As a European I am delighted with the election of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States of America, a choice which was based on a repairing the soul of America, with the return of decency, empathy, science, and truth.

With this comes the return to responsible leadership, the rule of law, independence of the institutions and a multilateral approach in issues such as the corona pandemic, climate change, nuclear threats, terrorism and inequality.

But today, despite all the applause, all what we can conclude that for the moment the election of Joe Biden has paused America’s downward spiral with the polarization and corrupting of government institution towards authoritarianism.

Trumpism wasn’t defeated and from an European perspective someone like Trump is just one more illustration as Zeynep Tufekcl writes in “America’s Next Authoritarian Will Be Much More Competent” of the populists (Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey) on the right who have risen to power around the world.

On the peripheral of this disturbing European political spectrum there are national populist politicians like Geert Wilders, Thierry Baudet in The Netherlands, Marie Le Pen in France, Mateo Salvini in Italy and Nigel Farage in the UK, but their influence and shelf life is limited.

All these populists, left- or right-wing require all-believing stooges with little intellect to follow them, unable to understand the merits and consequences of their ideas or policies. They need the issues to be simplified and one single adversary, the elites.  Facts & truth are the biggest casualties of national populists as they exploit the underbelly of society with their slogans without having solutions for the serious problems of today and tomorrow.

Add to this scenery the positions taken by Republicans in Congress during the last four years and during the transition of power, which cowardly behaviour is altogether not very comforting for Europe and an indication for the things to come..

Although the original intention of preferring to return to the past when everything was better is understandable, but nothing ever returns to the way it was before, and as Heraclitus noted “Nothing endures but change,” as change is the only constant in life.

All we can hope for now is that with Joe Biden the country can rediscover, reinvent and reposition itself, correct the imbalances and make the massive investments in human capital, infrastructure and good governance that are long overdue.

But the divisions in society still exist and although encouraged by Trump this undermining of democracy and democratic institutions started long before Trump who is only the result, not the cause of the present polarization.

All of this will not be undone by a new tone and direction by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the short time they are given.

Fact is the fabric of US society has been changed since the early 1990’s and after years the polarization and tribal scorched-earth tactics in Congress under Newt Gingrich resulting in a climate in which consensus was made most challenging. This trend has continued during the Obama and Trump years under the Leadership of Leader McConnell, our modern day Franz von Papen and has led to a dysfunctional Congress which has grinded the Government almost to a halt.

The gridlock that is paralyzing Washington today, influenced by money and influence which has a long and sordid history in American politics and is actually a sign of total human failure. A return to centrist positions and balanced budgets is crucial, whereby those who are elected on the right and on the left can as easily correct the dysfunction just as they created it.

Today there is no real clear majority in the US Senate for either party and Trumpism, which the sociologist Jeff Goodwin described as a “contradictory, unstable amalgam” will be with us for some time.

Reason for great concern is how spineless politicians in the Republican party, some  without any level of human integrity, devoid of self-respect and without moral compass have been retreating from upholding democratic norms and practices. Without being able to recognize their own malevolence, their kind of  rhetoric testifies to the rising authoritarianism in the party.

The differences in the electorate and Congress are thin and this issue will be visited again in 2024 when Trump or likely a more intelligent and cunning politician will make full use of this part of the electorate which has an authoritarian predisposition as John W. Dean and Bob Altemeyer have documented in their book “Authoritarian Nightmare.”.

From a European perspective the last four years have been most destructive. America’s friends in Europe and elsewhere in the world have been insulted, multilateral alliances undermined and the choice was made for confrontation over cooperation. Sanctions, embargoes and boycotts aimed at China, Iran and Europe have been globally divisive and the return of theocracies, the return of authoritarian systems have been stimulated by these actions.

The election of Joe Biden, for Europe a known quality with preferences for strong alliances and economic integration is reason for some confidence and offers an opportunity to work on mutual understanding between the US and EU, but given the way our world has changed it’s a romantic illusion to think that the Transatlantic unity will be fully restored.

The tone and atmosphere will be more civilized, there will be more exchange of information and coordination, but the last 20 years have shown the Transatlantic divide did not start with Trump and the EU should have recognized in 2003 the changing winds of our times. The erosion in the Transatlantic relationship started when George W Bush pivoted away from Western Europe towards the Middle East and to New Europe due to the criticisms on Bush43 ill-advised adventure in Iraq.

President G.W. Bush his assault on the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court in The Hague added insult to injury and so did the rejection of treaty based responses to climate change (Kyoto), withdrawal from the ABM treaty by the US together with the unconditional US support for Israel.

