By Danielle Piatkiewicz
The transatlantic relationship endured and has begun to rebound from four years of a disengaged United States under the leadership of former US President Donald Trump. Not only did Trump alienate long-term partners including its European allies through its ‘America First’ approach, the Trump Administration withdrew the United States from numerous multilateral partnerships, questioned the US role in NATO, and also challenged the core values and principles that connect the United States and Europe—democracy. While those four years cannot be ignored, there has been light at the end of the transatlantic tunnel with the Biden administration emerging strong in its first six months to course correct and get America back at the proverbial global table.
Biden proclaimed his rallying cry in a speech shortly after his inauguration that “America is back” and that “Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.”[i] This has been followed up by the US recommitment to multilateral agreements and partnerships including the Paris Climate Agreement and World Health Organization, and was reemphasized during the recent G-7, NATO, and the EU-US Summits, where Biden “promised to pick up the mantle of global leadership that Trump had cast aside and make the West once again the core of an open, rules-based world order.”[ii] However, it is worth noting the various policies that Biden has not backtracked on, for example, a strong stance against China’s human rights violations, withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan, which placed pressure on European allies to follow suit, as well as the US announcement not to rejoin the Open Skies Treaty, which provides security oversight against Russia, a vital arms control tool for Central and Eastern European countries.
Despite America’s highly anticipated comeback, the work to rebuild transatlantic trust is far from over. As geopolitical competitors such as Russia and China sought to fill the power vacuum left by the United States in the previous administration, Biden wants to engage the world’s democracies to join him at a summit to galvanize support for combating authoritarianism, fighting the corruption so often associated with autocracy, and advancing human rights.[iii] Biden has placed democracy and human rights at the core of his foreign policy as well as calling upon other democracies to engage in this fight, including their strongest counterparts, namely the European Union. As the US looks to restrengthen these values-based partnerships, Europe will not only need to continue to develop as a global power and security partner but will also need to do some soul-searching, especially in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), where an unsettling pattern of authoritarian tendencies are challenging the rules-based order that both the EU and the transatlantic relationship is built upon.
The Trump era and now the COVID-19 pandemic have exposed many weaknesses in the transatlantic relationship but have also highlighted the similar fight that member states and partners share against threats both internally and externally. The security framework of NATO can deepen the transatlantic relationship especially as the Alliance embarks on the new NATO 2030 agenda as mandated by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, which emphasizes increasing cooperation with partners who share NATO’s values. There not only needs to be a focus on returning to a values-based system that aims to counter geopolitical internal and external threats but a mechanism to do so that can create incentives for strong NATO partners and security consumers like those in the CEE to course correct on democratic backsliding. NATO can be the catalyst to realign on values, and as outlined in the 2030 Young Leaders Report, the “Alliance should commit to a Values Pledge and champion its democratic values. NATO must be a beacon for democracy, transparency and accountability.”[iv]
Why do we need a new values-based partnership?
The democratic community’s emphasis on renewing values-based partnerships is not a new phenomenon. As we witness attacks on our democracy throughout history, a resurgence of multilateral cooperation in shared values often follows. From global markets to the exchange of technology, innovation, security and now health services, multilateral collaboration has set the rules and standards we live by today and remains the bedrock of our existential foundation. Traditionally led by the United States and Europe after World War II, multilateralism has been supported by systems of collective cooperation aimed at setting the international principles that govern today’s rules-based order.[v]
If active measures are not taken to secure the survival of the multilateral order, the West will need to be prepared for challengers like China and Russia to reshape and challenge the rules-based system. Unfortunately, we have seen both China and Russia emerge from the last decades as global players in military, economic, and cyber space and have actively sought ways to undermine the values that underpin democracy.
On the outside looking in – External Threats from China
Beijing’s growing economy, military, and domination over the tech and digital space have made China a formidable challenger and global player. Through its global infrastructure development strategy known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and 17+1, China has sought to create divisions within Europe through its economic invest and conquer strategy. In the EU’s 2019 Strategic Outlook, the Union deemed China as a systemic rival, noting the need to balance cooperation on global issues but maintain vigilance on the growing strategic threat that China poses towards EU cohesion.
