Joe Biden, the United States and Europe

We need to reinvent the trans-Atlantic space for democracies, crucial for peace and stability in the times ahead.

The election of Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. as president of the United States has stirred growing expectations for strengthening the Atlantic alliance. For many Europeans, Biden’s election – he will be the oldest president in U.S. history when he takes office on Jan. 20 – is a golden opportunity that cannot be wasted. Others are not hiding their excitement. What will the short-term challenges be? How will trans-Atlantic relations evolve? There is certainly a considerable to-do list.

I would start by pointing out that the incumbent president was not exclusively responsible for any distance that developed between the two sides of the Atlantic. I would also mention that the U.S. had already lost some contact with Europe in the post-Cold War transition that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union. In turn, the events of 9/11 caused the U.S. to turn inward. In my opinion, the vision and idea of shared success faded on both sides of the Atlantic, additionally due to the multidimensional effects of globalization and, perhaps more than anything, America’s modified strategic focus for the Asia-Pacific region.

However, today we are already experiencing the beginning of a new international cycle defined by the rise of China, a reality that poses considerable challenges to the body of democratic countries. Indeed, the formidable security dilemma resulting from China’s expansion on multiple levels is currently highlighting the importance of the trans-Atlantic community. Therein lies the relevance of Thucydides’ trap, a scenario that precisely sets out the serious problem associated with the emergence of a power that questions international consensus and, in this case, the very presuppositions of open societies and freedom. Now, this change is not merely economic, but structural. We, therefore, have before us all the ingredients for hegemonic transition. We know that hegemonic wars occurred in 12 of the 16 historical scenarios analyzed in an important study by professor Graham Allison of Harvard University, in other words, 75% of the time! There is some food for thought.

On another level, we must not forget that a generational transition also took place. The American generation that consistently led and supported NATO’s efforts no longer exists or is retired. We also cannot lose sight of mainly unfavorable congressional opinions on the cost of European defense. (The U.S. continues to provide for nearly 70% of NATO’s total effort.) In this respect, it is fundamental to keep in mind the sensitivity of all the American administrations since Bill Clinton, that without exception invariably sing the same tune in Washington: Increase Europe’s contribution.

Thus, we have to meet the demands resulting from greater burden sharing, that is to say, greater cost sharing. On my end, as a Portuguese and European citizen with an Atlantic perspective, this seems fundamental, necessary and, above all, fair to me. We know that American contributors will not accept it otherwise, which is why things will not change on this specific issue in Biden’s future administration. I’m referring here to the need for a higher level of complementary behavior within what continues to be the most important allied axis in the international system. I would even say that European NATO members, as well as the entire European Union, must give a positive signal to the future U.S. administration, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in fact, took upon herself to emphasize recently. Thus, we need to reinvent the trans-Atlantic space for democracies, which is crucial for peace and stability in the times ahead.

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