During my years at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, I developed a healthy respect for Europe as a US partner. Not just through Nato participation, but most strongly through shared values including personal liberty, freedom of the press and fair trade. The transatlantic alliance partnered not just in international operations, from peacekeeping in Bosnia to fighting together in Afghanistan, but also on addressing climate change through the Paris climate accords.
That balanced relationship, of course, has been knocked askew by Brexit and “America First” foreign policy. With the US election over and the transition to the Joe Biden administration gaining momentum, there will be a sense that we should rebuild the US-European relationship. I agree with that simple proposition. It would be a mistake, however, to aim for returning to the world of Obama administration and reinstitute the policy choices of four years ago.
Europe is a different place than it was before Brexit and the Trump era. Washington should think about new ways of approaching its most valuable collective pool of partners to maximise benefit for both sides of the Atlantic.
European nations and regional alignments
First, the US needs to have a newly differentiated foreign policy toward individual European nations and regional alignments. There is truth in words often attributed to Henry Kissinger (which he denies): Who do I call if I want to call Europe?
The European project brings together more than 30 very different sovereign nations. Some are members of Nato, but not of the European Union (e.g. Iceland and Norway); others are the reverse (Austria, Finland and Sweden). Some are entirely neutral (Switzerland) in their foreign policy. There is disagreement about using the common currency, with many nations outside the so-called Eurozone. Turkey remains neither in nor out of Europe in the minds of many observers. And the departure of the UK from the EU illustrates how quickly and monumentally things can to change.
For the Biden administration, there will likely be a temptation to “overweight” working with the EU as a whole. To some extent this is sensible. The organisation is led by Ursula Von Der Leyen, a former German defence minister, whom I worked with often in Nato days. She is smart, sensible and has good policy instincts. The collective power of the EU’s nations — even with the Brits gone — is very strong, which may lead US policymakers to feel it is most efficient to deal with the block in a unified way.
Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership
But a better approach would be in part a regional one, recognising that the Eastern Europeans have a very different set of alignments and needs than do the Nordic nations, for example. Likewise, the southern tier of Greece, Italy and Spain, all beset by economic difficulties, differs from the more stable Franco-German centre of the continent.
Second, the Biden team should revive the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which was put on ice by the Trump administration. The initiative would remove trade barriers and increase legal certainty, among other measures, creating the largest free-trade zone in history. While not without controversy (especially in Europe, where some nations fear the competition), it would provide the Western alliance with a balance to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in Asia, which will be dominated by China.
Then there is the Iran nuclear deal, to which the U.K, France and Germany are also party. Given a host of new events and conditions — including the killings of Qasem Soleimani in January and a top nuclear scientist last week; a significant increase in the size and enrichment of Iran’s nuclear stockpile; and that parts of the agreement are already approaching their expiration dates — it would make more sense to work toward a new agreement. To do this, the Biden team should go first to Brussels, so the US and the European partners can approach Iran with a unified stance.
A mix of stature and experience
Fourth, a new approach on climate makes sense. The appointment of former Secretary of State John Kerry as Biden’s climate “envoy” brings a leader of stature and experience into the mix at cabinet level. But a re-engagement on the issue has to include more than just rejoining the Paris climate agreement; it should entail working with Europe to lead the global effort.
Finally, the overarching issue facing the international community is the possibility of the US and China descending into a new cold war. The best way to avoid it would be for the US to work closely with Europe over the many friction points in the relationship between the two superpowers: free trade, intellectual property rights, disputes in the South China Sea, and cyberattacks.
Let’s be honest: In the immediate future, reinvigorating relations with Europe will take a lower priority than dealing with Covid-19 domestically and getting China policy right internationally. Still, it needs to be high on the list. The motto of the US military’s European Command is a simple two words we picked over a decade ago: “Stronger Together.” It’s a truth the Biden administration would do well to heed.
James Stavridis is a retired US Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of Nato. He is dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.