Biden, the transatlantic relationship and a changing America
President-elect Joe Biden’s victory last month was greeted with sighs of relief in many European capitals. Over the past four years, President Trump has broadly strained transatlantic relations and even shocked leaders, going so far as to label the European Union a “foe” of the United States and imposing tariffs on high-profile European goods. In a recent interview, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas understatedly described the working relationship between the German government and the Trump administration as “not the cooperation we wished for.”
The prospect of a President Biden and a U.S. administration that is far keener on cooperating and consulting with allies has raised European governments’ hopes that the next four years will prove far more productive than the last four years. The executive branch of the European Union, known as the European Commission, has reportedly even taken the initiative to draft a proposal for the incoming administration on wide-ranging cooperation aimed at settling current disputes and creating a firmer common stance towards China — something that proved to be beyond the grasp of President Trump.
A coordinated transatlantic effort to impose costs on the Chinese government for its record of astounding human rights abuses and coercive economic policies could profoundly reshape U.S.-European relations for the better. Yet, European leaders’ optimism must be tempered by the political context in which Biden will have to govern and work with Congress to build support for his policies toward Europe.
By all accounts, Biden fits squarely within the transatlantic camp, those who believe in the value of the partnership between the North American and European states to ensure our mutual security and prosperity; but as the U.S. political realignment which began in 2016 continues to play out, European leaders would be prudent to take a broader and longer-term view. They must consider how to build relations with the incoming president and how to build support that will transcend any single administration. To do this, politicians should consider both demographic and partisan factors.
During the Cold War, diaspora populations and civic organizations of Americans of European ethnic heritage played essential roles in focusing elected leaders on prioritizing working with Europe. Over time, as America’s demographics have changed, so to have those communities of interest. Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center noted that, “In all 50 states, the share of non-Hispanic White eligible voters declined between 2000 and 2018.” As constituent communities change, so too will the issues they value. As the relative number of Americans with European heritage shrinks, how will other groups of voters think about the U.S.-Europe relationship?
The same premise holds when looking at the American voting population by age. At one time, tens of millions of Americans were directly connected to the European continent through the lived experience of fighting in World War II, being stationed in West Germany during the Cold War or knowing an immediate family member who had been — or at least having a memory of the Soviet Union existing. More than 30 years on from the end of the Cold War, a generation of Americans has come of age only knowing an undivided Europe.
A study by the Center for American Progress has found that Gen Z and Millennial Americans – those born in 1981 and onwards – already “make up a larger share of eligible voters than Boomers.” The Center projects that by the next presidential election more of these younger voters will show up to vote than Baby Boomers, a “generation that has constituted a larger share of the electorate than any other for more than 30 years.” As the formative events of the Cold War fade from lived memory into distant history for most Americans, what can and will ground American commitment to Europe for young Americans who are voting in ever larger numbers?
While a Biden administration will almost certainly see a continuation of the political polarization to which Washington has grown so accustomed, partisanship has also appeared in how Americans think about Europe. In a poll of American views of the European Union, Republicans’ and Democrats’ views have diverged starkly since 2014, leading to a 26-point gap, with the majority of Democrats holding a favorable view of the EU as opposed to a minority of Republicans. Likewise, when President Trump announced the withdrawal of a sizable portion of U.S. troops stationed in Germany, most Republicans favored the move, while most Democrats did not.
As voters’ opinions about key transatlantic topics split along partisan lines, policies once thought to be part of a settled consensus are becoming partisan issues. How can leaders on both sides of the Atlantic forge a political agreement on transatlantic priorities that appeals to and draws support from both sides of the aisle?
European leaders are right to be optimistic about what a President Biden could mean. Still, supporters of the transatlantic partnership should make efforts to engage a wider swath of Americans to ensure the relationship’s health for many administrations to come.
Scott Cullinane is the executive director of the US-Europe Alliance. Follow him on Twitter @ScottPCullinane.
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