Defrosting the trans-Atlantic relationship

Published in Newsroom (Wellington). 17 November 2020

Just a few hours into the vote count of the US Presidential election, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša sent out a congratulatory tweet – but to the wrong president-elect.

“It’s pretty clear that American people have elected @realDonaldTrump @Mike_Pence for #4moreyears,” Janša wrote. “More delays and facts denying from #MSM, bigger the final triumph for #POTUS. Congratulations @GOP for strong results across the #US.”

To say the tweet did not age well is an understatement. Yet even this week Janša keeps digging his hole by sharing conspiracy theories about US electoral fraud. And he still has not congratulated Joe Biden.

For small Slovenia, a member of both the European Union and NATO, dealings with the next US administration should now be a bit more difficult. But the Janša incident also highlights the future of the trans-Atlantic relationship.

While a barely concealed sigh of relief rippled across European capitals after Trump’s days were numbered, not everyone shares that sentiment. Trump has his fans in some European governments.

Not all European Trump supporters were as careless as Janša. Polish president Andrzej Duda, for example, appreciated Joe Biden’s “successful presidential campaign” – stopping short of congratulating him on his victory. At least Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, another staunch Trump ally, properly congratulated Biden by wishing him “good health and continued success in fulfilling your responsibilities”.

It has become cliché to call the Trump years a trans-Atlantic Ice Age. But that is only part of the story. Trump carefully fostered existing European divisions by courting some countries while leaving others in the cold.

This diplomatic tactic was on full display, for example, during Trump’s extended European visit in 2019. The tour included two short stops in Ireland (mainly to play golf at his own resort), a leg in the UK for a photo with Her Majesty, and then he was off to France, whose President Emmanuel Macron early in Trump’s presidency honoured him with an invitation to a military parade.

Struck from the schedule at the last minute was Denmark which had the temerity that week to reject Trump’s musings of selling Greenland to the US. Also left out, once again, was Germany.

Besides attending the Hamburg 2017 G20 summit, Trump was first post-WWII US president to never officially visit Germany. Instead, and almost to rub it in, Trump paid an official state visit to the nationalist government of neighbouring Poland.

Biden’s election changes the dynamics between the US and Europe.

For a start, Biden is a fierce critic of Brexit and no friend of UK leader Boris Johnson. In some quarters, Brexit was often interpreted as a populist precursor to Trump’s 2016 election. It makes Johnson look Trump-like, although this does not do Johnson’s intellectual side justice. However, Johnson did himself no favours by past comments about Biden’s former boss, Barack Obama.

Biden’s Irish heritage leads him to support the Good Friday Agreement, which is threatened by a hard Brexit scenario. That support may mean Britain will not get preferential US trade treatment once Trump is gone. The result is that Biden’s election could push Britain back towards Europe. The sudden removal of the ‘Vote Leave’ strategists around Dominic Cummings from 10 Downing Street’s inner circle should also be seen in this light.

In a similar way, a Biden administration will influence the behaviour of EU-sceptical governments in Central and Eastern Europe. Slovenia’s Janša obviously takes a bit longer than others to understand this, but the conclusion is unavoidable. Without the backing of a like-minded US president, the governments of Slovenia, Hungary and Poland will have less oomph in their nationalist opposition to Brussels.

The EU, meanwhile, may enjoy a more constructive, rational and predictable relationship with the US. Biden may not be a stalwart free trader. However, Europe will not see a repeat of Trumpian policy escapades such as imposing or threatening tariffs under the weak excuse of “national security”.

Yet in one area, Biden’s presidency will not change much for Europe. Ironically, it is the same area in which the confrontation between Europe and the US was fiercest during the Trump years. That area is defence spending.

Trump was not the first US President to warn the Europeans against free-riding on US defence spending. Neither was he the first US President either to explain that Washington’s strategic focus is shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

It was Barack Obama who began the US pivot from Europe/Middle East to the Asia Pacific to help contain China. Obama outlined this geopolitical strategy in a speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011 when he deployed 2,500 marines to Darwin.

And it was also Obama who kept reminding European NATO members of the pledge to increase their defence spending to 2 percent of GDP. That commitment, by the way, was made under Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.

Trump was only more blunt than Obama or Bush in his insistence on higher defence spending. US officials were already questioning NATO’s existence before Trump, but never in the way Trump did by calling it “obsolete”. They also would not have mocked European leaders at public rallies, either (“Angela, Angela, you gotta pay.”)

Since European defence spending was such a hot issue under Trump, Biden cannot afford to let the Europeans off the hook now. It would make him look weak and ineffective. Instead he will firmly insist – politely – that Europe lifts its game on defence. And the Europeans, still traumatised by the Trump interlude, will want to support Biden.

Healing US politics will be a tough challenge for Biden. If he wants an easier task, he should try healing trans-Atlantic relations first. After all, most European leaders want him to succeed so they can rule out a return to the frostiness of Trump.

The outliers in Europe, such as Janez Janša, will soon realise that the Trump game is up and a new chapter in US-European relations has begun. And a good thing too.

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