by Renee M Earle
In June, European leaders rolled out a plush (some have said “gush”) welcome mat for President Biden when he arrived for G7, NATO, and U.S.-EU meetings with his message that America was back to strengthen alliances. Broad smiles among participating leaders trumpeted similar world views and were in sharp contrast with the sour notes of unpredictable meetings with President Trump. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen conveyed the general warm embrace for the U.S. prodigal son: “Well, Mr. President, dear Joe, we are so pleased to welcome you in Brussels,” von der Leyen said. “You are back in Brussels and America is back on the global scene. It’s great news. It’s great news for our alliance. It’s also great news for the world. And we are really delighted to work with you to tackle together some global challenges.”
Upbeat communiqués following the meetings with NATO and the EU outlined a staggering number of areas of transatlantic cooperation, from geopolitical engagement to trade, climate, and cybersecurity. Even the European Parliament expressed optimism in an opinion indicating great expectations for U.S.-EU cooperation with a detailed list of tasks, not least deliverables for the upcoming WTO ministerial meeting at the end of the year, such as “the green and digital transition; a fisheries agreement; a declaration on trade and health; work programmes for the reform of the Dispute Settlement Body for industrial subsidies and state-owned enterprises; and negotiations on electronic commerce.”
Exhale with Relief – Hold Your Breath
The kumbaya atmosphere was reminiscent of the jubilation in Europe that greeted President Obama’s election in the aftermath of President Bush’s unpopular Iraq policies. This time, however, a question accompanied the grins: can this transatlantic moment be sustained beyond future changes in U.S. administrations and in the current climate of new global priorities?
European news sources covering President Biden’s visit from Brussels did not fail to highlight possible pitfalls in America’s reappearance. The world had moved on during the U.S. absence from the helm and not only during the previous four years. New challenges confronted traditional transatlantic cooperation. NATO allies made no secret of their frustration with President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw forces from Afghanistan unconditionally by Sept. 11, and apparently without adequate consultation with NATO allies also fighting in Afghanistan. Several European allies, especially those in Central Europe, do not agree with the U.S. stance on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. In an interview, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who met bilaterally with Biden on June 15, voiced frustration with Biden’s invocation of the Defense Production Act to prioritize domestic manufacturing of vaccines. Others have expressed hesitation about joining an outright anti-China camp. The final NATO communiqué was strong, declaring that authoritarian regimes in China and Russia pose increasing dangers to the security of Western democracies. Prior to the meetings, however, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also made clear: “We are not entering a new Cold War with China, and China is not our adversary, our enemy,” he said.
Added to concerns about possible future changes in U.S. administration ideologies is the fear that U.S. society itself has changed, putting at risk a democracy that most have taken for granted. According to Freedom House, for the first time in half a century, more countries are leaving than joining the democratic club of nations, making this a particularly worrying time for the U.S. to lose the appeal of example and credibility for exhortation.
Publics Agree with Their Leaders
A few days prior to President Biden’s trip to Europe, the Pew Research Center released its latest findings on global public opinion of the U.S.[i] The news was generally reassuring in the 16 nations surveyed. Pew found that the election of President Biden was “a dramatic shift in America’s international image,” including for key allied and partner countries in Europe, and that it was the result of both policy and the personal qualities of President Biden. In France, the positive rating more than doubled since last year.
But even in this atmosphere of renewed multilateralism, many publics surveyed also believe the U.S. continues to prioritize its own interests over those even of its allies. Not surprisingly, a second reason mitigating the positive assessment lies in U.S. domestic developments that have caused European publics to question whether U.S. democracy is a good example for the world. Only three in ten said U.S. democracy and democratic values were currently working very well.
SOS – How Can Diplomacy Help?
Ever since the Obama Administration announced its ill-termed “pivot” to the East as its foreign policy focus, European leaders have been looking for reassurance that America has not switched its main dance partner. Since his election, President Biden has made efforts to reassure European allies about U.S. commitment to the European partnership and multilateralism, hailing NATO as the “cornerstone of transatlantic security” and reversing Donald Trump’s withdrawal from Germany.
