Transatlantic ties transformed on Ukraine war anniversary
Some 12 months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, key upside surprises include not just the remarkable resilience of Ukraine’s fighting forces and wider populace, but also the unity of the Western alliance in the post-Trump era, as will be showcased with Joe Biden’s forthcoming visit to Poland.
Well documented is the fact that the EU-27 has shown unexpected solidarity since the Ukraine conflict began, albeit with the frequent, significant exception of Hungary’s intransigence. Building from this, however, is the restoration of the wider transatlantic alliance in the post-Trump era, in no small way thanks to the statecraft of the Biden administration.
To be sure, there are very significant sores that continue to exist between the US and Europe. These include the new US Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, legislation, which has caused much concern across the EU-27, and indeed other allies including the UK.
Problematic as those tensions are, however, the transatlantic alliance has largely recovered from the nadir of the Trump era. And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has helped with this revitalization of the alliance in the face of a resurgent Moscow.
The Biden team’s emphasis on rebuilding Western partnerships stands in stark contrast to the Trump administration. Trump declared during his presidency that “I think the EU is a foe, what they do to us (the US) in trade.” The contrast between Trump, with his calls for a weaker Europe and more “Brexits” across the continent, and US policy at the start of the EU integration process in the early post-war era, could not be starker.
The latter was embodied in John Kennedy’s 1962 Atlantic Partnership speech. The core US view for decades, through different Democratic and Republican presidencies, was that a united Europe would make future wars on the continent less likely; create a stronger partner for the US in meeting the challenges posed by the-then Soviet Union; and offer a more vibrant market for building transatlantic prosperity.
So this was, by and large, the tone of post-war US administrations till the turn of the millennium. And its direction chimes much more with Biden’s approach today than with Trump’s from 2017 to 2021.
Yet, political stripes aside, there is little question that overall US attitudes have — at least in some areas — gradually become more ambivalent as European integration deepened, particularly (but not exclusively) in recent Republican administrations. That is why the future health of the transatlantic alliance cannot be taken for granted.
In the economic arena, for instance, the drive toward the European single market led to US concerns about whether this would evolve into a “fortress Europe.” Similarly, the creation of the European Monetary Union prompted worries about the dilution of US primacy in the financial sector and macroeconomic policy. Moreover, in competition policy, the increasing assertiveness of the European Commission has periodically raised US concerns about EU over-reach.
The EU has shown unexpected solidarity since the Ukraine conflict began.
Prior to the Trump era, the George W. Bush administration came closest to questioning the value of European integration. For instance, the controversy over the Iraq conflict saw Washington querying the benefits of EU collaboration in the security and defense arena.
On the eve of the Iraq war almost two decades ago now, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld even drew a distinction between “old” and “new Europe” with the latter (mainly Eastern Europe) perceived as more favorable to US interests. This was a theme that became salient during the Trump era, too, with the then-president, on average, enjoying stronger popularity in states in the east than longer-standing allies in the west.
Trump’s strong relationship with populist politicians in the East, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, exemplified the way that US policy toward Europe was then recalibrating toward stronger ties with states with pro-Trump leaders but weaker relationships with some traditional allies, especially former German Chancellor Angela Merkel who had a difficult, frosty relationship with him. Remarkably, Trump said that Orban was “a powerful and wonderful leader,” whom he endorsed for a fourth term of office, while Biden by contrast declined to invite the Hungarian leader last year to a democracy summit he hosted (the only EU head of government not invited).
At the same time, Trump regularly chastised Germany, including for its “delinquency” on multiple issues, including international trade. Trump claimed the cost to the US was hundreds of billions of dollars over the years (referring to the German trade surplus).
This highlights the redrawing of US policy toward Europe that has been underway since 2021, with Biden’s coming to office, which has been consolidated by Russia’s invasion. To be sure, his support for EU nations is not unqualified and tensions such as IRA remain, but his arch-Atlanticism is nonetheless appreciated across the continent with much of Europe favoring his re-election next year.
• Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.