Following a peaceful transition of power in the imperial capital yesterday, local rulers are performing their traditional role of ingratiating themselves with the new order and repudiating any connection with the old regime. In Europe, the EU Commission’s president Ursula von der Leyen thanked Biden for “the inspiring inaugural address and for the offer to cooperate,” promising that “Europe is ready for a fresh start.”
Certainly, on climate change and the Green New Deal, claimed priorities for both the Biden administration and the EU, there is much room for renewed cooperation. Yet in the broader sweep of foreign policy, America and Europe’s interests and worldviews are increasingly divergent, and while it may suit Europe’s spokespeople to blame the rift on Biden’s newly-departed predecessor, holding the alliance together will remain problematic.
A major new survey for the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank highlights the divergence. As its summary notes, “majorities in key member states now think the US political system is broken, that China will be more powerful than the US within a decade, and that Europeans cannot rely on the US to defend them.”
Despite the lavish praise for the incoming Biden administration offered by Europe’s foreign policy commentariat, particularly Germany’s, the recent EU-China trade agreement, hurried through by Merkel before Biden’s inauguration, can be read as a political manifestation of this sentiment. By signing it, the EU has essentially recused itself from an active role in any confrontation between the two superpowers. The Biden administration is also no more likely to look fondly on Germany’s role in the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline from Russia than did the Trump administration, guaranteeing another flashpoint in transatlantic relations. Yesterday, Merkel reiterated her support for the pipeline.
The most important European critic of both strategic autonomy and Nordstream 2 is Poland, a nation firmly Atlanticist in orientation, and hostile to both Russia and China for historic and ideological reasons, yet which hitched its wagon too firmly to the Trump train for comfort. Despite its centrality to the NATO alliance, Poland’s ultra-Conservative Catholic government is a strong rhetorical critic of liberalism whose waning attachment to Western democratic norms causes alarm in liberal American circles. Indeed, the country may soon find itself at odds with a Biden administration keen to reassert the hold of both democracy and liberal values across the empire.
Biden has already singled out Poland’s “anti-LGBT zones” for criticism, and his recent remarks that “you see what’s happened in everything from Belarus to Poland to Hungary, and the rise of totalitarian regimes in the world… [Trump] embraces all the thugs in the world,” have not been well received in the country.
Poland’s leaders will hope, then, that America’s realist desire to maintain its waning strategic hold over Europe will outbalance any liberal idealist urge to export the values of the Democratic Party to the continent’s east: yet whether hard-nosed imperial realpolitik will outcompete America’s growing domestic ideological fervour will depend on the course of events in the turbulent imperial metropole, and not the empire’s eastern marches.