(CN) — The election of Joe Biden to the White House is bringing a wave of relief to a Europe eager to see an end to the disorienting and disruptive era of Donald Trump and marks a potential shift away from Trump’s inward-looking “America First” stance on the world stage.
After former Vice President Biden was declared the winner on Saturday, congratulations poured in from European Union and world leaders eager for the United States to return to its traditional leadership role. Biden’s victory was cheered around the globe as a strike against anti-democratic authoritarians everywhere.
“It was a very good weekend,” said Sigge Lindhe, a Swedish technology consultant and author, in a telephone interview. “Trump was a big step backwards for America. He demonized science, the freedom of the media. These are the cornerstones of the human race.”
“The results really matter both for the EU, where I live now, and Russia, where I am from,” said Alexander Kozlov, a Russian native and computer programmer who’s called Berlin home for nearly a decade.
The silence coming from certain world capitals also was telling. The leaders of China, Russia, Brazil, Mexico and Hungary were among the few to not congratulate Biden and his running mate, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris. Some of them were likely wary of upsetting Trump because he has not conceded the election to Biden. Also, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro are big fans of Trump’s far-right nationalist rhetoric.
On foreign policy, the Biden administration is expected to both revert U.S. policy more to where it was during the Obama White House but also not diverge that much in key areas from where Trump has taken the U.S., such as aggressively confronting China, withdrawing from the Middle East, demanding the EU spend more on NATO defense and resisting free-trade deals.
Still, in Europe the relief is immense even though there is a growing sense an inexorable gap is opening up in the transatlantic alliance as the U.S. and EU drift apart politically because American interests are focused ever more squarely on Asia and its rivalry with China.
“We won’t pick things up where we left off in 2016 when we left our common ground behind because the world has changed, the U.S. has changed and Europe has changed,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, according to a translation provided by Deutsche Welle, a German broadcaster.
But she was optimistic. “With Biden in the White House, the tone and the way we approach each other will be different, more positive, more constructive,” Von der Leyen said. “We’ll be able to resume a dialogue, communicate, listen to each other and find common solutions.”
Biden’s worldview aligns much more readily with that of the EU because he supports international institutions and advocates cooperation to solve global problems, foremost among them global warming. He has promised to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and proposes massive spending on renewable energy.
“The European Union has found for the last four years that the Trump administration has undermined multilateralism and Biden is a supporter of multilateralism,” said Michael Leigh, the academic director of European public policy at Johns Hopkins University’s campus in Bologna, Italy, in a telephone interview.
He called the 27-member EU bloc “multilateral by definition” and “probably the strongest multilateral organization in the world.”
As such, he said the EU strongly believes in supporting other multilateral organizations such as the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump pulled out of the United Nations’ health agency, accusing it of being corrupted by China, and his administration has blocked the workings of the WTO. Biden has said he will rejoin the WHO.
“For the European Union there will be a leader in Washington who sympathizes with this question, the belief that global challenges are so great today that only through multilateralism can you find a solution,” Leigh said.
Another point of agreement with the EU may be on Iran. Calling it the “worst deal ever negotiated,” Trump pulled out of an agreement Obama signed to allow an easing of sanctions on Iran if it disbanded its uranium enrichment program and committed to not building nuclear weapons.
Trump’s move was part of a broader bellicose approach to Iran favored by Saudi Arabia and Israel, whose leaders gave their full-throated support to Trump. Biden has said he wants to use diplomacy to deal with Iran and favors reviving the nuclear deal with Iran. The EU, and the United Kingdom, back the Iran nuclear deal.
During his tenure, Trump also took aim at arms control treaties. He withdrew the U.S. from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Treaty, which required the U.S. and Russia to destroy their ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles. Trump accused Russia of violating the treaty. He also withdrew from the Open Skies Treaty, an accord allowing signatories to the treaty to monitor military activities in other territories.
Leigh said Biden may seek to renew a push for arms control and that too would be welcomed in Europe. “Arms control is certainly something which is baked in the Europeans’ DNA,” he said.
On NATO, the military arrangement so crucial to Europe’s sense of security, Biden and European leaders are expected to show much more unity. In recent years, the alliance seemed at danger of imploding as Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron criticized NATO’s purpose and questioned its core tenet of collective defense. Macron called NATO “brain dead” and Trump slammed Europeans for being freeloaders unwilling to spend 2% of their gross domestic product on defense, a target set for NATO members.
“On NATO, there would be a political change, a great willingness to engage, but the demand that Europeans do more for themselves has been there,” Leigh said about the U.S. telling Europeans to spend more on defense. “It was there in the Obama administration and in the Trump administration and it would be there again in a Biden administration. So, that won’t go away.”
In addition, Biden will likely push for the EU to get more involved in settling disputes that affect it, such as the civil war in Libya. Leigh said the EU can no longer “expect Washington always come and pull its chestnuts from the fire.”
