Yet this is not how the agreement is seen in Washington. Brussels went forward with the deal despite a very public plea from the incoming administration to hold fire. Four years of Europe-bashing by Donald Trump, it seems, had hardened European hearts in favor of a pointed display of “strategic autonomy.” Autonomy from whom, you might ask? The United States is the only answer.
Europe’s refusal to wait until yesterday’s transfer of power in Washington is an indication of the extent to which the world has changed since Biden was last in government. Today’s Europe is not prepared to “consult” the U.S. before signing an agreement of such importance, as Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, requested—and it rejects the very notion that it should have to. Just because the U.S. defends Europe does not mean a kind of Brezhnev doctrine of obedience is in place, the EU argues.
Read: The world order that Donald Trump revealed
In one sense, then, Biden’s Europe problem is obvious: The continent that the U.S. fought two wars to free, paid to rebuild, and has spent 75 years protecting at great, uneven, and continuing cost is now striking deals behind its back with its main strategic rival. Some ally. In this telling, Trump’s shortsighted and unpredictable malevolence has created the world that he claimed already existed but that, in fact, did not: one in which the U.S. is being taken for a ride by allies that are no such thing.
This deal with China, however, masks an altogether more profound problem for Biden: not European strength, but weakness. For much of the past few years—and particularly the past few weeks—the specter that has haunted the West is one of American decline. In contrast, Europe, embodied by that most unlikely of liberal heroes, Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, had come of age and was the real leader of the free world. Europe had its problems, the argument went, but was showing none of the morbid symptoms on display at the Capitol this month.
While the U.S. clearly does have significant problems to overcome, though, these should not overshadow some of the systemic challenges facing Europe, which may prove in time to be far more serious than those in America.
In 2007, following years of solid growth, the EU’s economy was slightly larger than that of the U.S., according to the World Bank, and both were drastically larger than China’s. By 2019, the American economy had grown by around 50 percent, whereas the EU’s had essentially flatlined. China, meanwhile, had all but caught up with the EU. George Magnus, an economist at Oxford University’s China Centre, told me that the trend over the past decade was clear: American resurgence and European stagnation. Since 2010, the U.S. share of the global economy has not only held, but increased, from 23 percent to 25 percent, according to International Monetary Fund data used by Magnus. Europe’s has shrunk from 21.5 percent to 17.5 percent, even including Britain in the total.