PRESIDENT BIDEN made clear last week that his push to revive U.S. relations with traditional allies in Europe is not simply a matter of restoring a status quo disrupted by Donald Trump. “We are,” he said in an address to the Munich Security Conference, “in the midst of fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world,” a contest between democracy and autocracy. The “galvanizing mission” of the democracies, he argued, must be to prevail in this struggle with Russia, China and other dictatorships. That will require a close partnership.
As Mr. Biden tacitly recognized, constructing the transatlantic democratic coalition may not be easy. The European Union recently concluded a major trade deal with China despite hints from the incoming Biden administration that it hold off. France is among several governments pushing for detente rather than further confrontation with the regime of Vladimir Putin. Though they have welcomed Mr. Biden’s declaration that his administration is “determined to reengage with Europe,” many Europeans clearly have doubts about whether Mr. Trump’s “America First” policies are gone for good.
In the end, Mr. Putin and Chinese ruler Xi Jinping may advance Mr. Biden’s cause. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov went out of his way to rebuff and humiliate the European Union’s foreign policy chief when the E.U. official visited Moscow this month. And intense criticism of the E.U.-China deal in light of Beijing’s recent crackdowns on Hong Kong and the Uighur minority might have prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s declaration in Munich that “as transatlantic partners and democracies, we must do something to counter” China’s “global clout.”
For now, the Biden administration deserves credit for matching its rhetoric with some adept opening moves with the Europeans. Last week, the administration dropped the Trump administration’s self-defeating attempt to unilaterally force the restoration of U.N. sanctions on Iran — a gambit rejected by Britain, France and all but one other member of the Security Council. Secretary of State Antony Blinken then accepted an E.U. offer to convene discussions on restoring the 2015 international deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program, which the Trump administration repudiated. The twin actions had the effect of putting Iran on the defensive; it responded by backing away from a threat to end cooperation with U.N. nuclear inspectors.
The State Department also quietly passed last week on applying sanctions to additional companies building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany, the subject of considerable contention between the Trump administration and Berlin. Mr. Biden has rightly called the pipeline a “bad deal” because of its potential for increasing Russian leverage over Europe and for weakening Ukraine, which currently benefits from the transit of Russian gas across its territory. But trying to kill the project when it is 90 percent complete risks rupturing relations with Europe’s most powerful nation, which must be at the center of any democratic alliance to combat autocracy. Mr. Blinken is reportedly looking for ways to mitigate the pipeline problem, perhaps through guarantees to Ukraine. That is an approach that rightly keeps the new administration focused on the bigger challenge Mr. Biden described.