World Events

Europe Lauds Biden but Wonders: What Will He Want? How Long Will He Stay?

BRUSSELS — In the “America First” landscape that President Trump created, Joseph R. Biden Jr. was an outdated romantic trans-Atlanticist. So there is relief in Europe about having a well-disposed friend in the White House who is more likely to support than to berate, harangue and insult.

A former French ambassador to Washington, Gérard Araud, said that “every single European leader has had an appalling conversation with Trump.” Referring to the German chancellor and the former British prime minister, Mr. Araud said: “He insulted Angela Merkel, he insulted Theresa May. He attacked them. It was surreal. And it’s over.”

But there will still be wariness among European leaders — about what Mr. Biden may ask of them, especially in the knowledge that he may be a one-term president and that the populist impulse that animated Trumpism has hardly gone away.

Dominique Moïsi, a French analyst with the Paris-based nonprofit Institut Montaigne, said, “We should not underestimate the sense of relief and we should not overestimate the sense that things will change very much.”

Civility will be restored, with Biden planning to rejoin the Paris climate accord and remain in the World Health Organization, offering warm words about NATO and about allies and probably embarking on early visits to Germany and possibly to Brussels, analysts close to the Biden campaign suggest. There will be less confrontation on trade, fewer punitive tariffs and an early effort, Mr. Biden himself has said, to create a kind of “global summit for democracy” — especially in the face of a rising China that is promoting its authoritarian capitalism — as well as a more unified stance against Russia.

David O’Sullivan, former European Union ambassador to the United States, said he looked forward to a renewal of American leadership — if not the hegemony of the past, then at least “America’s role as the convening nation” for multilateral initiatives and institutions.

But the world has changed, and so has the United States, where the Biden victory was relatively narrow and not an obvious repudiation of Mr. Trump’s policies. A fundamental trust has been broken, and many European diplomats and experts believe that U.S. foreign policy is no longer bipartisan, so is no longer reliable.

“What is difficult to repair is the fear is that this could happen again,” said Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian ambassador to NATO. “If you worry about a one-term presidency, you hold back a lot, which is why Congress will matter. If a Republican Senate tries, as under Obama, to block everything Biden does, Europeans will say, ‘OK, Biden’s fine, but let’s be careful.’”

Clément Beaune, France’s minister for Europe, who is close to President Emmanuel Macron, said in a Twitter message, “It’s a mistake to believe that everything changes — Europe must above all count on itself.”

The need for more European autonomy and initiative — economically, politically, militarily — is a message that Mr. Macron has been repeating for years now, even as his own efforts to jolly Mr. Trump along have been unsuccessful.

A Trump re-election might have accelerated that trend. But many, like Nathalie Tocci, an adviser to the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, warn that a Biden presidency “risks Europe reverting back to its comfort zone.”

“Biden is a comfortable way of sticking our heads in the sand,” she said, “but we must realize that the hard and painful choices Trump presented us with remain unchanged.”

The French message may not carry the day in a divided Europe, where Ms. Merkel sees NATO and the relationship with Washington as vital to German national interests. Already, the Germans intend to present Mr. Biden with “concrete proposals on how we can close ranks as a trans-Atlantic community” on China, climate and the Covid-19 pandemic, Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, said on Saturday.

Europe is also split about Mr. Trump, where the less liberal states of Central Europe, in particular Poland and Hungary, have been strong supporters of Mr. Trump’s politics, and not just grateful for American troops.

The prime minister of Slovenia, Janez Jansa, who is close to Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, even posted an early and now much-derided tweet congratulating Mr. Trump on his re-election.

For NATO allies, there will be no need to hide decisions or to pre-agree communiqués as they did with Mr. Trump, sometimes with the connivance of American officials. Mr. Biden will not threaten to leave NATO, as Mr. Trump did, nor think of it as a club with dues. And Mr. Biden has expressed no special affinity with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia or President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

But Mr. Biden has a history, post Iraq, of caution in the use of the American military — he opposed the surge in Afghanistan and the intervention in Libya, for example. So while he is likely to renew the New Start nuclear arms treaty with Moscow, he may not think that reducing the number of U.S. troops in Germany is such a bad idea.

And there are suggestions from NATO diplomats that the alliance’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, who has been so skillful at dealing with Mr. Trump that his tenure was extended, may be replaced before too long.

There is also some anxiety in the British government about a Biden presidency, given Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s support of Brexit and close relationship to Mr. Trump.

Antony Blinken, a senior Biden adviser, has tried to reassure British diplomats. He told the London think tank Chatham House in April that U.S. leadership would return. “When Joe Biden looks at the world, one thing stands out,” Mr. Blinken said. “For 75-plus years, the U.S. played the leading role in working to organize the world, establishing the institutions, writing the rules and setting the norms.”

“If we are not doing that,” Mr. Blinken added, “then one of two things happen. Either someone else is, and probably not in a way that advances our interest and values; or no one is, and that can be even worse. Then you have a vacuum which tends to be filled by malevolent things before good things. So the U.S. has a responsibility and self-interest in leading with humility.”

But it’s less clear that even America’s traditional allies will follow quite as confidently as they may have done in the past.

Elian Peltier contributed reporting from London.


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