By Justine Le Floch
As I am writing this article, Joe Biden has just become the 46th President of the United States. If, from a European perspective, this seems to be some welcomed news, the consequences of this election could be worse than they appear. Indeed, the results were so close that it took more than four days after Election Day to know the name of the new president. The country seems more divided than ever. But what do the results of this election entail? More particularly what are the consequences for Europe and Transatlantic relationships? Why would a Biden presidency be both for the best and the worst from a European point of view and for international relations in general?
On the one hand, yes, Biden’s victory will, to some extent, improve the Transatlantic relationship. Former president Donald Trump has, for the past four years, devoted his efforts to distance his country from Europe and its institutions, picturing it as “a bigger evil than other global players” who was “taking advantage” of the United States. A re-election could have caused Trump to “feel totally unleashed”, with significant consequences “including […] the possibility of the United States withdrawing from NATO altogether” as suggested Gérard Araud, the former French ambassador in Washington.
Going back to the previous status of Transatlantic relationships seems almost impossible, especially for European officials. However, Biden’s presidency could re-open the political dialogue and lead to better cooperation, through more traditional and liberal views towards international relations. The new American president also knows Europe well and supports European integration and multilateralism and understands the importance of reconnecting with Europe, especially regarding trade: “The EU is the largest market in the world. We need to improve our economic relations […] and end an artificial trade war that the Trump administration has started” told senior Biden advisor Tony Blinken to the US Chamber of Commerce earlier this fall. Biden has also vowed to return the United States to the Paris Agreement on his first day in the Oval Office.
On the other hand, the end of Trump’s mandate and of his Hobbesian vision of international relations, of “a world of violence and of balance of power in which diplomacy and international cooperation are ineffective, if not contrary to the interest of the United States” as reminds Laurence Nardon of the French Institute of International Relations, could interfere with European plans. Indeed, Trump’s arrogance has prompted European cooperation, led by France and Germany, to make decisions regarding their security.
Europe has adapted to the withdrawal of the « American umbrella of protection » and has distanced itself from the NATO alliance, also criticized in Europe and qualified by French president Emmanuel Macron as “going through brain death”. Macron has also asserted that “more European sovereignty was needed” which has been translated into common projects of defense and armament. A rapprochement from the United States could destabilize European structuring projects. This could happen already from the beginning of 2021, which corresponds to the key period where crucial discussions for European future take place. Indeed, Germany, current rotating president of the Council of the European Union, intends to answer the United States’ call and will “approach Washington with proposals soon after the elections – as a contribution to a new, Transatlantic agenda”, said German foreign minister Heiko Maas.
I will once again draw onto Thomas Hobbes’ theory – which states that one should either obey a strong accountable sovereign or fall into a state of nature or state of social chaos, resembling civil war and where human cooperation is made impossible. What if Joe Biden was not able to prove he is a strong leader, due to a lack of landslide victory and in case of absence of majority in Congress? With an adversary calling upon rebellion and engaging in unfounded legal appeals to contest the election results, the United States seems to drift towards a deep fracture inside its own territory. Only time will tell the fate of Americans and of their country. However, regarding the relations with Europe, the United States appears as an unstable and “flighty partner”.
All in one, if the worst scenario for European leaders in their relationships with the United States has been avoided thanks to the election of Joe Biden, there is still a long way to go before hoping for the restoration of consistent Transatlantic relationships, which will however probably never return to their status quo ante.