Biden’s first steps
The term “affront” has been used to describe the AUKUS deal that saw Australia cancel without notice a 2016 contract worth $60 billion to purchase diesel submarines from France. Instead, Australia would now buy nuclear submarines from the U.S. and the UK. The French were understandably offended by the switch and particularly by the decisive role of the U.S., its two-century-long ally, and the major beneficiary of the new deal. To express his dismay, President Francois Macron recalled his ambassador from Washington. The Biden administration admitted its handling of the affair had been “clumsy,” and it took two meetings of Presidents Macron and Biden to begin to heal the rift and return Franco-American diplomacy to normal, with Ambassador Philippe Etienne returning to Washington. To continue to soothe the French legitimate sense of grievance, Vice President Kamala Harris spent four days (November 9-13) participating in diplomatic and cultural events in Paris.
So far, however, the strength of the Biden Administration’s commitment to the transatlantic alliance does not seem very strong. At the G-20 in Rome, it announced the cancelation of Trump-era tariffs on steel and aluminum, but left a whole range of other imposts in place. Likewise, while calling for cuts in carbon emissions at the Glasgow COP26 meeting, in response to rising gasoline prices, President Biden and other administration officials have called on oil-producing countries to increase production to relieve the fuel shortage and hold prices in check. European critics who fault the president for replicating Donald Trump’s America First economic policy are not far off the mark.
The president, with his roots in working-class, Rust-Belt Pennsylvania, remains essentially a man of the people. A significant number of his trips outside of Washington have been to towns in that region. While the Democratic Party, particularly its progressive majority, may have forgotten the heartland, Joe Biden has not. The 1.2 trillion dollar infrastructure bill, which the House sent to the president’s desk in early November, will create hundreds of thousands of jobs for laborers and trained technicians around the country, rebuilding roads, bridges, water systems, air and seaports. Those projects will also give visible evidence of the president’s commitment to working people and a big boost to the American economy. In ordinary times, such large-scale investments might swing public opinion his way. But, with the country so divided and the population so dispirited because of the pandemic, despite its enormous size and historic importance, the infrastructure bill might bring prosperity without political gain for the president.
Discontent and federal policies
This is a season of exhaustion and discontent in America. The politicization of the Covid crisis, first by the Trump administration and now in Sunbelt and Midwestern states, has left the once vaunted American healthcare system in a shambles. Already some state systems, like those of Alaska, Oregon and Arizona, are near collapse. Healthcare workers are fleeing the profession. An excess of patients and an undersupply of employees has strained even progressive Massachusetts, one of the world’s premier centers of medical research and health services.
In several states, politicians rant against vaccine mandates and masking and give priority to freedom of expression over public health. Local schools and school boards have become sites for confrontation between parents and educators, and the unraveling of voter protections under Republican legislatures has driven veteran election workers from their jobs in state after state, especially in crucial swing states. The national atmosphere is one of chaos and rebellion, not seen since the decades leading up to the Civil War. Individual states have passed laws attempting to nullify existing law on abortion, voting and gun control.
It is hard for the administration to draw any attention to its infrastructure bill. Polls show that the public has even forgotten the trillion dollar plus transfer of funds Mr. Biden arranged at the start of his administration less than a year ago, with 1400 dollars awarded on average to every household, to tide them over the pandemic.
Rebuilding transatlantic relations
The president will find it difficult to rebuild transatlantic relations until internal issues are resolved. Europeans who worried that one presidential election would not be enough to restore European-American relations were correct. Now it seems it is not just a divided government that Euro-Atlanticists must cope with, but also a sorely divided American public that will have to undergo a genuine transmutation of spirit to foster real amity between the two continents. The 20th century United States that supported Europe in two world wars, struggled alongside it during the Cold War, that with its allies built NATO and supported the emergence of strong European institutions, is a thing of the past.
For the foreseeable future, European and American leaders and diplomats will need to find new motivation and a good dose of courage to forge a new relationship. As in the Cold War, Russian policies and those of its present-day satellites like Belarus, will be an incentive to cooperation on security matters through NATO and other institutions of collective security. In this age of networks, moreover, academics, professionals, humanitarian and human rights organizations will also need to construct a fabric of transatlantic collaboration in ways that can sustain and enhance existing ties. The Covid-19 pandemic has proven the necessity and worth of transnational scientific and medical collaboration.
What the Biden administration itself can contribute to the renewed relationship is unclear. Furthermore, in recent decades, the incentive structure in the foreign policy elites had already begun to favor those with experience in other power centers, especially in Asia, in contrast to the old European capitals. Consequently, the role of European ambassadors, including diplomats of the EU in Washington may play an increased role in strengthening relations with the U.S. in the interim.
Eighty years ago, the wartime allies invested heavily in their Washington operations. Winston Churchill took up residence for weeks at a time in the Roosevelt White House, and Norwegian Crown Princess Martha was a frequent visitor there. Roald Dahl and other expatriates became familiar on the Washington social scene. British intelligence helped build the new American intelligence services. In these first years of the Biden administration, the role of the Washington diplomatic corps in shaping a new Euro-American relationship may prove as consequential as it did then.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.2 art. 3, 0222: 10.32009/22072446.0222.3