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The US and its european allies

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Joe Biden’s election to the US presidency raised hopes of a return to business as usual after the tumultuous Trump years. Despite this early optimism, the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and the handling of the AUKUS announcement has strained relations with European allies and served as a stark reminder that the United States will always privilege its interests over those of its friends and partners.

Here, 9DASHLINE invites a number of leading experts to explore what 2022 may have in store for US-European relations.

MENDING FENCES, BUT UNCERTAINTY PERSISTS

Amelia Hadfield, Professor and Head of the Department of Politics at the University of Surrey.

At first glance, ties are much stronger between Washington DC and European capitals. The key problem during the Trump years was the inconsistency with which the White House operated, both in terms of decision-making but also in terms of rhetoric. Trump seemed happier criticising the likes of Merkel, Macron and May than he did Putin. Since the summer, there have been two areas of concern — Afghanistan and AUKUS. In the case of the former, Biden's insistence that the US had to withdraw greatly strengthened the Taliban and accelerated its takeover. Worse still, his refusal to stay in Kabul post 31 August 2021 — a decision that European leaders tried to get him to change — has left many refugees stranded.

AUKUS is more of a French issue than necessarily a Europe-wide one. Biden has since mended relations with Macron, but the secret nature of its announcement has suggested there is an element of unpredictability within the Biden White House too. More generally, there is also the China issue — Europe has been reluctant to get too tough on Beijing, although remarks from Merkel and Macron last month appear to indicate to an extent an acknowledgement that Europe will need to get more 'skin in the game'.

On issues such as Ukraine and Iran, Biden has been working more closely with European allies. His recent calls with European leaders, sandwiched on either side of his call with Putin, are an indication that Biden will seek a joint resolution to prevent war in Ukraine — a move that would not have been possible under Trump. Finally, the US and the EU have confirmed they will begin talks early this year on strengthening collaboration around security and defence issues.

THE FISSURE WIDENS

Richard Johnson, Lecturer in US Politics at Queen Mary University of London.

The day before Joe Biden was inaugurated, his nominee for Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, underwent five hours of grilling before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Perhaps the most significant sentence uttered by Blinken was a note of agreement with the past administration. He told the senators, “let me just say that I also believe that President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China”. The Biden administration’s fundamental agreement with Donald Trump about the threat posed by China has strained the administration’s relations with some parts of Europe. It is the prism through which other foreign relations are measured.

The European Union has tended to have a more conciliatory approach with China. The new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has so far followed his predecessor Angela Merkel in refraining from blunt criticism of Beijing. When the Biden administration announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, French President Emmanuel Macron dismissed the boycott as insignificant. In contrast, the UK government has sided with the US on China. Notably, unlike other European states, the United Kingdom has announced that it will join the US in a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics. The UK’s offer of residency to refugees from Hong Kong chimes with similar measures taken in the United States. Echoing the UK’s language, Biden declared the Chinese government’s actions in Hong Kong “fundamentally undermine” the city’s autonomy and pose an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to the United States.

The formation of the AUKUS (Australia-UK-US) defence pact, widely considered an effort to curtail China’s regional ambitions, shows further joint UK-US resolve on this international challenge. The French government reacted in fury, comparing the Biden administration to Trump. While intended as an insult, it speaks to a hard truth. The US-EU fissure, which received so much comment during the Trump presidency, is growing, not receding, under Biden.

ROOM FOR COOPERATION

Anisa Heritage, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Defence and International Affairs, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

Competition with China will continue to frame US strategic choices, and by extension, direct those of its NATO allies. In early 2022, European attention will turn to the publication of Washington’s National Security and National Defense Strategies. These key strategies will inform and shape NATO’s newest Strategic Concept, which is to be unveiled at the Madrid summit in June 2022. As the next step in NATO’s evolution, it will form the basis of the organisation’s political and operational activities into the 2030s. There are differing views among NATO members about the threats and challenges China presents. There are numerous concerns: China’s growing military capabilities, its aggressive foreign policy, its domestic politics and its attempts to undermine democratic institutions in Europe. In October 2021, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg proclaimed that “China is coming closer to us [Europe]”.

The 2022 Strategic Concept will build on NATO’s Brussels summit communiqué of June 2021, which formally designated China as a systemic rival directly challenging the Alliance, the rules-based order, and global security. NATO requires a coherent plan that will enable its prioritisation and proactive management of Russian and Chinese sharp power proclivities and grey zone activities, including hybrid, asymmetric, cyber and information warfare, as well as disinformation campaigns directed towards states. Managing great power competition in the Arctic region is a likely US foreign policy priority in 2022. Russia commenced its two-year tenure as chair of the Arctic Council in December 2021; China has clearly stated strategic ambitions in the Arctic, emphasised by its self-designation as a ‘near-Arctic state’.

The US Army published its first-ever Arctic strategy in January 2021. In seeking to regain Arctic dominance, there is a strong US commitment to partner with Arctic (and NATO) allies. Renewed US engagement in the Arctic Council would be a crucial step forward. NATO is a regional alliance with a global approach. It is likely to increase practical cooperation with like-minded partners outside the Euro-Atlantic and strengthen its ties with Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand on a range of security topics. The Indo-Pacific will continue to draw significant interest and activity from individual European states and NATO in 2022.