The European Union and its member states had a tremendous stake in the U.S. presidential election on November 3rd. In the case of Germany, bilateral relations under Trump had plummeted to the lowest point since World War II. Germany and Chancellor Merkel were chief targets of President Trump’s criticism. The European Union didn’t fare much better. President Trump saw it as more of a rival than as an ally – “worse than China,” as he said. In the administration there was little understanding for this unique European organization with an admittedly complicated institutional architecture and a cumbersome decision-making process. After Brexit (which was applauded by Trump), some in the administration considered the EU “a failing model.” This was a radical breach with the foreign policy and security tradition of the U.S.

Notwithstanding policy differences, American presidents had always supported European integration as a source of stability and an opportunity to project US power on the European continent. NATO fared somewhat better in the Trump years. Although the President himself seemed to have cast doubts on the US commitment to NATO’s collective defense pledge, the U.S. military made sure that support for NATO would not waiver. To give President Trump credit, his relentless and robust pressure campaign for an increase in defense spending for NATO member states was quite a success. Yet, tensions within NATO rose and affected its cohesion.

In Europe, the Biden victory was mostly greeted with tremendous relief. Notable exceptions were the governments of Poland, Hungary and Slovenia as well as right-wing populist parties in many European parliaments. Biden is widely viewed as an old-school transatlanticist, a strong backer of NATO, and a supporter of the EU as a strategic partner for the US. His critical view on Brexit is also widely known.

There are high hopes in Europe – and particularly in Germany – for a restoration of the transatlantic partnership and a return of the U.S. to multilateral cooperation. Yet in the European foreign policy community, there is a sense of realism, sometimes even skepticism, about the potential for change in the European-U.S. relationship.

First: Europe is less important to any American president than it used to be. The centre of gravity is clearly now Asia. And second: President Biden will be absorbed by the overwhelming domestic challenges (overcoming American political divisions, tackling coronavirus, and launching a plan for economic recovery). Foreign policy will not take center stage. And the possibility of a Republican Senate majority will limit his scope of action. However, a fundamental change in style and interaction seems certain with the new Biden administration: a new sense of respect for each other, a new form of civilized dialogue, the return of credibility, reliability, and trust – the most important currency among allies.

But there are hard issues to be tackled sooner or later. The study group will explore some of them:

  • Security: Europeans (Germans in particular) need to do more for their own security, specifically increasing defense spending and security engagement in Europe’s neighborhood. Yet the fundamental truth is still unchanged: Europe will not be able to guarantee its own security without the U.S. An early NATO summit will have to reaffirm mutual commitments and discuss a division of labor.
  • Trade: Europeans are beneficiaries of a rules-based international trade order and free trade agreements. While Biden pledged to resist a dangerous global slide towards protectionism and to end the trade war against the EU, Europeans should not expect the new administration to pursue a free trade agenda. But will U.S. trade conflicts with China continue? Can the descent of the World Trade Organisation into irrelevance be stopped through a joint reform effort?
  • China: Europeans understand that the rise of China is THE strategic foreign policy challenge for the U.S. in the next decade. They don’t expect Biden to perform a U-turn in the Sino-American relationship, but they hope for that the U.S. will rebalance cooperation, competition and confrontation vis-à-vis China. Europeans fear a further decoupling of the American and Chinese economies knowing that they might get caught in the middle of great power antagonism. Is it possible to agree on a joint European-American agenda to address the common grievances that both sides have with China?
  • Russia: Europeans know that Biden has promised to harden America’s line on Russia for violations of international norms. Some Europeans – in view of the geographic proximity of Russia –are critical of a proliferation of U.S. sanctions against Russia. There is widespread hope that Biden will engage with Russia to extend the NEW START nuclear arms reduction treaty and explore the return to the INF and “open skies” treaties. How narrow or broad is the band to improve ties with President Putin?
  • Iran: The Iran Nuclear Deal was a joint EU-U.S. project. Can it be revived?
  • Climate change: There is great potential here. A U.S. return to the Paris Agreement is a game changer. Seeing eye to eye on national and international climate targets will be a boost to transatlantic relations and can lead – once again – to joint global leadership to fight climate change.

A return to the old Western order seems impossible. The key question is how much restoration of the previous relationship is possible and desirable and how much re-invention is necessary to re-energize the transatlantic partnership.