Europe Wonders if It Can Rely on U.S. Again, Whoever Wins

BRUSSELS — Treated with contempt by President Trump, who considers them rivals and deadbeats instead of allies, many European leaders look forward to the possibility of a Biden presidency. But they are painfully aware that four years of Mr. Trump have changed the world — and the United States — in ways that will not be easily reversed.

Even if civility can be restored, 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. “The shining city on the hill is not as shining as it used to be,” Reinhard Bütikofer, a prominent German member of the European Parliament, put it bluntly.

For the first time, said Ivan Krastev, director of the Center for Liberal Strategies, “Europeans are afraid that there is no longer a foreign-policy consensus in the United States. Every new administration can mean a totally new policy, and for them this is a nightmare.”

The ideological divide will be on display on Thursday, when Mr. Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. are scheduled to hold their final presidential debate.

There will be what most consider low-hanging fruit for a Biden administration that will please Europeans. The crop includes an extension to the New Start nuclear arms control treaty with Russia and returns to the Paris climate accord, the World Health Organization and even the Iran nuclear accord. There will be feel-good meetings and statements about multilateralism, less confrontation about trade, renewed efforts to reform the World Trade Organization and a less combative atmosphere at summit meetings of the Group of 7 and NATO.

But Mr. Trump’s complaints are shared by many Americans, and given the polarization in America, President Emmanuel Macron of France has pushed Europe to step up in an altered world, where China is rising and the Trump administration is only a symptom of an American retreat from global leadership, not the cause.

The idea of European “strategic autonomy” — of a Europe less dependent on Washington and with its own strong voice in the world — has been gaining ground, even if it is more aspiration than reality.

Some, like Nathalie Tocci, director of Italy’s Institute of International Affairs, and François Heisbourg, a French security analyst, fear that a Biden presidency could short-circuit European autonomy and let Europeans continue, as Ms. Tocci said, “sticking our heads in the sand.”

A Trump re-election, of course, might accelerate the trend toward autonomy, even if few believe that Mr. Trump would be able to pull out of NATO, as one of his former national security advisers, John Bolton, suggested he might.

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American foreign policy was traditionally bipartisan — the old phrase that “politics stops at the water’s edge” had merit, especially during the Cold War. But the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that foreign policy, too, was subject to deepening political polarization in the United States.

“There is an incredible decay in Europe of the sense of the United States as a leader,” accelerated and symbolized by mishandling of the coronavirus, said Jeremy Shapiro of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Biden doesn’t solve their America problem,” he said. “He’s not going to be president for ever, and Democrats won’t always be in power, and people have learned that the U.S. can’t be trusted on foreign policy, because the next administration will come in and wipe it away.”

The inconsistency of U.S. foreign policy has undermined American credibility, some warned.

There is “an American decline in geopolitical weight,” said Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University. “The single fact that shapes the U.S. role in global politics is polarization, and this polarization will not disappear if Joe Biden is elected,” he said. “Americans simply don’t agree with one another on basic premises, even on how much America should be involved in global affairs and NATO.”

William J. Burns, a former senior American diplomat who now runs the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, thinks the damage is lasting, no matter who wins the election.

“One of the more insidious effects of polarization is to make foreign policy a tool of partisan politics,” he said. “It’s done enduring damage to America’s reputation in the world for being able to keep its word.”

While Europeans would see a Biden presidency “as a return to civilization,” as Mr. Heisbourg called it, a new partnership would come with demands for new obligations and commitments, especially on China.

After Mr. Trump, however, there would also be a new wariness and unwillingness to take big risks on the part of America’s allies, said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “If you know that whatever you’re doing will at most last until the next election, you look at everything in a more contingent way,” he said.

Europeans see American confrontation with China as one of the few bipartisan issues that are driving American foreign policy, and Europeans are reluctant to be made a pawn or a playing card in that rivalry, given that China is Europe’s second-largest trading partner behind the United States.

Opinion polls show that most Europeans do not want to take sides in some battle between Washington and Beijing. “We don’t see the China challenge the same way and we’re not the peer competitor,” said Rem Korteweg of the Clingendael Institute.

There will also be continued pressure from Washington on Europeans to spend more on defense — one bipartisan demand that has not fractured.

Mr. Trump successfully goaded the Europeans to spend more. But Europeans were also reacting to a vacuum in trans-Atlantic leadership, doubts about Mr. Trump’s commitment to collective security and his view of Europe as a burden and a competitor.

“I see European partners more assertive in saying that we disagree with U.S. policies — that’s the healthier legacy left by Trump,” said Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, director of the German Marshall Fund in Paris.

Before Mr. Trump, those disagreements were rarely fundamental.

“We had differences, but there was never a basic mistrust about having common views of the world,” said Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway, who has dealt with numerous American presidents of both parties.

But over the past four years, she said, several European leaders “no longer take for granted that they can trust the U.S., even on basic things.”

Confidence in Washington will not return quickly, she said. “While most European leaders think it best for the global system to build on a close U.S.-Europe relationship,” she said, “to have such a polarized situation between the two main parties in the U.S. is scary, and you wonder where that goes.”

For Mr. Burns of the Carnegie Endowment, American global hegemony is over. He sees little American appetite “for grand foreign-policy crusades” and says: “We cannot return to 1949 or 1992 — or even 2016. The world has changed, and the trans-Atlantic relationship must change with it.”

A Biden administration would first concentrate on domestic renewal in a country clobbered by the coronavirus, he said. It would seek a more collaborative partnership with Europe, supporting “a European security identity that doesn’t come at the expense of NATO.”

The Europeans have “their own skepticism, given the drift they’ve seen in a more inward-looking America,” Mr. Burns said. But workable coalitions are possible on China, 5G, Russia, Africa and climate change.

But Europeans must commit, too, Mr. Burns said. “Both sides must step up to invest in a new relationship, which they haven’t always done in the past.”

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