Joe Biden makes his first trip to Europe as US president to attend the G7 summits in Cornwall (June 11-13), NATO (June 14) and the bilateral US-EU (June 15) , these last two in Brussels. With this series of summits, the Biden Administration seeks to stage the relaunch of the transatlantic relationship, in its opinion neglected by its predecessor Donald Trump. Beyond such staging, Biden seeks to achieve greater transatlantic alignment in relation to the main long-term strategic challenge for the United States: the rise of China. Is this possible?
The idea of a transatlantic alignment in relation to China seemed elusive in the Trump era. The latter understood the relationship with China as a mere pulse of interstate power (USA vs. China). In addition, he perceived the multilateral order and US alliances (including the transatlantic relationship) as problematic in the context of the geopolitical rivalry with China. According to Trump, China used multilateralism in its favor, with the collusion of a Europe that looked the other way. Multilateralism had become a strategic drag on the US This view contrasts sharply with Biden’s.
The Biden administration views multilateralism and the transatlantic relationship as important assets in the strategic rivalry with China and not as distractions (let alone burdens). In addition, Biden has posed the Chinese challenge in normative terms; as part of a global tension between democracy and autocracy, and not as a mere pulse of interstate power between the US and China. On the other hand, Biden recognizes the possibility of cooperating with China in areas such as the fight against climate change.
Biden’s approach to the Chinese challenge is more in tune with European political sensibilities. In addition, Biden has made in recent months a series of gestures that will contribute to an improvement in the political climate between the US and Europe, such as the freezing of trade tariffs due to the Airbus-Boeing litigation, the decision to reverse the withdrawal of US troops. in Germany announced by Trump, the lifting of sanctions against the concessionaires of the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline between Germany and Russia, or the recent G7 agreement for a minimum global corporate tax of 15%. Add to that the recent cooling off between EU-China relations, fueled by European sanctions on Beijing for human rights violations against the Uighur minority in Xinjang, or the recent EU decision to support Biden in a new investigation into the origin of covid-19. These events would appear to pave the way for a transatlantic alignment with China.
However, the US and the EU continue to have important differences on how to deal with the Chinese challenge. Surely one of the most relevant is related to their different ways of understanding multilateralism. Although the Biden administration has displayed multilateralism, its emphasis on democracy promotion translates, de facto, into a prioritization of “minilateral” (rather than multilateral) forums such as the G7 itself or the Quad (a group that includes to the US, Japan, Australia and India and has become a benchmark for Biden’s policy in the Indo-Pacific region). This smaller version of multilateralism contrasts with the more expansive conception of the EU, which advocates multilateral frameworks that accommodate everyone, including China.
Ultimately, the Biden Administration has a more utilitarian and strategic conception of multilateralism, which it perceives as potentially instrumental in promoting certain values (for example, democracy) or US interests (tightening the diplomatic and strategic fence on China) . For its part, the EU tends to see multilateralism as an end in itself, rather than as a means. To a large extent, Europe remains mentally anchored in the wonderful post-Cold War years, and seems reluctant to accept the growing tension between the preservation of the multilateral order as we know it and the growing rivalry between great powers, which places multilateralism itself as geopolitical playing field.
Luis Simon He is director of the office of the Royal Elcano Institute in Brussels and professor of International Relations at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.