Is America Back? A view from Europe

President Biden waves before boarding Air Force One
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By all appearances, President Joe Biden’s whirlwind tour through Europe last week was a tremendous success. At the meeting of the heads of government of the G7 — the seven largest, economically advanced liberal democracies — Biden forged a common G7 position vis-a-vis China.

With the leaders of the European Union, he put in motion processes for resolving the few real conflicts of interest on trade and expanding transatlantic cooperation on the many issues where Europe and the United States are natural partners given shared values and interests.

At NATO, he won enthusiastic praise for his firm commitment to the transatlantic security community. And in his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden appears to have earned Putin’s respect for firmness while creating an opening for lasting improvements in the U.S.-Russian relations through negotiation. 

“America is back” was the refrain throughout.

But is America back? Europeans definitely want it to be “back.” But even though few dare talk about it openly, doubts linger.

What does it even mean for America to “be back?” As Europeans see it, Biden-led America is back to being a partner and friend in transatlantic relations — looking to overcome conflicts of interest through compromise if need be or, better yet, by focusing on larger common interests, so as to grow the pie rather than bicker over its distribution. 

America is thus back from simply demanding a larger share, as former President Trump had done, seemingly just because he could. This makes it easier for U.S. allies to compromise: The German government has now signaled a willingness to at least modify its geopolitically (and environmentally) irresponsible Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project after years of just categorically pushing back against American bullying.

After four years of having neglected or even undermined U.S.-built global institutions, America also is back to being a leader in global governance. This does not mean everyone just falls in line behind the United States.

But Biden appears to have convinced his European counterparts that the increasingly autocratic China, at least in certain areas, no longer seeks to become an equal partner but seems to seek relative gains and dominance. They now appear willing to jointly confront China where its policies threaten the autonomy of democratic nations.

Perhaps most importantly, America is back to being a fully committed partner and leader in NATO. Biden unambiguously reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to NATO’s foundational principle that an attack on any one member state shall be considered an attack against all, enshrined in Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which he acknowledged had only been invoked once: When America was attacked on 9/11. 

European political leaders had been eagerly awaiting the change in tone and, above all, the consistent, forceful assurances by Biden that “America is back.” And they feel truly reassured, for Biden’s commitments — his word and his actions — come across as genuine. 

Upon deeper reflection, however, Europeans wonder whether they’ve been awaiting this post-Trump American president and his reassuring words a bit too eagerly. America may be back, but is it here to stay? After all, we are not back in the pre-2016 world. Biden has recommitted to NATO, European integration and U.S. leadership in the world (at least in principle).  

But how broadly are these commitments shared?

Many Democrats, including in Congress, are cheering for Biden; some have vocally supported Biden’s return to what had long been broadly bipartisan policy positions. But strictly speaking, Biden has committed only his administration. Where are the Republican leaders speaking up to recommit to NATO and the international institutions that have long sustained the largely U.S.-designed global order? Where are the bipartisan congressional delegations that have, in the past, traveled the world? 

Few want to talk about it openly, but privately Europeans worry that the U.S. commitment to NATO and generally to international cooperation and global governance has become a partisan issue. If U.S. foreign policy on these issues aligns with (and reinforces) the domestic partisan political divisions, then the United States is no longer a trustworthy partner for any joint efforts beyond the current electoral cycle. 

As the exuberance over Biden’s week-long visit is starting to wear off, Europeans are left wondering: Is America really back? 

Tim Büthe is senior fellow at Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, a non-resident fellow of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, as well as professor and chair for international relations at the Hochschule für Politik at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). He is the author of, most recently, “Prospects and Challenges for Transatlantic Relations after Trump and Corona.”

Tags Donald Trump Europe G7 International relations Joe Biden NATO US-China relations US-Russia relations Vladimir Putin world stage

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