America may be ‘back’ in Europe, but what has really changed?

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FALMOUTH, England – Few images have captured the breakdown in transatlantic relations better than that of President Donald J. Trump in 2018, arms folded across his chest as he stood up to Chancellor Angela Merkel and other frustrated leaders in their doomed efforts to save their summit meeting in Canada.

When the same leaders meet in Cornwall, England on Friday, President Biden will reverse body language, replacing the deadlock with the hug. But under the imagery, it’s unclear how more open the United States will be to give and take with Europe than it was under Mr. Trump.

The transatlantic partnership has always been less reciprocal than its champions like to claim – a marriage in which one partner, the United States, carried the nuclear umbrella. Now, with China replacing the Soviet Union as America’s big rival, the two sides are less united than they were during the Cold War, a geopolitical shift that exposes long-standing tensions. between them.

Thus, a lingering question hangs over Friday’s meeting of the Group of 7 industrialized nations: will this show of solidarity be more than a diplomatic pantomime – reassuring for Europeans traumatized by Mr. Trump’s “America First” policy. but doomed to disappoint them when they realize that the United States under Mr. Biden is still going its own way?

“America’s foreign policy has not fundamentally changed,” said Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the British Parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “It’s more cooperative and inclusive, but it’s essentially the same thing. “

“Like all leaders,” he added, “Biden puts his own country first. The way he does it is what distracted a lot of them. “

Few Europeans question the sincerity of his intervention. More than even his former boss, Barack Obama, Mr. Biden is an Atlanticist, with decades of involvement in European concerns from the Balkans to Belfast.

On Thursday, he joined Prime Minister Boris Johnson to unveil a new Atlantic Charter, modeled on the post-war project signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

In their first face-to-face meeting, Mr Biden and Mr Johnson projected unity, each pledging their country to commit hundreds of millions of doses of the vaccine to the developing world.

“I’m not going to disagree with the President on that or anything,” Mr Johnson said, after Mr Biden said he and the new prime minister had “married au- above our station “.

Yet the president has made a more aggressive approach to China the common thread of his foreign policy. As US officials seek European support for this effort, analysts said their expectations were limited, given the trade interests of Germany and other countries and the fact that Merkel and others Europeans have shown no appetite for a new cold war with Beijing.

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“The Biden administration is determined to be polite, determined to listen to them, and then it will do whatever it set out to do,” said Jeremy Shapiro, who worked in the State Department under the Obama administration. and is now the Research Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations in London.

“It doesn’t matter what US policy towards Europe is,” Mr. Shapiro said, summing up what he said was the dominant view in the administration. “We are going to withdraw the same amount from China. “

Skepticism goes both ways. Many European officials view Mr. Biden’s statement that “America is back” with a yellowish eye, however well-meaning, given the assault on the United States Capitol and other threats to American democracy, without talk about Mr. Trump’s grip on the Republican Party. .

“We live in an era of diminished confidence,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, former German ambassador to the United States who heads the Munich Security Conference, where Biden has been a regular speaker.

The Germans, he said, thought it didn’t matter to the transatlantic alliance whether the president was a Democrat or a Republican. Now Mr Ischinger has said: “We are, for the first time in 70 years, faced with a new question: what if a resurrected Trump reappears on stage?

White House officials carefully choreographed Mr. Biden’s journey into a summer wedding ring repair festival. But back in Washington, analysts say his staff movements show a more marginalized role for Europe.

The White House has appointed prominent officials to coordinate Indo-Pacific and Middle Eastern policy within the National Security Council. There is no counterpart for Europe, and the administration has not made a diplomatic appointment either, such as an ambassador to NATO or an envoy to deal with Northern Ireland. .

Mr Biden has welcomed the leaders of Japan and South Korea to the White House, but no great European leader yet.

On the eve of his visit to Britain, a senior US diplomat expressed deep concerns to Mr Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator over how Britain was handling tensions over post-Brexit trade deals in Ireland North.

