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America may return to Europe, but how much has it changed?



FALMOUTH, England – Few images captured the rupture in transatlantic relations better than that of President Donald J. Trump in 2018 crossed his arms over his chest as he resisted Chancellor Angela Merkel and other frustrated leaders in their doomed efforts to save their summit in Canada.

When the same leaders gather in Cornwall, England, on Friday, President Biden will turn to body language, replacing the impasse with a hug. But beneath the images, it is not clear how much more open the United States will be to give and take with Europe than to Mr. Trump.

The transatlantic partnership has always been less reciprocal than its champions like to do ̵

1; a marriage in which one partner, the United States, wore a nuclear umbrella. Now that China has replaced the Soviet Union as an American archive, the two countries are less united than they were during the Cold War, a geopolitical change that created long stresses between them.

So, a long-standing question arises for Friday’s meeting of the Group of Seven Industrialized States: Will this show of solidarity be more than a diplomatic pantomime – reassuring for Europeans traumatized by Mr Trump’s “America First” policy, but will it certainly disappoint them when they realize that the United States is still on its way to Mr. Biden?

“America’s foreign policy has not changed radically,” said Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the British Parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “It’s more cooperative and inclusive, but it’s essentially the same.”

“Like all leaders,” he added, “Biden puts his own country first. How he achieves this is what distracts many. “

Few Europeans question the sincerity of its scope. More than even his former boss, Barack Obama, Mr. Biden is an Atlanticist, with decades of involvement in European concerns from the Balkans to Belfast.

On Thursday, he joined Prime Minister Boris Johnson to present a new Atlantic Charter, modeled on the post-World War II plan signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

During their first face-to-face meeting, Mr. Biden and Mr. Johnson predicted unity, each promising that his country would commit hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines to the developing world.

“I will not agree with the president on this or anything else,” Mr Johnson said after Mr Biden said that both he and the groom’s prime minister had “married over our station”.

Yet the president has taken a more aggressive approach to China as a loser of his foreign policy. While US officials sought Europe’s support for the effort, analysts said their expectations were limited, given the trade interests of Germany and other countries and the fact that Ms Merkel and other Europeans had no appetite for a new Cold War with Beijing. .

“The Biden administration is determined to be polite, determined to listen to them, and then it will do whatever it plans to do,” said Jeremy Shapiro, who worked at the State Department during the Obama administration and is now the director of research. European Council on Foreign Relations in London.

“It doesn’t matter what the US policy is towards Europe,” Mr Shapiro said, summing up what he said was the prevailing opinion in the administration. “We will take the same amount of them for China.”

Skepticism runs in both directions. Many European officials look at Mr. Biden’s declaration that “America is returning” with a yellow eye, albeit in good faith, given the US Capitol attack and other threats to American democracy, not to mention Mr. Trump’s iron rule. over the Republican Party.

“We are living in an era of diminished trust,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the United States who chairs the Munich Security Conference, where Mr Biden was a regular speaker.

According to him, the Germans thought that it did not matter much to the transatlantic union whether the president was a Democrat or a Republican. Now, Mr. Ischinger said, “For the first time in 70 years, we are faced with a new question: What happens if a resurrected Trump reappears on stage?”

White House officials have carefully choreographed Mr. Biden’s trip to turn it into a summer festival to repair alliances. But in Washington, analysts say its staffing actions show a more marginalized role for Europe.

The White House has appointed prominent officials to coordinate Indo-Pacific and Middle Eastern policies on the National Security Council. There is no analogue for Europe, nor has the administration appointed diplomatic appointments, such as an ambassador to NATO or an envoy to lead Northern Ireland.

Mr Biden welcomed the leaders of Japan and South Korea to the White House, although he is not yet a major European leader.

On the eve of his visit to Britain, a senior US diplomat expressed open concerns to Mr Johnson’s chief negotiator about how Britain was dealing with tensions over post-Brexit trade agreements in Northern Ireland.

Both sides have a similar sense of limited expectations for Russia, even as Mr Biden meets with President Vladimir Putin next week in Geneva. Washington-Moscow relations deteriorated rapidly in the administration’s first months as the United States faced a Russian hacking operation, evidence of Russia’s continued interference in the 2020 presidential campaign and the accumulation of Mr Putin’s troops on Russia’s border. with Ukraine.

