‘Let’s Get to Work’: Restarting the Transatlantic Partnership

“Until now the relationship between the United States and the European Union has largely been one of consultation. Today we are moving beyond talk to action.” With these words , President Bill Clinton, together with his European counterparts, announced in 1995 the adoption of a “ new transatlantic agenda ” to address growing shared challenges, from the reconstruction of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the promotion of free trade.

After four years of misunderstanding and mistrust under the Trump administration, European leaders welcomed with relief the election of Joe Biden and promptly proposed to build a new transatlantic agenda or “ New Deal ” with the incoming U.S. administration to cover a long list of issues, including Covid-19, climate change, and international security.

Nonetheless, returning to the old recipes of the transatlantic partnership will not be enough to genuinely revive a cooperation that has been fundamentally altered over the past few years. Even if President-elect Joe Biden recommits the United States to multilateralism and its alliances, the new administration is likely to direct most of its energy toward domestic issues, starting with the pandemic. Against this backdrop, focusing on a substantive and innovative approach from both sides will be instrumental to achieve meaningful results from the EU-U.S. partnership.

Build a Common Foreign Policy Agenda

As both partners face immense internal challenges resulting from the Covid-19 crisis, the United States and Europe will be forced to identify and focus on the most pressing issues when contemplating joint action on the international front. Unsurprisingly, coordination of their strategies to recover from the pandemic and fight climate change should be high on the agenda. Transatlantic collaboration will notably be key in the first days of the Biden administration to ensure a fair and global distribution of vaccines as well as a coordinated international response to the dramatic downturn hitting the global economy. The expected U.S. reinvestment in multilateralism will be essential in that regard as multilateral fora such as the G7, G20, and the upcoming 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26), all chaired by Europeans next year, should play a critical role in that international endeavor.

The United States and Europeans will also need to quickly respond to the most sensitive crises affecting their mutual interests, starting with the Iranian nuclear program. Washington and European capitals will have a unique and short window to reengage Tehran before the June 2021 Iranian presidential election . Close transatlantic cooperation will be crucial not only to deescalate tensions with Iran, but also to prepare and conduct negotiations of a new framework addressing its nuclear and missile programs as well as regional malign influence.

While Iran should be a high priority for the Biden administration, it is unclear how much Washington will reengage in Europe’s increasingly unstable neighborhood, be it Africa, the Middle East, or the Western Balkans. In these regions, Europeans will have to take on much greater responsibility diplomatically as well as militarily, as is already the case in the Sahel, which is often viewed as a textbook case of smart transatlantic burden-sharing but with the acknowledgement that U.S. security presence plays an essential role. Such division of labor will only be achievable, however, if Washington provides a reliable and sustainable policy that embraces shared transatlantic objectives, strong policy coordination, and unambiguous support to European endeavors.

Most importantly, Europe and the United States should define coherent, if not common, approaches regarding the long-term challenges posed by the return of great and regional power competition. To combat the destabilizing behavior of actors such as Russia, China, and also increasingly Turkey, the United States and European countries will have to go beyond escalatory or naïve rhetoric and shape comprehensive strategies combining firmness on values and engagement on common challenges.

In the case of Russia, such approach would involve sustained efforts to reinforce the deterrence and defense posture toward Moscow and a resolute transatlantic response when Russia violates international law and treaty commitments, as was the case with the poisoning of Alexey Navalny , while also preserving avenues of dialogue on issues such as arms control or non-proliferation. Likewise, a transatlantic course toward Beijing would require that the United States and Europe align their efforts to compete with China on technology, better regulate Chinese investments, push back against its trade practices, and defend multilateralism and the rule of law, while continuing to engage China on shared challenges, starting with climate change and arms control. Similarly, addressing in a unified manner disruptive Turkish behavior across a growing number of issues (e.g., its use of S-400 missile systems; its actions in Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Nagorno-Karabakh; and the weakening of its democratic institutions) will be critical to create room for dialogue with Ankara.

Restart the Transatlantic Engine

Such a shared foreign policy agenda will not immediately emerge on January 20, 2021. It will take more than a joint communiqué or a family reunion to revive a cooperation that has reached a historically low point. While President-elect Biden has already engaged with some European leaders, and EU officials are considering the organization of a joint video summit by the end of the year on the global response to Covid-19, the transatlantic partnership will only be fruitful if it is underpinned by the following principles:

  • Maintain steady political and diplomatic impetus. An ambitious and lasting relaunch of cooperation between the European Union and the United States will hinge on a substantive dialogue and cooperation framework. Without going as far as resuscitating the heavy comitology of the 1990s, Washington and European capitals will need to revitalize channels of dialogue from the political to the technical levels.
  • Act with agility when needed. The urgency and complexity of certain situations might sometimes require flexible transatlantic formats for swift action or sensitive negotiations. When a crisis arises, pragmatism could lead to ad hoc coalitions between the United States and a vanguard of European countries able and willing to step up and take action, as has been the case in the past (e.g., the negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran or airstrikes against Syrian chemical facilities).
  • Adopt an inclusive approach. As today’s main challenges necessarily go beyond the EU-U.S. framework, the transatlantic agenda would also need to mobilize and include other key partners depending on the topics tackled, such as NATO or the United Kingdom on security issues or like-minded countries like Japan, South Korea, or Australia to address the rise of China and the strengthening of the multilateral order.

With a Biden administration focused primarily on domestic challenges, Europeans should offer what they consider to be the substance and the framework of a renewed transatlantic partnership. As the EU High Representative Josep Borrell recently put it , “while our American partners focus on the transition, we should focus on what the EU expects and on what it can offer . . . Let’s get to work.”

Pierre Morcos is a visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.