The US is also balancing relations with China, noting the need to collaborate on global challenges like climate change, non-proliferation, and certain regional issues. However, Biden has simultaneously sought to remain strong on countering China’s growing ascendancy, especially when it comes to trade relations and human rights violations. This has led the US and its allies to apply sanctions against China over the treatment of its Muslim Uyghur minority and pro-democracy activities in Hong Kong, which triggered counter sanctions from China.[vi]
On the security front, NATO has warned of China’s growing military challenge towards the Alliance, stating, “NATO must redouble its efforts to help Allies to build resilience and maintain their technological edge or respond to critical weaknesses that could affect the security of the Alliance as a whole.”[vii] The NATO 2030 strategic outlook also called for political cohesion and that NATO “remain(s) a platform for consultation on China’s actions and Allies’ reactions; defending Allies’ values and an international order based on rules.”[viii] It goes one step further to suggest that NATO also needs to remain open to the possibility of constructive dialogue with China when it serves its interests and should continue to identify opportunities and prospects to tackle a number of global challenges.[ix]
On the outside looking in – External Threats from Russia
Russia, on the other hand, has been a well-known geopolitical challenger, especially to Europe, as it remains an ever-present threat to NATO’s Eastern Flank. Russia’s continued efforts to apply pressure not just with the annexation of Crimea in 2015 but also continued violence along the Ukrainian border have led to a mutual understanding between the transatlantic partners that Russia is and will remain a threat towards democracy as they have demonstrated with their military buildup, human rights violations, increasing cyber-attacks including meddling in the US election in 2016. Biden’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month to discuss arms control and Russia’s cyber-attacks went as expected—lines were presented, not necessarily drawn.
Biden did raise the issue of human rights during the meeting, and a CNN readout from the discussion stated that Biden ‘made it clear’ to Putin that he will continue to speak out in cases where there are concerns about human rights violations. “It's not about just going after Russia when they violate human rights, it’s about who we are,” Biden stated.[x] Europe, on the other hand, has come to an impasse in regard to Russia’s disturbing behavior. This has been amplified by the ongoing Nord Stream 2 debate between Germany and Russia, which, once finalized, could pose as an “intelligence threat to the West”[xi] leading to an increased Russian presence in the Baltic Sea, as well as potentially intensifying military activity in Ukraine. More and more countries, including the new Biden administration, have raised red flags and “bipartisan consensus that Nord Stream 2 is a threat to national security.” This debate will remain at the forefront of transatlantic security concerns, particularly in the countries on NATO’s Eastern Flank.[xii]
NATO has long engaged with Russia since its founding and will remain vigilant when it comes to current and future policies towards the region. In the upcoming NATO 2030 strategy, Russia will likely remain the main military threat to the Alliance due to the Alliance’s growing concerns over its territorial aggression and hybrid and cyber threats. NATO noted that the “current security environment is the re-emergence of geopolitical competition – that is, the profusion and escalation of state-based rivalries and disputes over territory, resources, and values.” Without these shared values, external challengers like China and Russia will continue to expose weaknesses in the Alliance and seek to reshape the rules-based order.
In brief, the current approaches towards China, similar to Russia, are developing similar dual-track approaches by having to balance these geopolitical players as threats and competitors. This requires a more coordinated multilateral approach and NATO can serve as this vehicle.
On the Inside looking out - Internal Threats
In 2016, the US experienced election interference to an unprecedented degree when malignant actors utilized the weaknesses in digital platforms including but not limited to the spread of disinformation aimed at undermining democratic society, injecting alternative explanations, lowering the legitimacy of the political system, and providing alternative anchors for legitimacy and stability of the political system. What is most concerning, however, were the events witnessed in the recent 2020 US election, where disinformation was spread primarily by domestic actors to cause confusion and distrust in the electoral system. When Biden won the election, there was an audible sigh of relief from the democratic community. However, his ‘return to normalcy’ came with great apprehension. The events that led up to the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, which was fueled by the false narrative that Trump had won the presidential elections, created concern both within the United States and abroad that if one of the strongholds of democracy could be susceptible to such a large-scale disinformation campaign, how can other democracies endure?
The rise of this right-wing sentiment is not unique to the United States. Europe has seen its fair share of the populist tide from Poland and Hungary to France and the UK with Brexit as well as in the upcoming elections in Germany. These growing concerns over internal threats and challenges have often been left to social media and tech firms; however, today, closer and coordinated regulation has become a pillar in the new transatlantic agenda.
