Political Risk: Multilateralism and the Future of the U.S./ EU Relationship


John F. Phillips

As the United States transitions away from the “America First” foreign policy of President Donald Trump, a return to policies built upon a foundation of multilateralism seems to be in vogue.

President Joseph Biden has stated on more than one occasion that the United States is “back” and again interested in engaging with allies to pursue common objectives. The members of the EU, particularly Italy, seem to be willing to re-engage with the United States as well as other EU members.

While some yearn for the return of the good old days of globalism, much has changed in the international system over the past ten years. The nature of the relationship between China and the United States has become much more confrontational and has impacted the relationship between the United States and EU. In terms of trade, there has been a marked increase in protectionist measures on the part of the United States, particularly the use of tariffs to manipulate trade balances and to “protect” American markets, industries, and workers. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced companies to re-evaluate supply chains.

These problems and challenges cry out for approaches that are built on the foundation of multilateralism.

While President Biden has talked a good game with respect to re-engagement and multilateral cooperation, he has sent contradictory signals about how he wants to move forward.

On the one hand, Mr. Biden is re-engaging with the EU. His recent actions concerning economic sanctions associated with the construction of the Nord Stream pipeline between Russia and Germany, actions that have led to considerable pushback in terms of domestic political support, is an example of this new approach. Upcoming meetings with leaders of the EU signal a willingness to move toward a more multilateral approach to US/EU relations.

On the other hand, Mr. Biden seems to want to have it both ways on some issues, making unilateral decisions in a manner that reflects past American arrogance toward the EU. The decision to hold the upcoming June meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin was made without consulting European allies. The recent decision to end American involvement in Afghanistan, an effort supported by NATO, was made without consulting the very NATO allies who provided military support toward the American effort to defeat the Taliban.

Mr. Biden and the United States cannot have it both ways.

What Mr. Biden doesn’t seem to understand at times is that American credibility vis a vis Europe was severely damaged during the “America First” era, especially in terms of trade, economic policy, NATO, Russia, and China. It is one thing to say that the United States is willing to re-engage. Talk is cheap. It is another to act in a manner that rebuilds trust in the relationship.

In order to truly re-engage, Mr. Biden will have to rebuild that trust. This means the United States can no longer dictate terms to the EU, that it has to engage in a meaningful way in order to create mutually beneficial approaches to problem solving, protecting American interests, while at the same time understanding and protecting the interests of EU members. It is a delicate balance.

More importantly, the EU needs to be treated as an equal partner and the United States needs to listen, negotiate in good faith, and work toward win/win solutions. American policy toward the EU can no longer be purely transactional, a zero sum game, with winners and losers.

That being said, the EU also has to appreciate the benefits of a strong relationship with the United States. That means that the EU needs to accept more responsibility in terms of mutual defense and work toward mutually beneficial approaches toward trade, technology, energy policy, climate change, financial regulation, and other related issues The Europe of today is not the post war Europe of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s and the EU must step up.

The US/EU relationship is so important to both parties that it cannot be allowed to return to the confrontational status quo that existed during the Trump administration. A multilateral approach to problem solving creates win/win solutions that further the national interests of the United States and the EU. It is important that both parties embrace multilateralism as a foundation for the future relationship between the United States and the EU. It is in everyone’s interest to do so.

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