Russia’s arrest of opposition leader Alexei A. Navalny, three days before Mr Biden’s inauguration, set the tone for the upcoming tensions.

Far from the “reset button” that Mr. Biden announced in 2009 while he was Mr. Obama’s vice president, his meeting with Mr. Putin seems set up mostly to keep tensions with the normally irritating Russia, so that both sides can avoid conflicts that could disrupt Mr Biden’s internal agenda.

Given what analysts say Mr Putin’s calculation is that Russia is taking advantage of sowing instability, they doubt how successful Mr Biden will be. Europe’s proximity to Russia – and Germany’s dependence on its natural gas – means that instability would pose a greater threat to Europe than to the United States.

“The problem with China is that it’s not our neighbor, but it’s a neighbor of the United States,” said Robin Niblet, director of the Chatham House think tank in London. “Russia is a neighbor of Europe and this reality complicates it, but only to the extent that the United States wants to raise the temperature.”

The administration’s zigzag course on Nord Stream 2, a pipeline running from Russia to Germany, has left some in Europe scratching their heads. Mr Biden has publicly opposed the pipeline as a “bad idea”, said Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken. But Mr Blinken recently refused to impose sanctions on those behind the $ 11 billion project, saying its completion was a “fait accompli”.

Turning on the eve of Mr Biden’s European tour seemed calculated to avoid a rift with Germany, a critical ally. But in Britain, which has a tougher stance against Russia than Germany, some officials have said they are worried that the decision will give Mr Putin strength and weaken Ukraine’s eastern border.

While transatlantic differences over China are significant, officials on both sides say Europe is gradually moving in Mr Biden’s direction. The European Parliament last month delayed the ratification of a significant investment agreement between Brussels and Beijing. This followed Beijing’s sanctioning of 10 European Union politicians in what Europeans saw as a responsible response to sanctions imposed on China for detaining Uighur minorities in Xinjiang.

Britain has moved toward the United States over China, restricting Chinese telecom giant Huawei’s access to its 5G network. But analysts warn that the change is motivated less by a change of opinion about Beijing than by the desire not to part with its most important ally after Brexit.

Some in Europe argue that Mr Biden’s Chinese policy is not yet fully formed, noting that there was no shortage of diplomatic pantomime in Mr Blinken’s tumultuous meeting with Chinese officials in Alaska in March.

Europe’s views could also develop with the departure of Ms Merkel, a firm believer in engagement with China after 16 years in office, and with French President Emmanuel Macron facing a difficult election campaign next year.

“The EU’s position on China has hardened as a result of human rights problems,” said Simon Fraser, a former senior foreign minister at the British Foreign Office. “I suspect there are many things in common, even when national interests conflict.”

Yet some Europeans are repulsed by how Mr Biden has placed competition with China on a clear ideological level – as a fateful battle between democracy and autocracy in which autocrats can win.

For leaders like Ms. Merkel, whose country sells millions of Volkswagens and BMWs in China, the link is driven by trade and technology, not a potential military clash in the South China Sea.

“There is a serious psychological problem,” said Thomas Wright, director of the Center for Europe and the United States at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Some Europeans think the United States is too nostalgic for the Cold War and too ready to go back to that.”

These are, of course, the first days of Mr Biden’s presidency. Analysts say he has already calibrated his message to China and Russia two months ago when he told Congress that Chinese President Xi Jinping believes “democracy cannot compete with autocracies in the 21st century.”

Charles A. Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University who worked on European affairs in the Obama administration, said Mr Biden’s goal was to begin a Sino-Russian bloc against the West. This will require the help of allies, which is why he predicts that Mr Biden will not only listen but hear Europeans.

“This attempt to find geopolitical dividing lines will not find much support among American allies,” Mr Kupchan said.

Mr Biden seems sensitive to these concerns. In a column published last Sunday in the Washington Post outlining his travel goals, he gave up militant references to autocratic China. Instead, he writes about whether the United States and its allies can meet a rather indisputable challenge: “Can democracies come together to deliver real results for our people in a rapidly changing world?”


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