NATO has noted the return of geostrategic competition and the increase in “grey zone activity (which) has eroded the traditional boundaries of conflict,” noting that the line between domestic and international security have increasingly bled together as well as between civilians and combatants through the “use of proxies and private military companies, disinformation, and subversion.” [xiii] The NATO 2030 report stated that these actors aim to “weaken and divide Allies from within by undermining societal cohesion and our way of life.” [xiv] In addition, there will be an emphasis on political and non-political tools aimed to counter hybrid activities, deterrence in the hybrid domain, and tackling disinformation are vital in countering these growing threats.
What would a new values-based partnership look like?
President Biden has stated that “America cannot afford to be absent any longer on the world stage.”[xv] This sentiment has driven Biden’s campaign and has been deeply rooted in his foreign policy. Outlined in the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance issued by the White House in March, Biden stressed the need for the US to “reclaim our place in international institutions; lift up our values at home and speak out to defend them around the world; modernize our military capabilities, while leading first with diplomacy; and revitalize America’s unmatched network of alliances and partnerships.” To specifically address these global and paramount issues, Biden has called for establishing and strengthening multilateral partnerships with democratic allies including the EU, Indo-Pacific partners, and under the NATO framework.[xvi]
On the EU side, the new US administration has been seen as an opportunity to set forth a new transatlantic agenda that reflects today’s geopolitical power shifts and economic reality to design a “new transatlantic agenda for global cooperation based on our common values, interests and global influence.”[xvii] This agenda was further cemented by the US-EU Summit that took place last month, which aimed to further coordinate strategies to resolve global challenges such as climate change, global health, and economic recovery. However, one legacy that the Trump administration will leave was the emphasis on Europe to increase their defense spending through the 2% debate. While spending has been steadily increasing for some member states, the unknown economic effects of COVID may slow down or redirect this spending habits in the future. Europe should not abandon or slow down their investment in their security and defense capabilities especially through funding streams such as Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and European Defense Fund (EDF). In addition, concerns over the EU’s strategic autonomy debate have fueled some concern over the security relationship that some European countries have with the US, stressing the potential duplication of resources with NATO. This debate has exposed other fractures within the EU including concerns over growing autocratic tendencies within Poland and Hungary, which also are cause for concern within NATO.
When Secretary of State Tony Blinken met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in March, the two raised concerns that “some of our allies are moving in the wrong direction” and that NATO allies must “all speak up when countries take steps that undermine democracy and human rights.”[xviii] However, despite these concerns, Central and Eastern Europe’s geostrategic position and role within NATO remains an asset to the relationship, especially when dealing with Europe’s Eastern Flank and growing concerns around Russia. CEE members have been strong NATO supporters both financially and operationally since their independence. While this may have gone unchecked under the Trump administration, this will likely have political consequences under Biden’s presidency and potential relations within NATO as political cohesion becomes more and more important. To what extent, still remains to be seen but as the values that NATO have strived to uphold are being challenged, “NATO can no longer afford to turn a blind eye on these internal strains.”[xix] Experts from the Center for Strategic Studies, Rachel Ellehaus and Pierre Morcos outlined this challenge and offered steps for NATO to engage in order to course correct. They recommend that NATO allies should, first, recommit to abide by the principles of the North Atlantic Treaty; second, monitor individual Allies’ compliance with these principles; and third, raise the political cost for Allies who break the rules.[xx] While these suggestions provide a ‘return’ to the core values that created NATO, issues still lie in the enforcement of these values and how this would be implemented. Striking the right balance will certainly be an ongoing issue between NATO and the EU.
Lastly, if there is one thing that the pandemic has exposed, it is that global challenges require global responses. While deepening the transatlantic relationship will continue to be the cornerstone of reengaging the values-based partnership, both sides of the Atlantic, including NATO, have called for stronger cooperation with fellow democratic nations including Indo-Pacific partners—Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the Republic of Korea. Biden has also called for a Summit for Democracy focused on rallying the world’s democracies acknowledging the “common challenges that no one nation can face on its own, from climate change to nuclear proliferation, from great power aggression to transnational terrorism, from cyberwarfare to mass migration.”[xxi] By enhancing the scope of relations and collaboration, the alliance of democratic values that both the US, EU, and NATO have called for can take form.
