull together various elements of a China strategy. In the first instance, that means working with countries that are the most engaged in the Asia-Pacific — meaning with Japan and South Korea, Australia, Taiwan and increasingly India — that’s why it’s called an Indo-Pacific strategy now and not just the Pacific strategy. So it’s not surprising to me that for example the Quad is an important part of that strategy.
Europe is less of an Asian power than the United States and that’s why the U.S.-European dimension of the China strategy has not received as much attention as the Asian dimension. One exception would be the AUKUS deal and that I think was in part because of the Five Eyes because the United States shares its most sensitive technology in that group that involves the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. That’s really just a kind of a legacy that goes back a long time. And now I think, in some ways as a direct result of the AUKUS deal, I am guessing that Washington will be much more mindful of the need to engage Europe on the China strategy.

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