Is Biden’s European visit a sign that the more things change, the more they remain the same?
It’s going to be a long eight days — at any rate for excitable diplomatic correspondents and columnists.
US President Joe Biden arrived in Britain on Wednesday. He met Queen Elizabeth at Windsor, had a walk on a Cornish beach with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and is now preparing himself for the rigors of the G7 Summit, the first such in-person gathering since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After that, he heads to Brussels on NATO and EU business. The visit is capped by a bilateral meeting in Geneva with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In an op-ed in advance of his trip, and then again in a rambling address to US troops upon arrival in the UK, Biden announced that he intends to demonstrate that the US is “back” (whatever that means) and rebuild the foundations of Washington’s traditional alliance system with the key European democracies, after the neglect of the Trump years.
He has also said he’s going to let Putin know “what I want him to know.” That’s a pretty weird way of putting it, even assuming it was meant to channel Ronald Reagan. Still, his audience at the Mildenhall air base liked it a lot.
So it is all a big deal, right? Or is it?
The first thing to say is that the Trump years were not some sort of darkly comic interlude, with normal service only resumed in January. Trump may have been a crude and bizarre personality, and in other ways unfit for office. But irrespective of what he may have said from time to time, his administration’s view of the world wasn’t actually all that different from Obama’s — or, as far as we can judge, from Biden’s.
Trump and his key national security people quite rightly, and against the grain of the liberal consensus, thought China had taken unfair advantage of Western complacency and goodwill to build up its economy and armed forces, to threaten America’s global position. They came to recognize Putin as a smart and significant player who could make a lot of trouble for NATO in eastern Europe and parts of the Middle East but is an irritant rather than a serious global competitor.
When Biden concludes his visit to Europe, I fervently hope we do indeed see a renewed and genuine commitment to the shared principles of democracy and collective security.
Sir John Jenkins
They also wanted US troops out of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, to focus on the more serious global threat posed by Beijing.
This isn’t to say there are no differences. There are certainly differences in style but perhaps the most important difference now lies in Biden’s public attitude toward NATO, the EU and to the idea of democracy.
Trump was famously dismissive of NATO. He — like Obama, but more vocally — thought the US had been taken for a ride by those NATO allies, Germany in particular, who had spent little on their own defense while expecting the US, France and Britain to pay for a security umbrella under which Germany could rebuild its economic power.
In contrast, Biden has announced that he proposes to reaffirm the American commitment to collective security under a NATO umbrella, in the face not only of long-standing threats but also of the new dangers that artificial intelligence and cyberwarfare represent. He is also making a big play of his meetings with EU leaders.
And through all his statements runs the idea that what really unites the US and its key allies is an attachment to democratic values. That is the message of the new Atlantic Charter that he signed on Thursday with the British prime minister. It is a pretty thin document but has enormous historic resonance, summoning the memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, the twin architects of the post-1945 international order.
And this is where we hit the problem of coherence. Roosevelt and Churchill had their differences — Roosevelt seriously misjudged Stalin; Churchill resented American pressure on the British Empire — but they agreed that the Atlantic Alliance, and the broader relationship between the US and Europe, needed to be the central pillars of a new global order.
This Alliance is now at risk. Stalin is long gone. The rise of new powers in the Middle East threatens NATO’s eastern flank. The internal contradictions and democratic illegitimacy of the EU are beginning to create cracks in its unity. The emerging culture wars in the US and Europe are eroding social cohesion and trust. And it is not at all clear that the US on its own is in any state to fix matters.
This is the result not of Trump, or indeed the adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is the result of the end of the Cold War and the emergence of a range of new, multipolar threats to the security and prosperity and, indeed, self-confidence of the West as it has traditionally been conceived. And above all it is the result of the shift in the epicenter of global insecurity to the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
At the heart of the Cold War stood Europe. But what actually is Europe? The European Commission likes to suggest that the EU is Europe. But historically, western Russia and Ottoman Turkey were both part of the European concert of nations. After Brexit, the oldest nation state in Europe, the UK, is no longer part of the EU. Hungary, Poland and others increasingly resent the liberal consensus of Brussels. And at the heart of this conundrum is Germany.
There is not a single Germany. In the past century alone there have been four versions: the fragile constitutional democracy that emerged out of the chaos of the First World War, the catastrophic Nazi regime that overthrew it, the second constitutional democracy, built after 1945 on half the territory of pre-war Germany, and the reunified Germany that arose after 1989.
Germany has been central to European politics since at least 1870. And it has never really been an Atlanticist power. The Germany of Bismarck looked as much to the East as it did to the West. So did the Third Reich. And so again — so many fear — does the peaceful, democratic, rational and increasingly dominant Germany of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
We see this in the Nord Stream energy project that Putin has successfully pressed on Berlin. We see it in German reluctance to support strong collective action over Ukraine or Belarus, or indeed stand up to Putin on his domestic abuses.
Putin’s aim is to destabilize eastern Europe, seduce Turkey and detach Germany from its Western partners. Will he succeed? Perhaps. There has always been a strong strain of Russophilia among German elites. They resent US pressure to be tougher with Putin. They see the EU as a giant captive market for their industrial products. And they want to make nice with China because that is an even bigger market. After all, BMWs, Mercedes and Porsches have no politics, just an earnings stream.
I profoundly believe in the Atlantic Alliance as a force for stability. I am convinced that there is such a thing as Europe, which is not defined by the bureaucrats in Brussels but represents a set of common values derived from a shared history and civilizational space.
I think that Germany, in turn, represents a multitude of different ideas: but German culture is at least as much at the heart of the European enterprise as France, Italy, Spain or Britain. I do not think that Europe can achieve its full potential or guarantee its security separately from the US — whatever fantasies the French may have about Gallic exceptionalism or a European army.
But it is not clear to me that either EU leaders or the Biden administration have a coherent view of any of this, or that the latter’s current visit will produce one. Given his emphasis on the importance of America’s economic recovery, it looks to me as if his main focus will continue to be domestic.
There is an equal lack of coherence in US policy on the Middle East. What, exactly, is meant to happen after a new Iran deal is concluded, for example?
And this suggests that for all Biden’s fine words, the underlying tensions will remain between the old order represented by Roosevelt, Churchill, EU founding father Jean Monnet and post-war German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, for example, and the new, emerging and fragmented order that Presidents Putin, Xi Jinping of China and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey represent.
When Biden concludes his visit to Europe, I fervently hope we do indeed see a renewed and genuine commitment to the shared principles of democracy and collective security, and a new sense of common purpose. But I fear that the temptations of national exceptionalism and the vanity of individual leaders may prove stronger.
It will still be something if we find a way to manage all our differences in a more sensible way than we have for some time. But it won’t represent the beginning of a new order; it will represent instead the repair of an old one.
• Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was corresponding director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, based in Manama, Bahrain, and was a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.