Here’s what you need to know…
Contrasting himself with then-President Trump’s “America First” diplomacy, Joe Biden pledged during the campaign to strengthen America’s alliances to “address the most urgent global challenges.” Then-campaign advisor and now Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Biden’s foreign policy “means engaging the European Union instead … treating it like it’s an enemy,” promising Biden would “bring to an end [Trump’s] artificial trade war,” and “rebuild strong ties with the European Union.” As President-elect, Biden underscored these commitments in a call with European leaders, vowing to “deepen and revitalize the US-EU relationship.”
These overtures from the Biden campaign was met with resounding anticipation, with the former French Ambassador Gerard Araud calling the prospect of a Biden victory as “orgasmic” for Brussels. London-based Business Insider reporter Thomas Colson boldly prognosticated that a Biden win in 2020 would, “repair most of the damage Trump has done to America’s historic alliance with Europe.” There were high hopes for an end to so-called trade wars with Europe, as well as greater financial investments in Europe’s security.
Yet eight months into the Biden Administration, some analysts may be wondering if Biden is actually the most Eurosceptic president in recent American history. From reinstituting a travel ban on European visitors to a bungled Afghan departure and beyond, transatlantic tensions have intensified, reaching a crescendo with the controversial AUKUS submarine deal earlier this month. For organizations counting on stronger transatlantic ties, the unexpected turmoil poses unique challenges for both day-to-day operations and long-term growth. Indeed, even where the two sides of the Atlantic appear to be cooperating, the policy direction may hurt rather than help. Here’s what public affairs professionals need to know to help their organizations navigate the turmoil.
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The Biden Administration’s action have not matched campaign promises – or European expectations – for a strengthened alliance.
BAD BAN: When President Joe Biden took office, he reinstituted a travel ban on visitors from most European nations, regardless of an individual’s vaccination status and with very few diplomatic or commercial exceptions, even though individuals from nearly 170 other nations could visit America, regardless of their country’s COVID-19 situation or vaccine campaign efficacy. After Europe lifted its restrictions on vaccinated or negative-testing American travelers, they expected the U.S. to reciprocate. In the several months that followed, President Biden wouldn’t budge, leaving European leaders furious and triggering a deluge of public statements from ambassadors, national leaders, and EU chiefs emphasizing how damaging the Biden Administration’s decision was to U.S.-Europe relations, international commerce, and the millions of families kept apart for nearly two years. While Biden finally ended the ban last week, the damage had already been done.
AFGHANISTAN FALLOUT: Despite broad international criticism, President Biden has remained defiant about his decision to end a U.S. presence in Afghanistan. The chaotic departure has infuriated European allies – in particular, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom – who have made long-term troop and financial commitments to support U.S. efforts in the region and expected Biden to strengthen, not surprise, the NATO alliance. In mid-August, the British Parliament held President Biden in contempt over the messy withdrawal, while Europeans openly discussed whether they can still rely upon the United States as a partner in global security. “There was a time when the U.S. talked about upholding the global order,” Sweden’s former Prime Minister Carl Bildt told the BBC. “But that is not the language now coming out of the White House. Expectations for a revival of the transatlantic relationship have been deflated. And one is resigned to an America that does it its own way.”
LAFAYETTE, NOUS NE SOMMES PAS DÉSOLÉS: The U.S.-EU relationship deteriorated further after the Biden Administration “torpedoed a multibillion-dollar French submarine deal with Canberra,” with the French insisting they were left in the dark about the incoming hit to one of its most prized industrial products until it became public. The French were so angry, in fact, that they recalled their ambassador from Washington to Paris – one of the deepest cuts in America’s longest alliance dating back to the American Revolution. Even as President Biden attempted to smooth things over by lifting the travel ban, Europe isn’t forgetting the slight anytime soon. The EU delayed the first session of the U.S.-European Trade and Tech Council planned for September 29th, and EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton suggested, “It is probably time to pause and reset our EU-U.S. relationship.”
WAIVER-ING RELATIONSHIP: These missteps in the U.S.-EU relationship are not recent. Back in February, the Biden Administration caught European officials by surprise when it endorsed efforts at the World Trade Organization to provide waivers on COVID-19 related intellectual property protections. Meanwhile, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is sending signals to London that, should Prime Minister Boris Johnson interfere with a Northern Irish peace process, it would hinder his ability to secure a post-Brexit trade deal. And allies in Central and Eastern Europe were disturbed by the Biden Administration’s abrupt decision to withhold sanctions against Russia’s controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. With so many developments in a short eight months in office, it is no surprise European Council President Charles Michel expressed disappointment, noting Biden had declared, “America is back. … What does it mean … Is America back in America or somewhere else? We don’t know … We are observing a clear lack of transparency and loyalty.”
Transatlantic tensions add challenges for companies in this “new era” of U.S. diplomacy, but so does cooperation.
NAVIGATING A NEW ERA OF UNEXPECTED TENSION: Last week, President Biden gave a speech at the United Nations where he outlined his vision for a “new era” in U.S. diplomacy. Yet while the Council on Foreign Relations once lauded the President Biden and Secretary Blinken as “confirmed Atlanticists” eager to re-engage with Europe on initiatives like the Paris Agreement and World Health Organization, the economic picture remains unclear. The state of trade wars, once portrayed as relics of the Trump Era, are no longer the exclusive sign of the health of America’s economic relationship with Europe. For public affairs professionals, the Biden Administration has not turned out to be as predictable on transatlantic affairs as experts once hoped.
COOPERATION BRINGS COMPLICATIONS OF ITS OWN: Even areas where there is cooperation between the U.S. and Europeans do not bode well for companies. From anti-trust crackdowns to global minimum taxes to carbon reduction initiatives, this collaboration can be just as much a source of angst among companies that expected Biden to get the U.S.-Europe relationship “back on track.” Now, corporate public affairs professionals must juggle what’s happening with Washington, Brussels, and London – and Paris, Vienna, and Berlin, too. With this expansion in what developments in which jurisdictions can impact their interests, companies will need sharp competitive intelligence efforts to make sense of it all.