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Biden Is Good News For Europe, But China Challenges Await

Joe Biden meets with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Munich in 2015. Relations will no doubt be far more cordial under Biden, but Europe and the U.S. have differences that transcend the Trump administration.
Matthias Schrader
Joe Biden meets with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Munich in 2015. Relations will no doubt be far more cordial under Biden, but Europe and the U.S. have differences that transcend the Trump administration.

President-elect Joe Biden has chosen a national security team that backs traditional U.S. alliances, which has been met with relief in much of Europe after nearly four years of hostility from President Trump.

Take Antony Blinken, Biden's nominee for secretary of state. He spent part of his childhood in Paris, speaks impeccable French and is an avowed supporter of the trans-Atlantic relationship.

"We would, under Joe Biden, return to our seat at NATO's table, not threaten to leave NATO or treat it like a protection racket," Blinken said this month, speaking to the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, an organization that supports American diplomacy. "We would engage the European Union, instead of actually encouraging countries to leave it or treating it like it's some kind of an enemy."

Relations will no doubt be far more cordial under Biden. But Europe and the U.S. have genuine differences that transcend the Trump administration. They include a wide range of issues, such as the long-running trade dispute over what the World Trade Organization says are illegal government subsidies to Airbus and the failure of some NATO member states to meet defense spending targets.

Biden will be looking for help on pressing American priorities, including checking an increasingly assertive China. Anthony Gardner, an adviser to the Biden campaign on Europe, said the EU and the U.S. need to work together to fight unfair trade practices by China that disadvantage businesses from San Francisco to Sofia.

"Strength matters," says Gardner, who served as U.S. ambassador to the EU from 2014 to 2017. "The Chinese get it. They fear, I believe, that the United States and the EU will actually align our positions on trade, because the EU is not a minnow on trade. It's a superpower." Indeed, the EU's gross domestic product is only second to the United States', according to the International Monetary Fund.

The EU seems to agree, at least in principle. It plans to call on the U.S. to seize "a once-in-a-generation" opportunity to look past ongoing tensions and forge a global alliance to address China's "strategic challenge," according to a draft of EU policy proposals cited by the Financial Times.

But Gardner, the author of Stars With Stripes: The Essential Partnership between the European Union and the United States, acknowledges that getting all 27 EU member states to confront China isn't easy.

Some countries rely on China as an important market for their exports. Beijing has also implemented a divide-and-conquer strategy. Chinese state-owned banks and state-owned enterprises invest in member states to gain leverage. Then Beijing pressures them to block critical joint statements on sensitive topics, such as China's human rights record or the country's island-building campaign in the South China Sea.

The Biden administration will also look for European nations to do more to defend their interests at home as the U.S. focuses more militarily on China.

"We're at an inflection point," Biden said last year at Chatham House, the London think tank. "We're navigating new relationships with a rising China and a declining but increasingly aggressive Russia."

Many Europeans question how much NATO militaries can actually help with China. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was built to defend Europe, not Asia.

Tomas Valasek, who chairs the European Affairs Committee in the Slovak parliament, says that most NATO nations don't have the capacity to project force into, say, the South China Sea. Moreover, expanding NATO's reach amid the economic wreckage and domestic challenges of the pandemic probably isn't realistic right now.

"There are going to be bills to pay," says retired U.S. Adm. James G. Foggo, who commanded U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa and also headed NATO Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy.

"There's got to be a balance of ambition and appetite for out-of-area deployments," adds Foggo, now a distinguished fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington think tank.

NATO was forged from the ashes of World War II by like-minded democracies, including the U.S., the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Belgium, to deter Soviet aggression. Since the end of the Cold War, it has faced periodic identity crises. As the U.S. focuses more on China in the coming years, analysts say that NATO's value to America is likely to decline.

"There's no doubt that the Europeans will, because of the rise of China, become less central in the way the United States regards the world," says Valasek, who served as Slovakia's ambassador to NATO from 2013 to 2017. "The only question is how do we lose as little relevance as possible?"

Theresa Fallon, who runs the Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies, a Brussels think tank, says one solution is for European NATO members to rely less on America and more on themselves to address the region's increasingly complex security challenges. Fallon says those include a wide range, from Russia's attempts to destabilize the Western Balkans to the standoff between NATO allies Turkey and Greece over energy reserves in disputed waters in the eastern Mediterranean.

Judy Dempsey, editor of Strategic Europe, a blog at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe, agrees. She says Europe has to move on from a trans-Atlantic relationship that hinges on America guaranteeing members' safety.

"Europe can defend itself under the umbrella of NATO," Dempsey says. "They must break out of this emotional, intellectual, physical and political dependence on the United States to be always there. The United States has enough on its plate."

Dempsey says working out a new, more balanced relationship is crucial.

"There are a lot of countries who actually would do their best to undermine Europe," she says. "If we remain in this comfort zone, it'll be too late. What's at stake for Europe and the United States are values, human rights and democracy."

NPR London producer Jessica Beck contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.