After the Trump trauma, Europe will welcome Biden’s warm words, but tough topics remain, from China and Russia to trade disputes, Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy and transitions to carbon-neutral economies.
Four years ago, European leaders were traumatized by President Donald J. Trump, who cheered Brexit and eviscerated NATO, declaring the alliance “obsolete,” calling member countries deadbeats and at first refusing to explicitly endorse NATO’s bedrock mutual defense principle.
As they prepare to welcome President Biden, the simple fact that he regards Europe as an ally and NATO as a vital element of Western security is almost a revelation. Yet the wrenching experience of the last presidential administration has left scars that some experts say will not soon heal.
“Don’t underestimate the Trump years as a shock to the E.U.,” said Rosa Balfour, the director of Carnegie Europe. “There is the shadow of his return and the E.U. will be left in the cold again. So the E.U. is more cautious in embracing U.S. demands.”
And there are serious issues to discuss, ranging from the Afghanistan pullout to military spending, Russia and China, from trade disputes and tariff issues to climate and vaccine diplomacy.
Yet as much as the Europeans appreciate Mr. Biden’s vows of constancy and affection, they have just witnessed how 75 years of American foreign policy can vanish overnight with a change in the presidency.
And they fear that it can happen again — that America has changed, and that Mr. Biden is “an intermezzo” between more populist, nationalist presidents, said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, vice president of the German Marshall Fund.
They know that Mr. Biden’s policies will have price tags discreetly attached. They are not sure, for example, how his commitment to a “foreign policy for the middle class” differs from Mr. Trump’s “America first.”
They also know that the electoral clock is ticking, with Germany set to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel in September, next May’s French presidential election and the American midterms, only 17 months away, which could limit Mr. Biden’s room to maneuver.
Still, Mr. Biden’s visits to NATO on June 14 and then the European Union for brief summits, following his attendance at the Group of 7 in Britain, will be more than symbolic. The meetings are synchronized so that he can arrive in Geneva on June 16 with allied consultation and support for his first meeting as president with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
“The hopeful, optimistic view is that Biden is kicking off a new relationship, showing faith in Brussels and NATO, saying the right words and kicking off the key strategic process” of renovating the alliance for the next decade, said Jana Puglierin, Berlin director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But Biden also wants to see bang for the buck, and we need to show tangible results. This is not unconditional love, but friends with benefits.”
François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst, sees only positives from the Biden trip.
“The U.S. is back, Biden’s back, there’s nothing cynical here,” said Mr. Heisbourg, a special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “Biden has some strong views, and he is determined to implement them. International affairs are not his priority, but his basic positioning is, ‘Let’s be friends again, to reestablish comity and civility with allies.’”
But eventually, Mr. Heisbourg said, “policy reviews have to become policy.”
Ivo H. Daalder, who was U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Barack Obama, sees the whole trip as “part of ‘We’re back,’ and important to show that alliances and partners matter, that we want to work with other countries and be nice to our friends. Even the G-7 will be like that.”
But he and others note that Mr. Biden has not yet named ambassadors to either NATO or the European Union — or to most European countries, for that matter — let alone had them confirmed. For now, officials insist, that absence is not vital, and many of the most likely candidates are well-known.
At some point, Mr. Daalder said, allies need ambassadors whom they know can get on the phone immediately with the secretaries of state and defense and, if necessary, Mr. Biden himself.
The NATO summit meeting of 30 leaders will be short, with one 2.5-hour session after an opening ceremony, which would leave just five minutes for each leader to speak.
The leaders will agree on a communiqué now being negotiated, discuss the Afghanistan withdrawal and sign off on an important study, to last a year, on how to remodel NATO’s strategic concept to meet new challenges in cyberwarfare, artificial intelligence, antimissile defense, disinformation, “emerging disruptive technologies” and numerous other issues.
In 2010, when the strategic concept was last revised, NATO assumed that Russia could be a partner and China was barely mentioned. The new one will begin with very different assumptions.
Still, NATO officials and ambassadors say, there is much to discuss down the road, questions like how much and where a regional trans-Atlantic alliance should try to counter China, or deciding what capabilities NATO needs and how many of them should come from common funding or remain the responsibility of member countries.
How to adapt to the European Union’s still vague desire for “strategic autonomy,” while encouraging European military spending and efficiency and avoiding duplication with NATO, are other concerns. So is the question of how to make NATO a more politically savvy institution, as President Emmanuel Macron of France has demanded, perhaps by establishing new meetings of key officials of member states, like national security advisers and political directors.
More quietly, leaders will begin to talk in bilateral sessions about replacing the current NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, whose term was extended for two years to keep matters calm during the Trump presidency. His term ends in September 2022.
The other main issues for this brief NATO summit meeting will be topical — how to manage Afghanistan both during and after withdrawal, Mr. Putin’s Russia, Xi Jinping’s China and Aleksandr G. Lukashenko’s Belarus.
Anyone interested in trains running on time will find the NATO summit compelling, said one NATO-country ambassador. Those who are more interested in trains that collide will be disappointed.
The same will be true of Mr. Biden’s meeting the next day, June 15, which is grandly called a summit with the European Union. Mr. Biden is scheduled to meet with two of the European Union’s presidents, Charles Michel of the European Council, who represents the leaders of the 27-member states, and Ursula von der Leyen, who runs the European Commission, the bloc’s powerful bureaucracy.
Mr. Biden will have met 21 of the 27 E.U. leaders the previous day at NATO, since there is considerable overlap in the two organizations. Key exceptions are Turkey, a NATO member that is troublesome in its effort to balance relations with Russia and its enmity toward Greece, and Cyprus, an E.U. member that blocks most coordination with NATO because of its enmity toward Turkey.
The bloc has a wide range of issues to discuss, including tariff and trade disputes stemming from Airbus and Boeing, and steel and aluminum; and new issues like how to enforce a new a minimum global corporate tax rate under an important agreement reached Saturday by the Group of 7 finance ministers.
Other issues include data transfer; military spending and procurement; military mobility; transition to a carbon-neutral economy, including carbon pricing; how to regulate global technology giants and social media companies; how to reform key multilateral institutions like the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization; and, of course, how best to deal with a rising China and an aggressive Russia.
There is wariness, too, and not just about the possibility that another Trump-like president could follow Mr. Biden. Despite warm words of consultation, German officials in particular believe that Mr. Biden’s decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11 was made unilaterally in the old pattern, with Washington deciding and the allies following along, Ms. Puglierin said.
Similarly, European leaders were angered and embarrassed by Mr. Biden’s decision to support the waiver of intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines. That move, after mounting domestic criticism, was done without warning to allies, let alone consultation.
Europeans do not see China as the peer rival that Washington does and remain more dependent than the United States on both China and Russia for trade and energy. And some worry that Mr. Biden’s effort to define the world as a competition between democracy and authoritarianism is too black-and-white.
“Touching base with allies before the Putin summit is important and goes beyond symbolism,” said Nathalie Tocci, the director of Italy’s International Affairs Institute. “But Europeans are deluding themselves that things can go back the way they were.”
Europeans need to step up, she said, and work with Mr. Biden to get agreements on key issues like climate, vaccines and trade “that can create a Western critical mass that spills into a broader, global multilateral agreement.”
That is the best way, she said, to show that “democracy delivers.”