What does the US election mean for Europe?
The election comes amid critical challenges that the US and Europe must work closely on, including NATO’s role, Brexit and Russian influence.
London, United Kingdom – British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once described US President Franklin Roosevelt as “the greatest champion of freedom who has ever brought help and comfort from the new world to the old”.
It is hard to imagine many European leaders saying the same about Donald Trump.
European leaders will find out who their American counterpart will be for the next four years when United States citizens cast their vote in the presidential election on November 3.
While Joe Biden is leading Trump in the national polls, that does not guarantee the Democratic candidate victory in the election; Hillary Clinton also had a clear lead over Trump in the polls throughout most of the 2016 campaign.
The Trump administration came as a “shock” to the transatlantic partnership, says Kristine Berzina, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a Washington, DC, based think-tank.
During the past four years, relations between the US and Europe have become frayed due to disagreements over policy, including security and trade.
With Biden as president, there would be a “dramatic turnaround in US policy towards Europe,” said Charles Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University, who worked on European affairs in the Obama administration and is advising Biden’s campaign.
A second Trump term would “potentially put NATO unity at risk,” said Heather Williams, a nuclear security fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Trump has threatened to withdraw the US from NATO and to reduce American contributions if other members do not increase their spending.
In July this year, the US announced it was withdrawing about 12,000 troops from Germany, which Trump said was to punish Berlin for low defence spending. While some observers say Trump could attempt to withdraw the US from NATO in his second term, this move is unlikely due to opposition from Congress, said Kupchan.
A bigger concern for Kupchan is what he calls the “metaphorical fracturing of NATO”, in other words, Europeans losing trust in the US as a “durable partner”.
There is already evidence of this. According to Gallup polling, European disapproval of US leadership reached a record high of 61 percent in 2019.
Biden, who has called NATO “the single-most consequential alliance in the history of the United States” would work to reinvest in the alliance, experts say.
Last week, NATO hinted that it was considering a summit in March in Brussels to welcome a new US leader if Biden wins.
According to a top aide, Biden will review Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Germany, if elected. Kupchan predicted that Biden would convene early in his presidency a NATO summit to say, “We’re a team player again.”
But the contention around burden-sharing between the US and its European allies is likely to continue, said Kupchan.
As the US faces economic strain due to the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, there is likely to be a “continued sensitivity” to what European allies are bringing to the table, he said.
At stake in the election is the credibility of the US as a reliable ally that can stand against Russian misbehaviour, experts told Al Jazeera.
This issue is acute in Europe, particularly in the east, where governments have accused Russia of cyberattacks and spreading misinformation.
“Russia aims to create cracks in democratic systems, Europe and the transatlantic partnership,” said Berzina. A vacuum of US leadership in Europe presents “an opportunity” for Russia to exert its influence.
A “defining feature” of the Trump administration has been its “inconsistent” policy towards Russia, said Williams.
Although Trump has sent additional troops to Eastern Europe and imposed some of the toughest sanctions in years against the Russian elite, Trump has frequently praised Russian President Vladimir Putin’s style of leadership and sided with Putin over the US intelligence community and America’s European allies, appearing to trust Kremlin’s assurances that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election.
Trump has not demonstrated “the same level of seriousness” towards alleged Russian misbehaviour that many senior figures in the administration have, which has “seriously damaged” trust in the US across Europe, said Williams, adding there is “no indication” that Trump would change his policy towards Russia in a second term.
Experts say that Biden would take a very strong stance on Russia, particularly in light of this political experience in European security matters.
In the senate, he was “instrumental” in allowing the Baltic states to join NATO in 2004, said Berzina.
“Deterrence against global aggressors, not only Russia but also China, would be a very important principle of Biden’s foreign policy,” she said.
Meanwhile, as Britain nears its own historic moment by ending the Brexit transition period on December 31, observers say that a post-Brexit UK will face challenges in proving it is a valuable partner to the US.
The effectiveness of the relationship between London and Washington, says Kupchan, hinges on the UK’s ability to “make itself relevant” and maintain close ties with Europe, not only on trade but also security matters.
Unlike Trump, an ardent supporter of the UK leaving the EU, Biden has made clear his opposition to Brexit and suggested it makes the UK a less meaningful ally.
“US interests are diminished with Great Britain not an integral part of Europe,” he said at Chatham House, a think-tank in London.
Biden would neither “give special status nor punish the UK” when it comes to making a trade deal.
He would also make it hard for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to claim that “Brexit was a “victory in terms of establishing trade deals with the US,” said Cristian Nitoiu, a lecturer in diplomacy and global governance at Loughborough University.
Trump has enthused about a “fantastic and big” trade agreement with the UK – the US’s seventh-largest trading partner – but nothing has materialised yet.
Regardless of the election result, the next president’s main focus in terms for trade will be China, said Kupchan.
“One of the things that Biden would do that Trump did not do is form a united front in negotiating with China”, in which the US works alongside the EU, Britain and other counties to put pressure in China.
Trump’s trade relations with the EU states, however, have deteriorated as he has imposed high tariffs on aircraft and agricultural imports, and continues to threaten new tariffs on car imports.
A Biden administration would seek to end the “trade war” that Trump launched against the EU, a top foreign policy adviser to the democratic candidate said in September.
Biden has also warned that the UK must honour Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace agreement, in which the US is a security guarantor, to reach a US trade deal.
Some diplomats say the Good Friday agreement is imperilled by new legislation put forth by Johnson in September. Trump’s special envoy to Northern Ireland, Mick Mulvaney, said his administration was also aligned in its desire to preserve the peace agreement.
Beyond security and trade, experts say that Europe could see a change in cultural influence from the next president.
As the US continues to reckon with social justice issues at home such as racism and anti-immigration sentiment, a Biden administration would seek to promote resolutions to these problems in Europe, said Nitoiu.
Biden would want to “reaffirm solidarity with the Atlantic community and breathe new life in the [liberal] values that it stands for.”
Experts said they cannot be sure Trump would do the same.