In doing so the Bush administration squandered away US moral authority and global leadership with Iraq, Guantanamo and by employing rendition and torture methods. All of this influenced and increased the Transatlantic divisions and has led to the decline of  US hegemony, which was further influenced by the rise of China.

But fact is the EU-US relationship was never stable and over time there have been many disagreements since the 1950’s when Britain and France had the foresight to develop against the wishes the US their own nuclear weapons, with France leaving NATO military command in 1966 to return in 2009 and West Germany seeking détente with East Germany in the 1970’s, just as events in the Middle East (Iraq, Iran, Israel) have sparked divisions.

Despite these differences the Alliance survived the serious disagreements as a result of mutual respects and trust of the Allies.

Although Barack Obama was and is popular with the general public in Europe and was recognized as an intelligent, erudite and emphatic President who understood the limits of American power, his relationship with Europe fermented immediately. His administration “pivoted” from Europe to Asia, a step away from old European alliances to refocus on Asia and pursued his “reset” with Russia, while at the same time cancelling to build US Missile defense systems in new Europe. But with Ukraine and Iran he knew to find Europe when he needed our help.

Not the moves from a master tactician and neither were his weaknesses in Libya, Syria and Ukraine very helpful. In fact his “feel good” sanction moment against Russian interests was not very impressive and only caused the rebalancing of the Russia-China relationship.

With Trump there was no trust or respect and the Transatlantic cooperation, which produced stability and prosperity over 70+ years  was never more damaged in the way it has been by today with disagreements on NATO, Nord Stream 2 Gas pipeline, WHO, Climate Change, trade, JOPOA, Israel and relations with China. Trump declared Europe the U.S.’s “foe” on trade and  made clear Europe can no longer rely on the US for security, a view shared by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron and most Europeans.

With Joe Biden and the return to normalcy some of the damage to America’s reputation as a safe, trustworthy, competent international leader and partner can be undone but the question about the permanency remains. This at a time when American global leadership has diminished and US security commitments are called in question.

What is not in doubt that in the new Administration the state of democracy globally is a priority for U.S. foreign policy, with values of freedom, liberty, human rights and international law as guiding principles.

We cannot compromise on our values and principles, international law and specifically in the area of human right, on the dignity of the human person and of the free and reasonable individual as China and Russia seek to do.

Both Russia and China share a contempt for western liberal democracy, which they seek to undermine and are determined to make these values part of a dialogue of civilisations, or a clash of civilisations, by objecting to them on the basis of religion. The key in this is to accept today the new conflicts are not between civilizations as Samuel Huntington believed, but between those who believe in the clash of civilizations and those who believe in universal values and international law.

Vladimir Putin and those countries who support him belong to the first group. In their view, it is legitimate to disregard international law in the name of their national interests and an expansionist foreign policy. We in the west belong to the second group.

We Europeans have no illusions, Russia favours a Europe that no longer is based on the liberal values on which the post-war period was based, but on a transactional relationship with individual states whereby Russia primary motive is to pull Europe into its sphere of influence.

The Chinese approach has been more diplomatic and to China’s advantage the EU attitude towards illiberal China has been fragmented with individual European countries pursuing deepening economic engagement, bilateral strategic relationships, and a general avoidance of sensitive political issues. In this regard the CEE countries (16+1) play a “Trojan horse” role for China, which highlight the divisions which exist today between East and West Europe in many areas

This is one of the ways China is buying influence in Europe which shows there needs to be a new framework which allows the West to cooperate with China where it can, confront where necessary and compete where possible.

Russia has long rejected the U.S.-led Liberal order and sought the weakening of the Transatlantic relationship and sees the European Union and NATO, which remains the deblock of our security, as obstacles towards its main goals, the gradual reversal of  the European state and the rise national governments.

In Putin’s view this is a Europe without NATO and without any other strategic alliances that are embedded in the European Union’s security concepts. This would give Russia military and security parity with European forces.

From Moscow’s perspective, the European integration project and collective institutions limit Russia in its goals and realizing it’s broader security strategy. Russia seeks transactional relationships with the individual European countries, not embedded of broken away from NATO or the EU, not with major political blocs. This are relationships without mutual responsibilities with countries which can be intimidated and give Russia the clear military advantage in any configuration of opposing forces.

This Russian premise which seeks to exploit weaknesses in the Transatlantic relationship is not acceptable, whereby the United States and Russia come together again, in a “new Yalta,” to thrash out on Russia’s terms adjustments to the current order that would recognize Russia’s special status in regions of Europe and Eurasia that once constituted part of the Russian and Soviet empires.

