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BERLIN – A war in Afghanistan, a stalemate between Europe and Washington over a Russian pipeline and an American president full of haughty promises to “defend our democratic values”.
Sound familiar? Welcome to 1981.
President Ronald Reagan, who tried to put pressure on the Soviet Union after the invasion of Afghanistan and put down disagreements in Poland, wanted European allies (whom he referred to as “Chicken Littles”) to stop Moscow building a Trans-Siberian pipeline from assisting the dependency increase of the continent of Russian gas.
Europe refused and Reagan eventually gave in. If that rings too, it could be because Joe Biden, a young Senator on the 1981 Foreign Relations Committee, took exactly the same step during the first few months of his own presidency. The only real difference is the name of the pipeline: Nord Stream 2.
John McCain, the late American war hero and long-time Biden friend, liked to say that “history does not repeat itself, 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 will be attending an alphabet soup from G7 to NATO summits.
His goal is to support a Western alliance that is still shocked by Donald Trump’s years with a large public demonstration of American commitment to Europe. Behind the scenes, he will quietly hand out a bit of hard love and make Europe move in the direction of America.
In other words, he will draw closer to Europe like any other American president (except his immediate predecessor) since World War II.
Given the broad consensus among politicians and experts that the transatlantic alliance would never be the same after Trump, it is almost shocking how quickly the relationship has returned to normal.
Biden’s moves to rejoin the Paris Agreement, his promise to steel NATO against Russian aggression, and his efforts to reactivate the nuclear deal with Iran have made Europeans dizzy. After only a few months in office, Tony Blinken, Biden’s French-speaking foreign minister (who happened to write a book on Reagan’s pipeline spit in the 1980s) is welcomed as an old family friend.
In fact, the EU could hardly hope for more pro-European policies if Angela Merkel were in the White House. Or as a German analyst Aptly worded: “A US president almost as if tailor-made for Europe.” Note the “almost”.
“The atmosphere is much better compared to Trump, but that doesn’t mean there is no tension,” said Boris Ruge, a senior diplomat who served as German deputy head of mission in Washington from 2016 to 2019.
But such tensions, which today revolve around issues such as trade, the withdrawal 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 seasoned diplomat who has served in Europe under several presidents since Lyndon B. Johnson.
It was often not easy. The mutual dislike between John F. Kennedy and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was so pronounced that the two men during the American President’s trip to Berlin, where he made his famous “I am a Berliner” Speech.
The same applied to President Jimmy Carter and Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, whose difficult relationship was documented in a 500-page book entitled “The Quarrel”.
After Trump started attacking Europe, many Europeans longed to return to the Obama years. But even then, Europe’s relationship with Washington was marked by disputes over issues such as Syria, Ukraine, and defense spending.
“Fuck the EU,” one heard Victoria Nuland, a senior US diplomat who oversaw Europe, say on a hacked phone call. (Nuland recently joined the Biden administration as No. 3 in the State Department.)
Compared to this turbulent history, the Biden years will likely look like a honeymoon.
Given the EU’s inability to speak with one voice on foreign policy and its reluctance to invest significantly more in defense, some argue that Europe no longer matters to Washington geostrategically, especially when it comes to the heart of Biden’s foreign policy works – China.
But the efforts that Biden has made to woo Europe suggest otherwise.
Europe may not be at the forefront of Washington’s efforts to counter Chinese influence, but Biden does not want to be. The less the EU, America’s largest trading partner, is drawn into the realm of China, the better.
Europe saw a dramatic increase in Chinese engagement in the region during the Trump years, culminating in the groundbreaking investment agreement that Beijing signed with the EU in late December, just weeks before Biden took office.
The deal was a wake-up call for the upcoming Biden administration that they couldn’t assume that Europe would stand China in its corner. Beijing’s own actions since then, including continued crackdown on its Muslim minority and sanctioning European politicians who are critical of its course, have left the deal pending and given the Biden government a welcome break.
“The China debate in Europe is shifting, not so much because of Biden, but because of it [Chinese President] Xi Jinping, ”said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, head of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund.
Even as Europe has begun to move closer to the American view that China poses a fundamental systemic threat to the world’s democracies, it is still skeptical of US motives.
“Europe distrusts the USA,” said Kleine-Brockhoff. “Many wonder whether it is really about managing the rise of China or the American hegemony.”
If history is a guide, at some point Europeans will follow Washington’s example, not because their concerns about American hegemony are disappearing, but because they have no other choice.
The Europeans are reluctant to acknowledge this, but in all respects the US remains the organizing power of the region.
Like it or not, Europe still depends on the US for both its security and its economic prosperity.
With Vladimir Putin’s Russia being a pervasive threat on Europe’s doorstep and the Chinese trying to bring Europe into their sphere of influence, that reality is not going to change anytime soon.
While some European commentators warn of the shadow hanging over post-Trump transatlantic relations – and the prospect of it returning – the real lesson from his presidency may be that Europe will have even more difficulty functioning when the anchor is in place the American leadership is resolved.
“Yes, we Europeans are complex and yes, we are complicated, and yes, we also disagree on many issues,” said Peter Beyer, a German MP who is the contact person for transatlantic relations in Merkel’s government.
For Europeans like Beyer, the USA remains Europe’s indispensable ally. At a time when Europe’s future prosperity is marred by failure to lead the advancing technological revolution that is reshaping the global economy, the US alliance is about more than just a common culture and Western values. It’s about survival.
“Europe has to grow up,” said Beyer.
Reagan couldn’t have said it better.