Repair, recycle, renovate?


Christian Hänel


What Europe and the transatlantic relationship can expect from a United States with Joe Biden as President.

An Irish-American Catholic speaking with the Pope
‘The President-elect expressed his desire to work together on the basis of a shared belief in the dignity and equality of all humankind on issues such as caring for the marginalized and the poor, addressing the crisis of climate change, and welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees into our communities.’

This quote is from the official readout of a phone call between President-elect Joe Biden and Pope Francis on November 12. As Head of State of the Vatican, the Pope congratulated Biden, who, on a side note, will be only the second Catholic President in U.S. history (the first was John F. Kennedy, elected in 1960). For any remaining European multilateralist (religious or not) who believes in transatlantic cooperation on common challenges, this readout may feel like balm on the wounds. Wounds which hurtful rhetoric and policies have left in the transatlantic relationship over the past four years. The question is: Will this start a healing process that proves to be sustainable or are the wounds too deep for any band-aid of even holy proportions to fix?

Fighting the pandemic and fixing the economy
On the campaign trail, Joe Biden pledged to focus from day one as President on two major, pressing issues: Battling the Covid19-pandemic and re-building the U.S. economy. On the former, he vows to put ‘science over fiction’ again. This resonates well with everybody who appreciates reliable facts and evidence-based problem-solving – on the pandemic and on any other topic.

Regarding the economy, the Biden platform has been promoting ‘Buy American’. Which comes with a loud protectionist undertone. Is ‘Buy American’ perhaps just another angle on ‘America first’? In a way, yes. Type in ‘free trade’ in the keyword search of the typical Biden campaign speech manuscript and the word count will be pretty low. Covid-19, social unrest, racial tensions and the dire state of the U.S. economy clearly shift the President-elect’s focus inwards.  Meanwhile: China, together with 10 Southeast Asian countries as well as Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand have just announced the founding of RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) – one of the world’s largest if not the largest trading bloc, accounting for 30 percent of the global economy and population. It remains to be seen if and how this dynamic in the Asia-Pacific Region could re-vitalize any free trade initiatives to be led or joined by Americans (and Europeans).

Foreign policy: Allies again, but more than ever expected to share the burden
The U.S. will continue to view China as the biggest geopolitical rival. Pointedly different approaches may be taken by Biden on how to manage this rivalry.  Undoubtedly the Biden administration will reach out again to traditional allies.  The EU will not be seen as a ‘foe’ anymore (and yes, the 45th President of the United States of America is indeed on the record, proclaiming this publicly). Expect the U.S. to return to the Paris Climate Accord, to try to fix its relationship with WHO, to maybe re-visit the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action against nuclear weapons in Iran and to restore respect for transnational alliances such as NATO. At the same time, it is definitely reasonable to expect the U.S. to ask its allies for more significant burden-sharing. From the American (bipartisan) perspective, Europeans have been lagging behind on this one for too long. In this context, it cannot be stressed enough that the often-discussed issue of ‘inadequate German defense spending’ was not just another oddity invented by the Trump administration. Like it or not, it was Germany itself which pledged to work towards a defense budget target of 2% of GDP – at the NATO summit in Wales in 2014. Back then, Barack Obama was the President of the United States (and Donald Trump a reality show host).

Civil society: Alive and kicking
With a Biden presidency, the pressure will definitely not decrease for the EU to take responsibility, to take a stand on issues, and to act accordingly. For the civil society sector, this should resonate positively. Transatlantic relations have not come to a standstill over the past four years. Quite the opposite is true, and civil society deserves significant credit for that. Constructive, creative and productive exchange has continued to take place, but has not been on the radar of the highest political sphere. Problem- and solution-oriented transatlantic cooperation at state, regional and communal levels in tackling climate change, in dealing with migration and in opening doors between societal echo chambers to fight the poison of fake news, are just three examples. Foundations and other NGOs have initiated and joined thought and action partnerships on concrete issues of mutual interest. Over the past four years, civil society actors in general have experienced an increase in the perceived relevance of their work for the transatlantic relationship. They have contributed vividly to keeping exchange and cooperation alive – in times of practical ‘non dialogue’ at the highest political level. Civil Society should build on this momentum and follow-up.

Optimism allowed, but: We need to get our act together – on both sides of the Atlantic
The challenges for the Biden administration are gigantic. Domestically alone, without even starting to think about transnational issues. American society is fiercely polarized. A numerical equivalent to the total populations of France and Denmark combined did vote for Trump. These millions and millions of people will not go away. Amid social upheaval, the rule of law, the stability of institutions and democracy itself have been under increasing systemic stress in the U.S. Similar trends can be observed in the EU and its member states. Populism, nationalistic tendencies and ‘political establishment fatigue’ – which can turn into ‘democracy fatigue’ – have to be dealt with now and for the foreseeable future.

Looking across the pond, we have a lot in common. Including similar, internal problems at this moment in history. These problems must be tackled – on both sides of the Atlantic.  For this, Americans and Europeans need to get their respective acts together. So that a transatlantic community under new management (and under renovation), based on democratic values and the rule of law, can re-build credibility at home – as a prerequisite to working together successfully towards a more livable globalized world. A more livable globalized world like the one envisioned in the phone call between the President-elect and the Pope, when they talked about ‘the dignity and equality of all humankind’.

The art of warm and respectful rhetoric is by no means sufficient to fix a broken relationship. But for sure it makes the task easier.

Christian Hänel is Senior Vice President, Robert Bosch Stiftung, and member of the EVPA board of directors

This article has been commissioned for PEXnews

Comments (1)

Ruediger Lentz

Excellent analysis. Right to the point!

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