The US and EU will have to continue to deal with ongoing threats including climate change, post-pandemic recovery, and a multitude of domestic and internal challenges. As the democratic world witnessed during the Trump era, a disengaged US can create a dangerous power vacuum and avenues for geopolitical players to take advantage of this retreat. The transatlantic agenda will be shaped and driven by tackling these challenges. However, as we have seen throughout the decades, in order to counter these global challenges and mounting global threats, democratic and values-based alliances remain the strongest tool in the democratic arsenal.
As the US develops its National Security Strategy and Europe’s Strategic Compass and NATO’s 2030 report have already been implemented, now is an opportunity to align and strengthen not only the transatlantic security and industrial base, but also to emphasis the need to establish a values-based partnership that aims to uphold the democratic values that bind the transatlantic partners. Since its establishment NATO has strived to be more than a security and military alliance but a political one that is embedded in the shared values the Alliance was built upon. NATO remains a vehicle to not only uphold these values but also to facilitate further coordination between the US and EU on mounting internal and external challenges.
About the Author
Danielle Piatkiewicz is a research fellow at EUROPEUM focusing on issues around transatlantic and Central and Eastern European foreign and security relations, democracy promotion, and NATO. She is also an independent consultant for the Alliance of Democracies Foundation and Founder of DEP Consulting. Previously, she was a senior program coordinator for The German Marshall Fund of the United States’ (GMF) Asia and the Future of Geopolitics programs (Washington, DC). Before that, she worked as a program assistant in GMF’s Wider Atlantic program in Brussels and program intern in Warsaw. Before joining GMF, she worked for the European Institute of Peace in Brussels (EIP). She holds a M.A. in international and political studies and transatlantic studies from Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. She received her B.A. in political science with an emphasis in international relations and a minor in German studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).
[i] The White House, “Remarks by President Biden on America’s Place in the World,” February 2, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/02/04/rem....
[ii] Stewart M. Patrick, “America’s ‘Return’ Might Not Be Enough to Revive the West,” World Politics Review, June 7, 2021, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/29710/biden-seeks-to-revive-us-europe-relations.
[iii] Patrick W. Quirk and Eguiar Lizundia, “Want the Summit for Democracy to develop solutions? Include local governments,” Brookings, May 21, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/05/21/want-the-summit-for-democracy-to-develop-solutions-include-local-governments/.
[iv] NATO 2030 Young Leaders' Report, "NATO2030: Embrace the change, guard the values," February 2021, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/2021/2/pdf/210204-NAT....
[v] Danielle Piatkiewicz, “WHO under threat? Maintaining multilateralism and global cooperation in times of COVID-19,” EUROPEUM Brief, April 2020, https://europeum.org/data/articles/covid-who-dp.pdf.
[vi] “China rushes through law to counter US and EU sanctions,” The Guardian, June 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/11/china-rushes-through-law-to-counter-us-and-eu-sanctions.
[vii] NATO 2030 Reflection Group, "NATO 2030, United for a New Era, Report," November 24, 2020, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/2020/12/pdf/201201-Reflection-Group-Final-Report-Uni.pdf.
[x] “Biden and Putin hold high-stakes Geneva summit,” CNN, June 17, 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/world/live-news/biden-putin-meeting-geneva-updates-intl/index.html.
[xi] Stanisław Żaryn, “Putin’s pipeline of aggression: How the Nord Stream 2 threatens the West,” Defense News, March 31, 2021, https://www.defensenews.com/opinion/commentary/2021/03/31/putins-pipelin....
[xv] Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, White House Press Release, March 3, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/03/03/....
[xvii] ”EU-US: A new transatlantic agenda for global change,” European Commission Press Release, December 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_2279.
[xviii] ”Blinken’s Welcome by NATO Doesn’t Hide Differences on Key Issues," New York Times, June 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/24/world/europe/Blinken-Biden-NATO-Europe.html?referringSource=articleShare.
[xix] Rachel Ellehaus and Pierre Morcos, “‘Lifting Up Our Values at Home’: How to Revitalize NATO’s Political Cohesion,” CSIS, March 12, 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/lifting-our-values-home-how-revitalize-natos-political-cohesion.
This publication was co-sponsored by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.