Joe Biden must think about the transatlantic alliance if he wins

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It is not too early to start to assess the international challenges Joe Biden will face if his standing in public opinion polls holds up and he becomes the next president. High among these is the dramatic deterioration in the transatlantic alliance, which served American interests well for decades. Biden would inherit allies who have lost faith in the United States and no longer share a world view or a desire to work with Washington.

In Germany last year, Biden reassured European leaders that this would pass, but he was wrong. Public opinion polls show that both Europeans and Americans have turned inward, the ties that bind them have frayed, and their interests have diverged. Foreign policy analysts bemoan the isolationist sensibilities of Americans, but Europeans have also turned their backs on the United States. Around 60 percent of Europeans in a recent survey by the Council on Foreign Relations say their view of the United States has changed for the worse in the last few months.

Given such sentiment, it is not surprising a recent survey by the German Marshall Fund found there is no majority support by the French, German, or American publics for their governments to get involved in any number of current international issues. The strongest backing for more action was for restricting Iranian access to nuclear weapons and even then the allies disagreed. Less than 50 percent of Germans, 40 percent of Americans, and only 28 percent of the French wanted something done on this.

On most other issues, including the Sahel, Ukraine, Afghanistan, North Korea, and South China Sea, public support for decreasing international engagement tended to be greater than increasing involvement, especially in France and the United States. There was also no sign of support for the allies working together to deal with shared international challenges.

A majority of Americans back joining with Europeans on the coronavirus crisis, while a majority of the French and Germans support transatlantic cooperation in combating climate change. However, Americans disdain collaboration on climate change issues, and Europeans look askance at cooperation on the global health crisis. Moreover, on a whole range of other problems, such as Russia, China, economics, cybersecurity, and more, there is minimal public interest in transatlantic cooperation.

Finally, when it comes to the flashpoint of military burden sharing, only about a third or fewer of the Germans and the French and a quarter of Americans want to increase defense spending. Moreover, as both the United States and Europe face constrained revenues as they dig out of recessions induced by the pandemic in the last few months, aversion to defense spending could truly become an even bigger headache.

Without a shared desire to avoid another European war and absent an external adversary to create solidarity, Biden would need to refocus the transatlantic alliance on future challenges where there is at least some concern about the issues or willingness for international engagement to deal with them. Foremost among these should be climate change, the coronavirus, and the Iranian nuclear weapons program, which are each challenges that cannot be dealt with by countries acting alone.

To that end, Biden should announce that the United States would rejoin both the Paris Agreement and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Such initiatives have great symbolic value, signaling to Europe that the Americans are back. Washington and its transatlantic partners will then need an approach to improving their climate commitments consistent with an international goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

With regard to Iran, Biden and the European allies should offer to freeze future sanctions on Iran in return for a freeze on advances in its nuclear weapons. They should begin talks with Iran on missiles, terrorism, and human rights. The United States and Europe should lift all trade barriers on medical supplies and equipment. They should also establish a joint stockpile to better respond to inevitable health emergencies.

During the Cold War, there were transatlantic differences, and these will undoubtedly continue. But Biden would have to deal with an even more divided alliance after the last several years. The only way to preserve the transatlantic alliance if he becomes president is for his administration to demonstrate that cooperation between the United States and Europe is the best way to solve the problems people care about most.

Bruce Stokes leads the transatlantic program at the German Marshall Fund.

Tags Diplomacy Election Europe Government Joe Biden Politics President Security

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