On another level for Europe, Trump’s defeat helps swing the pendulum just a bit in the direction of those trying to fight off an upsurge in right-wing nationalism and anti-EU sentiment building across Europe. This anti-EU sentiment has found expression with the U.K’s departure from the EU with Brexit, the rise of anti-immigrant far-right political parties in Germany, Italy and France and the government takeover by nationalist parties in Poland and Hungary.
“There is no doubt extremist Eurosceptic leaders in Europe have been either directly supported by Trump or they themselves have been inspired by Trump,” Leigh said. “They will have a setback politically and psychologically.”
Biden’s victory can also be seen as a setback for Russia, which has reveled in American domestic instability and engaged in military adventurism in the Middle East, encouraged to do so after Trump withdrew troops from Syria and left a vacuum in the Middle East.
Trump’s treatment of Russia was erratic. While his administration imposed sanctions and talked tough against Russia, Trump also lavished praise on Putin and did not push back hard against Russia in Syria, on human rights abuses, on allegations that Russia paid bounties for the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and he vehemently disputed findings that Russia meddled on his behalf in the 2016 elections.
“A Biden administration would be more critical of Russia than Trump has been,” Leigh said.
In the Middle East, a Biden administration may not be all that different from the Trump White House, said Ian Bremmer, a political scientist and founder of the Eurasia Group political risk firm.
“Generally speaking, I don’t see massive changes around U.S. policy towards the Middle East,” Bremmer said on a recent briefing call with reporters.
Bremmer said Biden accepted the decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and welcomed the agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan to normalize ties. Both the embassy move and the normalization of ties with Muslim nations are seen as major setbacks for the Palestinian drive to stop Israeli encroachment on their territories and create an independent state.
“The big difference between Biden and Trump on the Middle East,” Bremmer said, “is the Iranian nuclear deal.”
“Clearly, the Iranians want Trump out because they think the sanctions regime against them will be less onerous and their economy is in freefall for many reasons, only one of which is the United States,” he said.
But he was doubtful that Iran can be persuaded to enter another nuclear deal any time soon, not least because there will be presidential elections in Iran in 2021 and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, will not want to hand the moderates a win before the elections. Also, Iran may not see many advantages to signing a new deal because it has already received billions of dollars in unfrozen assets after it signed up to Obama’s deal.
After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the U.S. froze billions of dollars of Iranian funds.
He said rejoining the nuclear deal does not get “them more unfrozen assets.” Also, he said Iran was disappointed by a lack of investment by multinational companies in Iran even after the deal was signed.
Bremmer added that he believes Biden will follow Trump in reducing the American military presence in the Middle East.
“Biden’s interest in doing less in the Middle East is going to be significant,” he said.
On China, Biden is expected to largely carry on where Trump leaves off and continue to press hard against China’s ambitions. Trump waged a trade war against China and Biden is expected to continue that. He’s also expected to carry on challenging China over its business practices and attacking its technology giants, most notably Huawei, as untrustworthy agents of the Chinese Communist Party. Trump has persuaded many in Europe and elsewhere to stop using Huawei’s 5G technology, the next generation of the internet, because of fears its use will give China too much power over critical infrastructure.
“On technology, I think Trump and Biden are quite aligned in terms of their orientation toward China,” Bremmer said. “One of Trump’s most significant foreign policy successes has been making 5G into a strategic American asset, one that the Chinese are in a zero-sum match with the Americans on and that American allies need to be aligned with the U.S. and not the Chinese on it.”
On trade, Biden and Trump may not be so different either.
“I think the reality is that the 2016 presidential election fundamentally altered the political path of trade in the U.S. and that you’re not likely to see large amounts of trade liberalization under a new president,” said Jon Lieber, an economist with the Eurasia Group, on the briefing call. “The trade deals just aren’t there for the taking anymore.”
Instead, he thinks the U.S. may step up its trade enforcement with new tariffs and antidumping measures.
Leigh, too, sees little chance that the U.S. and EU will agree to a new trade agreement. Since the 1990s, the EU and U.S. have talked about liberalizing trade between these two major economies. Talks intensified under Obama as the two sides tried to hammer out the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, billed as the largest bilateral trade agreement ever negotiated. But those talks stalled under Trump.
“It was said initially that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership could be negotiated on one tank of gas before the end of the Obama administration,” Leigh said. “Well, this proved to be impossible.”
Now, with Biden in the White House, the chances of such a trade agreement are slim, he said.
“Democrats, with labor unions behind them, have traditionally been more protectionist,” he said. “I don’t think Europeans will think this very likely although they will certainly wish to engage and try to achieve a great deal.”
Courthouse News reporters Cain Burdeau and Molly Quell are based in the European Union.