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8 February 2023

Why Europeans should not get too used to Joe Biden, the last of the Atlanticists

After the traumas of the Trump presidency, Europe is mistaking his successor’s leadership for the new normal.

By Jeremy Cliffe

In the next few weeks or months, US president Joe Biden is expected to announce that he will run for re-election in 2024. As his masterful State of the Union speech on 7 February showed, the second year of his presidency was markedly successful. It all adds up to a serious possibility that he will go down in history as a, or even the, pre-eminent global figure of the 2020s.

So it is easy to forget that Biden is, in many respects, a product of a different US. He was first elected to the US Senate in 1972, closer in time to the end of the Second World War than to 9/11 – let alone the present day. The majority of his career played out during the Cold War and immediate post-Cold War era, the period between the end of the Vietnam War and the start of the Afghanistan War, during which Europe was the primary focus of US foreign policy most of the time.

In 1979, for example, he met with the Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Gromyko, in Moscow to discuss the Salt II arms control treaty. In the 1990s he was an early voice for intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo (which he later described as one of his “proudest moments in public life”). In 1997 Biden championed Nato expansion while co-chair of the Senate’s Nato Observer Group. As a proud Irish-American, he lobbied Bill Clinton’s administration to invest major efforts in the Northern Ireland peace process.

Biden carried the Atlanticist instincts from the pre-9/11 era into the one that succeeded it. He helped keep the western Balkans on the US agenda at a time when it was dominated by the Middle East and Afghanistan. As Barack Obama’s vice-president he often served as the European anchor of an administration otherwise determined to “pivot” to Asia. It was Biden who led on relations with Ukraine during the 2014 Maidan revolution and the initial Russian invasion that same year.

When he took office as president in 2021 he phoned Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson before speaking to any leaders in the Indo-Pacific, despite the latter being a stated priority of his administration. He appointed Antony Blinken, a Europe expert, as his secretary of state and Mark Gitenstein, a close confidant since the 1970s, ambassador to the EU. Biden’s first foreign trip as president took him to Europe, and Macron received the honour of being invited to make the first state visit to Washington of Biden’s presidency. The US’s dominant role in supporting Ukraine should be seen as part of that same pattern.

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The Ukraine war has also supplied ample evidence of Europeans getting comfortable with this restoration of a familiar relationship, after the traumas of the Trump presidency. They looked to the Americans to lead on military aid to Kyiv and even, in the case of German chancellor Olaf Scholz, insisted that the administration send US battle tanks as a condition of Berlin providing its own Leopard 2 tanks or allowing other Europeans to do so. When the Munich Security Conference gathers between 17 and 19 February, and when Biden travels to Europe this month, we will see more of the president acting as a munificent Uncle Sam, putting a protective arm around an old continent that is broadly satisfied with that arrangement.

All too satisfied, in fact. Biden’s transatlantic instincts constitute less the restoration of old certainties than the last hurrah of a past era. The president turned 80 in November. Younger generations of US leaders see the world differently. The most obvious example is the new isolationist streak in the Republican Party: a majority of GOP voters now oppose further support for Ukraine. But even among more orthodox Republicans there is a marked “prioritiser” tendency that believes in disengaging from Europe to concentrate on Asia. As Elbridge Colby, a former senior defence official, has put it: “The United States does not have the capacity to fight both… an exceptionally stressing war with China and another significant conflict, such as in Europe against Russia.”

Even among Democrats, the post-Biden age (whether it dawns in 2025 or 2029) will mark a shift in perspectives. Centrists such as the California governor Gavin Newsom or the vice-president Kamala Harris may share Biden’s values, but they lack his formative experience of senior office during the Cold War and its aftermath, the instincts forged in that era, and his strong emotional connection to Europe.

Meanwhile, a still-younger generation of Democrats looks to standard-bearers such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ro Khanna – progressives who put less emphasis on Nato and more on topics like climate change, trade, migration and the Global South. Influential in these circles is the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and associated intellectuals, including the historian Stephen Wertheim, author of appeals such as: “Sorry, Liberals. But You Really Shouldn’t Love Nato.”

A more far-sighted Europe – including both the EU and the UK – might have used the impetus of Russia’s war to prepare for the post-Biden world. Yet overall, Europe has implicitly interpreted the leadership provided by Biden’s administration as the new normal; proof that vigorous attempts to build European structures capable of taking over responsibility for the continent’s security from the US are now unnecessary. Talk of “European sovereignty” can often be empty, and cooperation between major powers routinely falls victim to political differences. It is a comfortable delusion to nurture: Atlanticist Bidenism forever! Comfortable, that is, until it eventually collides with reality. At that point Europe’s position could become very uncomfortable indeed.

[See also: What the US midterm results mean for Joe Biden]

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This article appears in the 08 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Silent Sunak