Still, news sources that include Reuters, AFP, Politico, and others all reported that in interviews with European diplomats and foreign policy experts ahead of President Biden’s trip, they found lingering doubts about America’s reliability as a partner. They reported concern about perceived gaps between the administration’s rhetoric and its actions toward Europe as a recurring theme. David O’Sullivan, a former EU ambassador to Washington is quoted: “Is this an interregnum between Trump 1.0 and Trump 2.0? Nobody knows.”
As European leaders try to gauge the realities and possibilities of the current partnership with the U.S., sustained and credible, both private and public, U.S. diplomacy will be key. Beyond the required substantive knowledge, effective diplomacy in general is based on what we learn in Psychology 101 about human behavior and what we seek as individuals in our relationships. Listening, understanding, and respect figure prominently in any list of desirable qualities for such interaction.
An important way to demonstrate these qualities and to build the relationships that will help solidify cooperation is for our diplomatic representatives to show up — frequently and at appropriate levels. Showing up is also a visible sign of consultation, another component of true partnership, that will forestall the feeling that an ally has been blindsided. Lost trust and suspicion endanger future cooperation.
An obvious prerequisite for such sustained engagement is filling diplomatic positions, both in leadership positions and at the level of the many expert working groups that are envisioned for the intricacies of trade, technology, and climate, such as will be demanded in the newly announced U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council. Empty chairs will not be reassuring to anxious partners questioning the seriousness of the administration’s pledges.
Also obvious is that it is not always as easy as it might sound to forge and carry out successful international relations. Expectations of what the U.S. can accomplish are often high at home as well as abroad. For our diplomats, it is national interest, the interest of the American people who look to their government for their security and prosperity, that drives what American diplomats must accomplish. And there are competing interests in international negotiations not only among nations but also at home. For example, while a five-year suspension in a U.S.-EU dispute over aircraft subsidies was welcomed at least as a short reprieve on both sides of the Atlantic, it did not satisfy the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) that their concern in transatlantic trade was receiving equal attention. AISI president Kevin Dempsey reminded the administration that it was essential that Washington maintain “strong and effective trade measures to prevent surges in steel imports from around the world that could quickly undermine the U.S. industry and our national security.”
Embracing the Challenge
Nevertheless, applying the principles of good partnership is generally a good recipe for achieving these complex and intersecting goals internationally. So far, on the personal level, the administration has made a good start. Recounting his first conversations with Secretary of State Blinken, including informally over beer, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, “I still have to get used to the fact that I can speak to the American secretary of state and always be of the same view because that used to be different. ”
As the Pew survey shows, sustained diplomatic efforts will be required also in communication with broader publics. Beyond merely informing foreign publics, the U.S. will need to explain and demonstrate. If we do not make the effort to tell our own story, others are happy to do it for us. Returning the U.S. to trusted leadership standing in the world will require a strategy to explain what the United States stands for, domestically and internationally, and to counter growing disinformation and propaganda. The new administration should therefore prioritize a robust, comprehensive public diplomacy program. Language will matter and the language that trumpets a trade deal at home will not necessarily convince another nation’s public that it is also in their interest. Neither should we rely only on soundbites for the media and virtual communication through technology. We must address perception as well as knowledge to build the trusted relationships that will matter in achieving the global stability and prosperity that benefit all Americans.
Renee M. Earle is a retired Public Diplomacy Foreign Service Officer with the rank of Minister-Counselor. She served at embassies in Turkey, USSR/Russia, Kazakhstan, the Czech Republic, France, and the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels. Domestic positions with the Department of State included Diplomat-in-Residence at Duke University in North Carolina, Acting Office Director of Public Diplomacy in the European Bureau, and Chief of the Central Asia Division of the Voice of America, where she directed the Pashto, Dari, Farsi, Uzbek, Azeri, and Turkish language services.