The author is the senior director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington
Nine months into the presidency of Joe Biden, some European officials are already calling for a “halt” in transatlantic relations. After the debacle of the withdrawal in Afghanistan, which caused allies in Berlin and London to falter over the lack of consultation, the Aukus spat with France, leaving a sense of mistrust and disappointment in Europe. “Europeans must come out of their naivety,” French President Emmanuel Macron said this week when he announced a defense deal worth more than billions of euros with Greece aimed at strengthening the “strategic autonomy of the continent”.
After four years of unrest and trade wars under Donald Trump, Biden declares to the world that “America is back”. But this nostalgic rhetoric has created unnecessary expectations in Europe, and America is not fulfilling it in action. This is not an accident. American priorities shift away from Europe. This process began two presidents ago, with Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia. The sooner we recognize that something is structurally changing in transatlantic relations, the better we can transform it in a way that serves the interests and security of both sides.
The conciliatory call between Biden and Macron last week did more than heal the wounds of Aukus. By emphasizing in a joint statement “the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense… Complementary to NATO”, the two leaders paved the way for a more balanced partnership. adopted a cold stance on European defense efforts, and called for increased spending on the one hand, but was also concerned that European initiatives could undermine NATO, and this reluctance was repeated by some of the more Atlantic countries in the EU – in Germany and Central Europe – opposed to strategic autonomy than trying to oust Americans. Pro-American sentiment can also be conveniently used to avoid increasing defense.
That needs to change. In one speech on the withdrawal of the Afghan government, Biden said the US should intervene militarily only to defend its ‘vital national interests’. These include NATO Article V commitments on collective defense, which Biden called ‘sacred obligation’. But what about local crises on the fringes of Europe, such as Libya? Obama and Trump have made it clear that they have no interest in getting stuck in Syria, a conflict that has major implications for migration and security in Europe.
It’s time for the Biden administration to have a frank discussion with its allies. What does the USA no longer want to do and where do they expect the Europeans to act? Americans still have a core interest in a stable Europe. They must encourage Europeans to strengthen their capabilities, joint initiatives and not to oppose the development of an indigenous defense industry. This is the meaning of the pursuit of European ‘strategic autonomy’ led by Paris and Brussels. It must be seized by US policymakers.
Europeans also have a responsibility. If they want to exert influence in Washington, they need to gain more insight into the issues that are important to them. Take the space for technology regulation, where the EU Commission has emerged as an important global regulator. The US has now agreed to set up the Trade and Technology Council with the EU to work on setting common standards for data privacy, AI and the prevention of disinformation.
But as for the withdrawal in Afghanistan, the Europeans felt powerless. But why should the Biden administration present its agenda to partners who cannot even control Kabul airport on their own? Nostalgia for a supposedly golden transatlantic era will not make European voices heard in Washington. European autonomy does not compete with the alliance; it could save the trans-Atlantic relationship.