The Old American Promise of Protection Is a Dangerous Illusion

Joe Biden is coming to Europe to “bring together the world’s democracies.” The temptation for Europe to rely on the old American promise of protection is great. But that would be a dangerous illusion. Germany, especially, has a lot of catching up to do.

He is coming to Europe to “bring together the world’s democracies,” Joe Biden wrote in The Washington Post shortly before his first international trip, which takes him to Great Britain on Wednesday and then to Brussels and Geneva. And the U.S. president explained that he was also coming to “demonstrat[e] the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age.”

The West has long waited for a U.S. president to don the cloak of democratic world leadership so self-assuredly, as Biden is now doing. Because, unlike Donald Trump, Biden really believes that the U.S. has a mission in the world that goes beyond a base national self-interest. Because he, like other presidents before him, knows that the prospects of liberty and democracy are bleak if the U.S. does not understand itself to be the anchor and defender of these values, and if the U.S. does not defend the scope of liberty against attacks from autocrats and dictators.

Biden is deeply rooted in trans-Atlantic relations. If he now places America back at the center, in the role that it has taken in Europe in past decades, it will also pose a dangerous temptation for the old continent. Namely, to settle comfortably into the American promise of protection and to dream of the good old days.

But that would be a dangerous illusion. With China, the West now has a dangerous competitor that is making an aggressive appearance on the world stage much earlier than many expected. And the increasing cooperation between Moscow and Beijing doesn’t worry only NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

To confront these challenges, the West needs not only a self-assured leader, but also a Europe that develops a strategic culture robust enough that it can operate on equal footing with Washington.

Unfortunately, there is still little sign of that in Germany, Europe’s leading power, which still sees foreign policy above all as international economic policy, as the geopolitical disaster of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline eloquently attests.

America is back as a world leader; that is the good news. Now Europe needs to become a partner in foreign and security policy that has more to offer than it has in the past. Especially when it comes to defending the West and its values against the new challenges.

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