There is a similar sense of limited expectations on both sides for Russia, even though Biden is due to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin next week in Geneva. Relations between Washington and Moscow rapidly deteriorated in the administration’s first months as the United States faced a Russian hacking operation, evidence of continued Russian interference in the 2020 presidential campaign. and the regrouping of Mr. Putin’s troops on the Russian border with Ukraine.

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Russia’s arrest of opposition leader Alexei A. Navalny three days before Mr. Biden’s inauguration set the tone for tensions to come.

Far from the “reset button” Mr. Biden announced in 2009 when he was Mr. Obama’s vice president, his meeting with Mr. Putin seems primarily intended to contain tensions with a usually restless Russia, so that both parties can avoid conflicts that could disrupt Mr. Biden’s domestic agenda.

Given what analysts say is Mr. Putin’s calculation that Russia benefits from instability, they wonder how successful Mr. Biden will be. Europe’s proximity to Russia – and Germany’s dependence on its natural gas – means that instability would pose a greater threat to Europe than to the United States.

“The problem with China is that it is not our neighbor, but it is the neighbor of the United States,” said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a think tank in London. “Russia is Europe’s neighbor, and that reality complicates matters, but only insofar as the United States wants to turn things up.”

The administration’s zigzag route on Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline that connects Russia to Germany, has left some in Europe scratching their heads. Mr. Biden publicly opposed the pipeline as a “bad idea,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said. But Blinken recently refused to impose sanctions on those behind the $ 11 billion project, saying its completion was a “done deal.”

The turnaround, on the eve of Mr. Biden’s European tour, seemed calculated to avoid a break with Germany, a critical ally. But in Britain, which takes a harder line against Russia than Germany, some officials have said they fear the move will embolden Mr Putin and weaken Ukraine’s eastern border.

While the transatlantic differences over China are significant, officials on both sides say Europe is gradually moving towards Mr Biden. Last month, the European Parliament suspended the ratification of a landmark investment treaty between Brussels and Beijing. This followed Beijing’s sanctioning of 10 European Union politicians in what Europeans saw as an inflated response to sanctions imposed on China for its detention of Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang.

Britain has aligned with the United States over China, restricting Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei’s access to its 5G network. But analysts warn the change is motivated less by a change of mind about Beijing than by a post-Brexit desire not to be out of step with its most important ally.

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Some in Europe argue that Mr. Biden’s Chinese policy is not yet fully formed, noting that diplomatic pantomimes were not lacking during the stormy meeting Mr. Blinken held in March with Chinese officials in Alaska.

Europe’s views could also change with the departure of Merkel, a strong supporter of engagement with China, after 16 years in power and with French President Emmanuel Macron facing a tough election campaign the year next.

“The EU’s stance on China has hardened due to human rights concerns,” said Simon Fraser, a former senior official at the UK Foreign Office. “I suspect there is a lot of commonality, even if there are competing national interests involved.”

Yet some Europeans were put off by the way Mr. Biden presented competition with China in strictly ideological terms – as a fateful battle between democracy and autocracy, in which autocrats could win.

For leaders like Merkel, whose country sells millions of Volkswagens and BMWs to China, the relationship is driven by trade and technology, not a potential military clash in the South China Sea.

“There is a deep psychological problem at play,” said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on Europe and the United States at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Some Europeans think the United States is too nostalgic for the Cold War and too ready to return to it. “

These are, of course, the first days of Mr. Biden’s presidency. Analysts said he had already recalibrated his message on China and Russia two months ago, when he told Congress that Chinese President Xi Jinping believes “democracy cannot compete. in the 21st century with autocracies “.

Charles A. Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University who worked on European affairs in the Obama administration, said Biden’s goal was to prevent the creation of a Sino-Russian bloc against the ‘West. This will require the help of allies, which is why he predicted that Mr Biden would not only listen, but hear, the Europeans.

“This attempt to find geopolitical dividing lines will not find much support among US allies,” Kupchan said.

Mr. Biden seems sensitive to these concerns. In a Washington Post column last Sunday, outlining his goals for the trip, he dropped combative references to an autocratic China. Instead, he wrote on whether the United States and its allies could take on a rather trivial challenge: “Can democracies come together to deliver real results for our people in a changing world?” fast ?

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