PARIS — If Joe Biden moves to the White House in January, he will find across the Atlantic a very different landscape from the one he left as vice president. In turn ignored, lectured or brutalized by President Trump, who has enjoyed playing on their divisions, Europeans are now learning to navigate alone in a world ever more dangerous for them, while managing an awkward relationship with America.
At stake for many of them in this presidential election is quite simple: If Mr. Trump wins a second term, they fear, he will be tempted to double down on his unilateralist agenda. NATO, already described as “brain-dead” by President Emmanuel Macron of France, could just as well die for good. Alternatively, it is hoped, a Biden administration would re-engage America in the multilateral system it created 75 years ago. And Europe, with its newfound assertiveness, could be a more valuable player.
For Europe, the election comes at a time of particular danger. The European Union’s neighborhood is “engulfed in flames,” the bloc’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, told The Financial Times last week.
From the Eastern Mediterranean to the Baltic Sea, from a Britain consumed by Brexit to a defiant Russia, not to mention the Balkans, Libya or the sub-Saharan countries of West Africa, the union is surrounded by crises. What is new for its leaders is the need to confront them not as “the West,” but on their own, with a mostly passive United States administration looking elsewhere.
The double crisis of Belarus, where the brutal repression of demonstrators against President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko is posing a new challenge in the post-Soviet region, and of the poisoning in Siberia of the Russian activist Alexei Navalny, now being treated in a Berlin hospital, provides a stark illustration of this unique situation. Both cases point to dealing with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.
Europeans have been trying to handle these crises as a united bloc of 27 member states, led by Germany, which currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency. What has been lacking so far has been a proactive trans-Atlantic stance — unlike six years ago, when the United States and the union decided on joint sanctions against Russia after its annexation of Crimea.
When finally, on Sept. 8, foreign ministers of the Group of 7 (United States, Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan) condemned the poisoning of Mr. Navalny, they were responding to Franco-German pressure, not to Washington’s initiative, even though the United States is leading the group this year, according to French diplomats.
The evolution of the Group of 7 under Mr. Trump’s presidency itself epitomizes the depth to which relations between the United States and its traditional allies have fallen. For the first time since the group formed in 1975, its leaders have failed to meet this year. The coronavirus pandemic provides a convenient explanation, but the real reason lies elsewhere.
America’s partners had expected that when Washington took over the leadership from France, it would quickly start preparations for this year’s summit, which had been planned for mid-June. Apart from controversies within the United States about the venue, nothing happened.
In May, as Europe was cautiously coming out of lockdown, Mr. Trump invited his fellow leaders to Camp David in June. In a phone conversation that fast turned sour, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany told him that she could not confirm she would be able to travel. Then Mr. Macron said the meeting could happen only if every leader was present.
Obviously irritated, Mr. Trump announced the postponement of the summit and suggested inviting leaders of other countries, including Mr. Putin. The Group of 7, he said, “is a very outdated group of countries. Why not G10 or G11?”
But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and his British counterpart, Boris Johnson, soon let it be known that they would not accept Russia’s return to the club. (Russia’s addition turned the G7 into the G8 in 1998, but in 2014 Russia was kicked out over its military intervention in Ukraine.) That sealed the fate of President Trump’s proposal.
The reality is that his Group of 7 colleagues wanted to avoid being instruments in creating a friendly photo op that would be promoted, in the heat of America’s election campaign, as an allied front against China, when in fact the Trump administration had offered no agenda for the summit.
The administration’s isolation is also on display at the United Nations, with China actively filling the void. Washington’s decision in 2018 to withdraw from the multilateral deal intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program — despite intense lobbying from the “E3” (Britain, France, Germany) that had been instrumental in the deal’s success — is a perfect example of how Washington’s unilateral stance quickly became counterproductive.
Last month, when the United States asked the Security Council to approve extending a ban on the sale of conventional weapons to Iran, it came as a surprise to no one but Washington that, out of the 14 other Council members, only one, the Dominican Republic, came to America’s support. As unpleasant as it was to find themselves in the company of China and Russia, Europeans described the American move as incompatible with their efforts to salvage the Iran nuclear agreement. The E3 nations, whose resolve was hardened by America’s withdrawal, now lead the rest of the Security Council.
Three years ago, after a bruising NATO meeting with Mr. Trump, Ms. Merkel famously concluded that “we, Europeans, must take our fate into our own hands.” But her warning was not followed by action, and it took a virus to succeed where politicians failed.
Against all odds, the coronavirus crisis has made Europeans more aware of the need to take charge of their own future. “European sovereignty” is now the order of the day in Paris and Berlin.
Its promoters think it will make the European Union less dependent on China —- and better equipped to survive a possible second term for Mr. Trump. Or that a President Biden could choose to treat a united Europe as a real partner to promote common values.
Their eyes fixed on the ballots to be counted starting Nov. 3, Western European leaders are hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.
Sylvie Kauffmann is the editorial director and a former editor in chief of Le Monde, and a contributing opinion writer.
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