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Trump, Biden, Europe: Red America, Blue America and the Transatlantic Relationship

Andrew Cottey, University College Cork

Barring the hopefully unlikely scenarios of an anti-democratic coup by Donald Trump or a potentially violent breakdown of the American political system, Joe Biden will become the next President of the United States on January 20th 2021. Most Europeans will breathe a sigh of relief. Trump’s ‘America first’ populism, his deep scepticism of the United States’ long partnership with Europe and his anti-democratic tendencies will be gone. In contrast, Joe Biden is a long-standing supporter of strong transatlantic relations and his foreign policy positions will align with mainstream European views on most issues. A Biden administration is likely to reaffirm US support for NATO, look for global cooperation in addressing the Covid-19 crisis, re-join the Paris climate change agreement, seek to resolve trade disputes with Europe, reverse Trump’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organisation (WHO), revitalise nuclear arms control (beginning with extending the New START treaty with Russia) and look for a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue.

The larger message of the 2020 US presidential election, however, is that America remains very deeply divided. When the final results are confirmed, Biden is likely to have beaten Trump by 5 million or so votes (and a clear Electoral College margin), but, on a high turn-out, Trump will have received the second largest vote ever for a presidential candidate (exceeded only by that for Biden). The Democrats retained control of the House of Representatives, but lost ground to the Republicans. The Senate is currently split 50-48 in favour of the Republicans, with the balance to be decided by run-off elections for Georgia’s two seats in January.

Like Barack Obama before him, Joe Biden has called for American unity, to see not blue states and red states but a United States of America. The reality, however, as Richard Haass puts it, is that ‘Americans increasingly dwell in separate worlds. They have sorted themselves into communities and regions with those of similar views. Each world tends to watch its own cable television channels, listen to its own radio stations and podcasts, and visit its own websites.’ This polarisation has deepened over recent decades and observers suggest that it will continue once Biden becomes President.

Republicans in the Congress are likely to resist and obstruct Biden’s policies and, while the President is the central foreign policy actor in the US political system, Republican opposition will extend to foreign policy. The Senate is highly unlikely to ratify the Paris climate agreement and the spending and regulatory measures necessary to de-carbonize America’s economy will be very difficult to implement in the face of Republican opposition. Republicans will accuse the Biden administration of being soft on Iran and Russia, making the compromises necessary to achieve workable agreements on nuclear weapons very difficult to negotiate.

Nearly twenty years ago, Robert Kagan argued that Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus. From this perspective, the American worldview is one of power politics and a willingness to use military force. In contrast, shaped by its long post-1945 peace, Europe has become a continent shaped by peaceful multilateral cooperation ill-suited to dealing with a rising China and resurgent Russia. In light of America’s widening domestic divide, it may be more accurate to argue that Republicans are from Mars and Democrats from Venus. Over the thirty years since the end of the Cold War, Republican political leaders and voters have become increasingly sceptical of multilateral institutions, nuclear arms control and other constraints on US power and independence. The International Criminal Court, the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal have become bêtes noires for Republicans.

In contrast, Democrats have been supportive of multilateral institutions, nuclear arms control and international action on climate change. Increasingly, the transatlantic policy divide is not between Europe and America, but between Republicans and Democrats. It should not be forgotten that after the short-lived ‘we are all Americans’ moment of post-9/11 unity, the Bush administration’s 2003 decision to go to war in Iraq triggered one of the deepest rifts in transatlantic relations since 1945. The election of a Republican President in 2024 – possibly even Donald Trump – would likely trigger renewed tensions between Europe and America. An America which repeatedly switches between Europe friendly Democratic and Europe sceptical Republican presidents will not provide a strong basis for transatlantic cooperation.

President Trump’s defeat will also trigger a struggle for the soul of the Republican party, again with important implications for transatlantic relations. Until Trump, although increasingly sceptical of multilateral institutions, Republicans maintained strong support for two core elements of the transatlantic relationship: NATO and free trade with Europe. Trump, for the first time, questioned these, raising the possibility of American withdrawal from NATO and introducing tariffs on European imports. If ‘America first’ populism gains the ascendancy, opposition to US alliances, including NATO, and to free trade may become embedded within the Republican party. In contrast, if a new centrist version of Republicanism emerges, it is likely to include support for NATO and open trading relationship with Europe.

We are witnessing a period of great turbulence and uncertainty in American politics, with important implications for US foreign policy. Joe Biden’s election victory is only one chapter in this story. How it plays out will be mostly determined by America’s citizens. Europe, however, may be able to shape the debate at the margins. If Europeans believe that deep cooperation between Europe and America is central to addressing the global challenges of the 21st century, we need to do more – much more – to persuade the United States of the value of transatlantic cooperation. The best response to American criticism of European free-riding on defence is to strengthen the European military contribution to collective defence, both by increasing defence spending and through intensified cooperation in NATO and the European Union. European states, NATO and the EU have taken significant steps in this direction since the Ukraine conflict in 2014, but these need to be continued and ramped up.

If Europeans want to persuade America of the value of multilateral cooperation, we need to show that multilateralism works, in particular by helping to reform multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization to enable them to address the challenges of a new era. With China’s rising power the central geopolitical challenge of the 21st century, European states and the EU need to find ways to coordinate policies towards China with the US (and other democracies such as Japan and Australia) in order to maximise collective bargaining power vis-à-vis Beijing. Closer to home, Europe needs to take greater responsibility for managing the challenges of its own neighbourhood, including the migration issue, conflicts in North Africa and the situations in Belarus and Ukraine. Ultimately, if Europeans want an enduring transatlantic partnership, they need to do more to convince Americans – especially those now most sceptical of the transatlantic alliance, that is on the Republican side of the US political spectrum – of the value of cooperation with Europe.

Andrew Cottey is EU Jean Monnet Chair in European Political Integration and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government and Politics, University College Cork

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