Transatlantic Disagreements Make the World Safer
In April 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beijing, where he spent six hours meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and discussing Europe, Russia, and Taiwan. Then, on the flight home, Macron declared that Europe should strive for “strategic autonomy” from the United States. The continent, he said, should not “take our cue from the U.S. agenda” and should not be “caught up in crises that are not ours.” Macron even argued that European countries should reduce their dependence on the U.S. dollar so as not to become mere “vassals” of Washington.
Macron’s comments were music to Beijing’s ears, but they provoked a furious backlash in the United States. Mike Gallagher, the Republican who chairs the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, deemed the comments “embarrassing” and “disgraceful.” Ian Bremmer, the founder of the Eurasia Group, wrote that Macron’s remarks to reporters reflected “arrogance and poor judgment.” In a video, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggested that the United States should respond by cutting aid to Europe. The continent “has depended heavily on the United States for over 70 years,” he said. “If they’re going to break off on their own and follow Macron’s lead, that’s going to save us a lot of money.”
This anger toward Macron might seem reasonable. The United States is locked in an increasingly intense competition with China, and it fears that Europe, its biggest ally, will be an unreliable partner. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has also pushed for a cozy relationship with China, a key business partner for Berlin. “Of all the countries in the world, Germany—which had such a painful experience of division during the Cold War—has no interest in seeing new blocs emerge in the world,” he wrote in an op-ed for Politico in November 2022. Officials in Paris and Berlin appear to speak for ordinary Europeans. According to a poll by the European Council of Foreign Relations, a majority of European residents would prefer to remain neutral in a hypothetical U.S. war with China over Taiwan.
Transatlantic divisions are certainly real. But American policymakers need not worry too much. In fact, they might learn to appreciate these differences. Anyone who wants global security certainly should. A diversity of perspectives acts as a check on bad American ideas, blocking U.S. policies that would have dangerous consequences for both the United States and the world. European independence moderates China’s behavior as well, especially when it comes to Russia and Ukraine. And at least within the West, no one should fear Europe’s autonomy. Instead, it is an inevitable byproduct of something the United States has long demanded: greater European defense spending.
Transatlantic differences, of course, are not always a plus. Europe has its own history of biases and blunders and could impede wise global initiatives. Its opposition to U.S. policies can certainly inconvenience American policymakers. But on the whole, lively debate between the United States and Europe, even sharp disagreement, tends to produce better outcomes and creates a world that is more secure and prosperous.
SEPARATION OF POWERS
For decades, allied opinion has served as a useful barometer of the wisdom of U.S. policies. Many of Washington’s allies opposed the wars in Iraq and Vietnam, for example, and both turned out to be disasters. By contrast, in 1991, American partners backed the Gulf War, which the United States-led coalition won in a rapid victory. Allies also joined the United States in providing large quantities of support to Ukraine, which has helped counter Russia’s aggression.
Sometimes, as Iraq and Vietnam show, allied warnings fail to prevent the United States from careening over a cliff. But other times, allies can make a difference. Consider, for example, the Korean War—the last time the United States directly fought China. In the fall of 1950, U.S. and allied troops seemed on the verge of victory as they closed in on the Yalu River, which sits on the Chinese–North Korean border. But Beijing entered the war in October and triggered one of the gravest battlefield defeats in U.S. history as Communist forces pushed allied troops down to the midpoint of the Korean Peninsula. In response, the United States considered risky escalatory actions. The administration of U.S. President Harry Truman backed the “hot pursuit” of Chinese aircraft across the Yalu into China, which would have extended the conflict onto Chinese territory. The U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted to institute a naval blockade of China and empower Chinese Nationalist forces in Taiwan to invade the mainland. And General Douglas MacArthur, the head of UN forces in Korea, pushed to use nuclear weapons. MacArthur even proposed laying a belt of radioactive cobalt across the neck of the Korean Peninsula, which he claimed would win the war in ten days.
If Americans do not want European dependence, they will have to accept European independence.
Thankfully, U.S. allies restrained Washington. In 1951, the United Kingdom described the United States’ escalatory proposals as risking “annihilation without representation.” In the same year, British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin told the Indian government that “the United States is still a young country” prone “to take unreflecting plunges” and that London “had made it our business to try to restrain them.” The French and Dutch governments coordinated with London to press for U.S. caution. The Nation described “a rebellion of free Europe against the kind of leadership America was giving to the West on the Korean issue.” The warnings got through. In his memoirs, Truman wrote that “without exception,” Washington’s allies “indicated strong opposition” to hot pursuit, and he dropped the idea. In June 1953, the State Department considered the use of atomic weapons in Korea but concluded in a report that the United States “would be faced with choosing directly between Allied and neutral support and the pursuit of the proposed course of action.” Less than two months later, the war ended with an armistice.
