BERLIN — Many Americans have already voted, and many more will soon go to the polls in what will be the world’s most important political event of the year. The 2020 US presidential election is a fateful moment in every sense of the word, not just for American democracy but also for transatlanticism and the future of the West.
If Donald Trump is re-elected, there are good reasons to doubt that transatlanticism will survive the next four years, or that the West will remain united in any meaningful way. It would be a veritable disaster in an already disastrous year.
Fortunately, Trump’s Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, has consistently led in opinion polls, which means there could soon be an opportunity to revive the West as a geopolitical actor. The question is what a post-Trump transatlantic relationship should look like. Merely returning to the pre-Trump era isn’t an option. Too much has changed on both sides of the Atlantic these last few years, including the key political players themselves.
For the United States, there can be no returning to the status quo ante in which Europe was a security freeloader. The complaint that European NATO members have not been contributing their fair share to common defense is hardly exclusive to Trump. But Europeans, for their part, will not soon forget the shock of the Trump presidency, and have already come to the realization that they must rely more on their own strength and sovereignty in the years ahead.
Lest anyone forget, the US “pivot” to Asia (and away from Europe) started under former President Barack Obama, not Trump, and was driven not by ideology but by the US’ objective interests as a global and Pacific power. In fact, the intensifying focus on Asia has been happening ever since the end of the Cold War, and even more so since China’s accession to the World Trade Organization and economic, technological, and military ascendency. These developments have all been shifting the geopolitical center of gravity from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Moreover, Europe, too, has undergone a tacit pivot to Asia, as it has increasingly come to rely on China as a trading partner. But because the European Union has not been a global political player, this shift didn’t attract much attention, let alone a broader strategy debate. Europe is no Pacific power, so it has been left operating as a kind of Western tail in Eurasia.
But all of this will change dramatically in the coming years. Even under Biden, China will be the central strategic issue confronting the transatlantic West. Will Sino-Western relations be characterized by confrontation and “decoupling,” trade and cooperation, or some complicated mix of both?
Questions about Hong Kong and China’s treatment of minorities such as the Uighurs inevitably will drag Western values into the mix. And where Taiwan is concerned, there is good reason to fear that the new superpower rivalry will escalate to the point of military confrontation, given that China’s actions in Hong Kong have invalidated the old formula (“one country, two systems”) for maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.
Clearly, US-European cooperation in countless regional conflicts will have to be renewed. But this won’t come easy for Europe. In Germany, in particular, the federal government will finally have to back words with action if it wants to strengthen the transatlantic security partnership and halt the US drift toward a more isolationist foreign policy.
In other words, Europe must become a capable global player in its own right, by building up the necessary political and military capacities and integrating these into the NATO framework. European leaders (and particularly Germans) should be under no illusions: deeper European security engagement will be the price for restarting the transatlantic partnership under a Biden administration.
Aside from China and defense spending, relations with a post-Trump US will involve a third difficulty: the EU’s pursuit of technological sovereignty and self-determination. The EU’s digital market is largely dominated by big US tech firms, which means that if the EU wants to achieve data sovereignty, it must build its own platforms, clouds, and so forth, as well as subject all providers in Europe to a domestic regulatory regime.
Among other things, Europe needs to set its own rules and standards to ensure that all data belonging to European citizens and companies remains in Europe; and it needs to minimize its dependency on others when it comes to the core hardware underpinning today’s digital technologies. This is a matter not just of economic competitiveness, but of security as well. Surely, European militaries cannot be expected to rely on cloud-based computing facilities located outside of Europe.
These issues will become sources of significant transatlantic disagreement. But at least under a Biden presidency, US allies would once again be treated as allies, and multilateralism would no longer be held in contempt by its erstwhile champion. The US would rejoin the rest of the world in international climate agreements and global-governance institutions such as the World Health Organization, and these developments would offer some hope for the future.
But, again, Europeans must not harbor any illusions. After four years of Trump, all parties involved should understand what the alternative to a strong North Atlantic alliance looks like, and what the price of such an alternative would be. The global geopolitical landscape will be directly affected by what happens in the transatlantic relationship. The rest of the twenty-first century could be a time of dueling superpowers and deepening instability, or it could give rise to a balance of powers, with Europe making its weight felt within a broader geopolitical triangle.
Either way, Europe’s next moves will be decisive. Can the EU muster the strength and vision to become a global player in security and geopolitical terms? Yes, but only if it is willing and able to seize the opportunity that a Biden presidency would offer.
Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years.