As Henry Kissinger noted in Diplomacy about Russia “Torn between obsessive insecurity and proselytizing zeal, between the requirements of Europe and the temptations of Asia, the Russian Empire always had a role in the European equilibrium but was never emotionally a part of it.”

For Europe this means, despite the positive change in American leadership and the far reaching consequences of Brexit, there is a serious need to re-prioritize EU strategic interests and address some of the structural weaknesses in the European Union whereby the EU needs to consolidate and put an end to the illusion of continuing national sovereignty by establish the principle of collective responsibility and move forward with further integration and consolidations including a transfer of sovereignty to European institutions in order to impose effective fiscal discipline and guarantee a stable financial system.

At the same time for a stronger Europe, closer coordination of financial, economic, defence and social policies in the member countries is needed, with the aim of correcting the structural imbalances within the common area. In order to avoid the return  to nationalism we need to begin the process of moving towards political, monetary and fiscal union.

We Europeans should be cleareyed, consider the possibility of disengagement and have no daydreams what Joe Biden means to the US -EU relationship at a time when the US is forced to be looking more inwardly. But what the moment does it has given us the opportunity to start a dialog, renewal and strengthening of the friendship between the European Union and the US.

Besides repairs and renewing of the Transatlantic alliance, the EU should not expect  big changes, or what can be achieved for the long term. The US military focus which has moved to Asia, away from Europe will continue and there are differences in assessment on the threat China poses, the yearlong occupation by Israel of the Palestinian territories and the unlawful settlements, the upcoming Digital Services Act, but also on the Nord Stream 2 Gas pipeline.

But in other areas we should return to useful international cooperation address our current challenges after the US has re-joined the Paris climate accords and WHO there are chances to cooperate on the pandemic, environmental issues, human rights, digital agenda and oppose the spread of authoritarianism.

Looking at the long term interests of Europe, today there is an embarrassing lack of dignity shown by weak and spineless Europeans who are taking the short term view and look for national solutions for international problem.

Some European politicians have unrealistic expectations of the Joe Biden Presidency and are fearful of the US Congress, instead of understanding and accepting the EU needs to re-prioritize EU strategic interests and strive for greater European autonomy, thereby becoming gradually more self-reliant in areas ranging from security, economics to climate change.

This does not mean ignoring the bonds of friendship which have existed between Europe and the US since American independence and not recognize Europe owns the US a debt of gratitude which it can never repay for helping Europe defeat the Nazi’s and fascism, spending billions in Germany’ reconstruction and standing by our side during the cold war… 

But the reality is also, European policies next to its financial and economic influence are in general guided by its alliances. These policies are judged by our will to ensure our own defense and not to depend on a foreign protection. Accepting a protection is always limiting sovereignty and this European subservience & dependency on the US is delusional and unwise on the medium to long term.

This was recently confirmed by President Macron in his response to the German Minister of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s article in Politico calling the idea of European strategic autonomy being an illusion. Comments which President Macron qualified  as a “historical misrepresentation” and with what he “profoundly disagrees,”  as he wrote “But the United States will only respect us as allies if we are earnest, and if we are sovereign with respect to our defence.”  But in the end these differences between Germany and France seem minor and a more autonomous European Union is also in the interest of the United States.

To conclude, the EU-US relationship has always been complicated, unbalanced and there are fundamental differences in our two cultures and how we view a civilized society, given European attachment to social democracy and equality.

What is now required on both sides of the big pond is a more balanced strategic framework which strengthens this partnership, with the understanding Transatlantic disunity is only in the interest the opponents of our free Liberal order China, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

However, as a result of the internal situation the US shall be looking more inwardly and next to its intent to reduce American involvement in conflicts far from its territory, the approach to international issues will not change much. As a consequence Europe will be forced to take care of itself and needs bolster its strategic autonomy in order to be able to defend its own security interests.

The uncomfortable truth is as Wolfgang Schäuble noted “we have lived rather cheaply during years when Europe was strong economically and allowed others to take care of our security.” As the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas noted “the US is no longer available as a security partner as they were in the past.”

The reality is Europe needs to put on its big boys pants and start increasing its defense spending in access 2%. A increase which is only politically feasible if this benefits and strengthens the European defense industry via the European Defense Fund.

Should European indecisiveness and reluctance to increase defense spending remain the modus operandi, Europe has only itself to blame when the next authoritarian comes along in the US, one who will be much more refined, competent and destructive, someone who starts US disengagement from Europe in earnest.

William J J Houtzager

20.01. 2020

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