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11 June 2021

Joe Biden’s Europe trip is about defining, not affirming, his transatlanticism

The question isn’t whether Biden wants the US to be an ally of the UK and Europe but rather what that alliance means.  

By Emily Tamkin

US president Joe Biden is on his first foreign trip. On Thursday, he met UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. On Friday and over the weekend, he will convene with fellow G7 leaders for his first multilateral summit. He will then head to Brussels on Monday for a NATO summit. And on Wednesday, he will meet with the Russian president Vladimir Putin, when he will, in his words, “let him know what I want him to know”.

There has been some scepticism from pundits surrounding the extent of the administration’s commitment to its transatlantic allies. “Biden is embracing Europe, but then what?” read the New York Times headline. “Europe asks: can Biden put his money where his mouth is?,” queried Politico. Biden is back to Europe, but is he really? 

Both headlines are fair questions. In a few years Biden could easily be replaced by another president who takes every opportunity to bash Europe and Europeans. And Politico is right to note in the article that the European Union is opening up to vaccinated Americans without reciprocity. 

What’s more, Biden’s first days abroad have had some hiccups. He recited a line from “Easter, 1916”, a WB Yeats poem about the Irish Easter Rising (first published in the New Statesman in 1920), at an address to US troops at the RAF base in Mildenhall, which might, in some corners, be considered a diplomatic faux pas. He also tweeted that the “special relationship” between the US and UK has never been stronger, mere days after Johnson’s team confirmed that Johnson does not like the term. And the fate of the Good Friday Agreement remains a potential sticking point. 

But for all of this, the Biden administration is clearly enthusiastic about working with the UK and Europe. We will see what, if anything, comes out of the G7 summit – but Biden is, historically and presently, both a multilateralist and transatlanticist; he may want to focus on the challenge from China, but this administration has made it clear that they would rather do so in partnership.

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In Brussels, he will almost certainly do the opposite of his predecessor and reassure the Alliance that America is committed to it. In Britain, he and Johnson have renewed the Atlantic Charter, first established by Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Personally I think Biden’s talk of rallying democracies around the world rings hollow if we can’t also protect voting rights at home, but that’s separate from whether he believes that democracies should prevail against authoritarian regimes and that the G7 is one avenue for them to do so. By all accounts, he does. 

To ask whether the Biden administration is really committed to its various transatlantic relationships is to ask the wrong question. It at once demands an answer that the Biden administration has already given (yes, it is committed) and allows the administration to get off too easily. The question should not be whether these various actors are willing to work with each other, but rather: what can they actually do with that enthusiasm? What do these alliances and partnerships mean? 

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If the communiqué that comes out of this weekend isn’t substantive, it doesn’t mean that relations between the US, UK and Europe are doomed. But it does mean that we should be looking at what the various actors could achieve, and what they need to do to get there.