Today, Europe appears to again be tempering Washington’s excesses with China. As U.S. president, Donald Trump embraced the idea of “decoupling” the United States from China, or systematically severing economic relations. When he first took office, U.S. President Joe Biden largely continued his predecessor’s trade policies, flirting with what one analyst called “an aggressive, full-spectrum face-off with Beijing.” Such a combative stance would be dangerous, slowing global economic growth while bringing the world’s two most powerful countries into an even more tense relationship. As a result, Europe balked. Instead, the continent pushed for the idea of “de-risking,” or cutting only a handful of Chinese industries from Western supply chains instead of decoupling. Eventually, the Biden administration also embraced de-risking, aligning the U.S. and European positions.
European checks on U.S.-Chinese tensions could prove especially useful if a crisis erupts over Taiwan. Biden has signaled that the United States would send American forces to defend the island if it were attacked by China, creating a war between the world’s two leading powers. Yet European states, along with U.S. allies in the Pacific, might be able to prevent or control such a conflict. Europe would certainly have an interest in stopping or limiting a war over Taiwan. The EU is China’s biggest export market, and Beijing could be willing to restrain itself in response to the bloc’s demands.
Transatlantic disagreements over China are not just healthy because they restrain Washington; they are also healthy because they restrain Beijing. China is desperate to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States to prevent a united Western front from opposing its global plans, and so it can access European technology and markets. As a result, Beijing is trying hard to woo the Europeans. Such a split, of course, is the United States’ greatest fear—and the reason it reacts so strongly to any hint of dissent from the EU. But unless Europe actually leaves its fold, Washington and the world may benefit from Beijing’s efforts. The desire to win European hearts and minds has, for example, encouraged China to deter Russia from using nuclear weapons in Ukraine. A senior adviser to the Chinese government told the Financial Times in July that stopping Putin from using such weapons was a central part of Beijing’s campaign to repair ties with the continent.
China knows that the Europeans see Russia as a critical threat, so Beijing has generally avoided aligning itself too closely with Moscow’s war. Xi has asserted that Beijing and Moscow have a “no limits” partnership, but Fu Cong, China’s ambassador to the EU, told The New York Times in April that “‘no-limit’ is nothing but rhetoric.” Fu also declared that China did not recognize Moscow’s annexation of Ukrainian territory. And in a June interview with Al Jazeera, Fu said that Beijing might even back Ukraine’s goal of retaking all its territory, including Crimea. “I don’t see why not,” he told reporters. “We respect the territorial integrity of all countries.” Fu packaged these remarks with calls for Europe to move away from the United States. As he told the Times, Europe should develop “strategic autonomy” from Washington.
Fu’s comments may also be “just rhetoric” that obscures China’s diplomatic support for Russia’s invasion. But European opinion is a powerful motive for Beijing’s restraint. Without the allure of European friendship, Beijing would have little to lose by supplying Moscow with weapons or forging a formal geopolitical alliance with its northern neighbor. In other words, if Europe moved in lockstep with the United States, China might move in lockstep with Russia.
The U.S.-EU relationship can survive the occasional quarrel.
In fact, increased European autonomy is exactly what the United States has long demanded. Successive U.S. presidents of both parties, including Biden, have urged Europe to boost military spending and assume more responsibility for its own security so that Washington can train more attention elsewhere. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, European countries boosted their defense expenditures, and European financial commitments to Kyiv are now twice as large as U.S. commitments. This uptick in spending has lessened Washington’s burden, and U.S. leaders must recognize that Europe’s increased capabilities are naturally going to give the continent a degree of autonomy. If Americans do not want European dependence, they will have to accept European independence, and that means understanding that Europe will sometimes follow its own path.
For Washington, these resulting disputes will sometimes be uncomfortable. The United States will have to get used to sporadic pro-China comments from European leaders, chummy EU trips to Beijing, and squabbles over trade policy. But at the end of the day, Washington should not panic. According to surveys by the Pew Research Center in 2022 and 2023, European views of the United States are favorable and trending upward while European views of China are unfavorable and trending downward. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine consolidated NATO and spurred a sense of organizational mission. And ultimately, Europe usually ends up broadly aligning itself with Washington’s policies toward Beijing. In 2022, for instance, the European Commission unveiled a ban on products made by forced labor—a move clearly targeted at Beijing’s decision to put millions of Uyghurs into labor camps, and one that matched a similar U.S. ban. In 2021, Taiwan opened a representative office in the Lithuanian capital, prompting China to cut trade to Lithuania. The United States responded by giving Lithuania a $600 million export credit, and the EU enacted anti-coercion measures to help its members withstand Chinese pressure.
The U.S.-EU relationship can survive the occasional quarrel. The disagreements are, in fact, positive: they restrain Washington’s most dangerous impulses, deter China from fully siding with Russia, and indicate that Europe is a more capable power and partner for Washington. Divisions serve, in other words, as a useful guardrail on U.S. and Chinese behavior. As U.S. President Barack Obama put it in 2016, “Multilateralism regulates hubris.”