The Biden White House is seeking to revive trust with Europe as Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits Brussels for the first time as the top U.S. diplomat.
(CN) — In his first trip to Europe as America’s top diplomat, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday called on European allies to join the Biden White House in challenging China and Russia by proving the strength of democracy.
Blinken’s trip to meet European diplomats and NATO’s leadership in Brussels was designed to shore up and revive transatlantic relations after four turbulent and difficult years of the Trump administration’s “America First” foreign policy approach.
“We’re determined to revitalize our alliances, to revitalize our partnerships, starting with NATO,” Blinken said in comments at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday.
He said the massive problems of the future – cyberspace threats, the rise of autocratic governments, climate change – cannot be solved by the U.S. alone.
“When we look at virtually all of the challenges that we face as a country and that are actually going to potentially affect the lives of our citizens, not a single one of them can be effectively dealt with by any one country acting alone, even the United States with all of the resources that we have,” he said.
The warming of transatlantic ties was showcased Monday by a coordinated effort by the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and the European Union to impose sanctions on China over its alleged widescale human rights abuses against the Uyghur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China. These are the first sanctions the EU has placed on China since the Tiananmen Square massacre 31 years ago. These new EU sanctions though were limited to four officials and one entity believed to be overseeing abuses against Uyghur Muslims.
The U.S. is accusing China of genocide against Uyghur Muslims. In a statement with Canada and the U.K., the U.S. alleged there is overwhelming evidence that China is guilty of an “extensive program of repression includes severe restrictions on religious freedoms, the use of forced labor, mass detention in internment camps, forced sterilizations, and the concerted destruction of Uyghur heritage.”
China immediately struck back. It slapped sanctions on the EU, including on several critics of the Chinese government in the European Parliament. The tit-for-tat sanctions put China-EU relations on rockier ground and come just three months after German-led talks brokered a controversial investment deal that gives EU companies more access to China.
Getting the EU to sanction China can be viewed as a victory for the U.S. in its titanic struggle to curb the rise of China, which is expected to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy in the coming years.
To counter China’s rise, Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, said the Western military alliance must not lose sight that collectively it accounts for half of the world’s wealth and half of global military might.
He said NATO will lay out a new overarching strategy at a summit later this year where the alliance will focus on expanding its security agenda, upgrading technology and infrastructure and making its militaries better equipped for the extreme conditions caused by global warming.
In this trip to Europe, the contours of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy are coming into better focus. His administration is making the protection of human rights a central difference between the U.S. and its allies and autocracies.
Blinken, a long-time U.S. diplomat with a soft-spoken and self-reflective style, makes for a sharp difference from former President Donald Trump’s tough-talking and abrasive secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and the Trump administration’s disjointed approach to human rights. Trump lavished praise on autocratic rulers around the world and mocked human rights issues at home, such as the plight of asylum seekers at the Mexican border and police brutality against Blacks.
With relief, Blinken is being welcomed by European diplomats as the kind of old-school diplomat they feel comfortable with. The Biden administration is showing willingness to consult European leaders and stand up for international treaties and institutions, such as the Paris climate agreement and the World Trade Organization, multilateral solutions that were anathema to Trump.
Recently, Blinken said the U.S. wants back onto the United Nations Human Rights Council, the same body that Trump dropped out of because, as his administration said, it was a “cesspool of political bias.” The council’s work is mired in doubts because numerous countries with bad human rights records, including Russia and China, sit on it and defend each other.
For now, the White House is seeking to win the trust of the world by becoming a standard bearer for human rights. Last week, Biden said he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “killer,” a clear reference to allegations that Putin has ordered the killings of opposition figures. Blinken’s State Department has issued a steady stream of condemnations of human rights abuses in China, Russia, Myanmar, Turkey, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Syria.
With democracy and human rights in retreat across the globe, Blinken said the U.S. and its allies must prove that democracy is the best solution.
“There is no doubt that we have been experiencing in recent years what some have called a democratic recession,” Blinken said.
“At the very same time that’s happening, we’re seeing the rise and strength of autocracies that are posing a direct challenge to democracies and saying: ‘We can deliver better for our people,’” he added. “So the main challenge we have I think is to demonstrate exactly the opposite: That democracies are more adept at delivering what people need and what they want.”
Without mentioning specifics, he acknowledged the U.S. too has been afflicted with its own internal problems and difficulties in upholding human rights.
“It’s also no secret that the United States has had its own challenges in recent years, in recent months on that score,” he said.
But Blinken said the domestic upheaval gives the U.S. a chance to emerge even stronger and more united.
“When we have a challenge, including an internal challenge, we confront it openly, transparently for the entire world to see,” he said. “We don’t try to sweep it under the rug, we don’t try to ignore it.”
He said the “process of confronting shortcomings can be painful, it can be ugly, but ultimately we emerge stronger for it.” He said the U.S. can be a powerful example of how a society deals with its social ills in a democratic fashion.
In pursuing a foreign affairs policy focused on bolstering democratic values, he suggested Biden will not use military force to build democracies, an obvious reference to the American-led downfall of regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya that failed to bring about the kind of democratic gains and stability American policymakers promised. In the past, Blinken supported those military interventions.
“I think democracy promotion has gotten arguably a bad name in recent decades because it’s been understood as something that we’ve sometimes engaged in through force,” he said. “That’s not what we’re about.”
Judy Dempsey, a senior fellow at the Brussels-based Carnegie Europe think tank, said in a note the EU should seize this opportunity to both back the Biden administration and further its own geopolitical and economic goals.
“The Europeans should emulate – indeed, capitalize on – that energy and zeal [of the Biden White House] by working to push the transatlantic relationship and other democracies to embrace an agenda that can marry values with interests. This could be a strategic first for the EU – if it chooses to seize the opportunity,” Dempsey wrote.
Still, it remains far from certain that the EU will eagerly follow the U.S. in its push against Russia and China. European leaders are deeply divided over how to deal with both superpowers and many in Europe fear being trapped on one side of this growing conflict.
One major indicator in relations between the U.S. and EU will be over a threat by the Biden administration to impose sanctions on any entity that is collaborating on a gas pipeline project between Germany and Russia, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The pipeline is nearing completion and Washington could spark a major political row with Germany, the EU’s biggest economy and most powerful member, if it stops the pipeline from delivering gas. Germany’s political and business elite are largely in favor of the pipeline.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.