Biden Can’t Paper Over the West’s Disunity

The U.S. and Europe tout a revitalized alliance, but the president’s visit to Brussels masks deeper disagreements.

A collage centered around Joe Biden
Getty / The Atlantic

As Joe Biden meets with European counterparts in Brussels today, the leader of an ostensibly reunited free world, it is worth recalling another NATO summit just five years ago, held under very different circumstances, with a very different U.S. president.

In 2017, ahead of talks with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Donald Trump arrived in the Belgian capital. He was on the rampage over European free riding, German double-dealing, and European Union tariffs on American companies, at one point getting his national security adviser, John Bolton, on the line. “Are you ready to play in the big leagues today?” Trump asked. The president said he would threaten to leave NATO unless every country in the alliance committed to spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense and Germany scrapped a pipeline deal with Moscow.

In Trump’s mind, the United States was being asked to defend Europe from Russia, while Europe enriched Russia by buying its oil and gas. At the same time, the EU was to him a protectionist trade bloc competing with, and making life difficult for, American firms. Where was the U.S. national interest in continuing this charade? After he took his seat at the summit, Trump summoned Bolton over to his table. “Are we going to do it?” he asked. Bolton urged him not to. “I returned to my seat not knowing what he was going to do,” he writes in The Room Where It Happened.

The president ultimately did not follow through on his plan, and the alliance held. With his successor now in town to discuss the Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an assault that has suddenly reinvigorated NATO, it is easy to forget the disharmony of the Trump years, all that led up to it, and the very real prospect that Trump or one of his ideological acolytes could be back in the White House by 2025. Trump, after all, was far from the first American to complain about Europe’s lack of commitment to Western security: Barack Obama had criticized NATO members for being “free riders,” while Europe and the U.S. had split badly over Iraq.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, and Germany’s revolution in its foreign policy—finally putting on hold the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and committing to the 2 percent defense-spending target—it can appear as though Putin has succeeded where Obama and Trump failed. And so, after the years of Trumpian disorder, all is well, right? The West, thanks to Russian aggression, has finally reunited and rebalanced, ready to challenge authoritarians everywhere. Don’t bet on it. The problems in the Western alliance run far deeper than technocratic complaints about defense budgets and gas pipelines, or even the brooding figure of Trump himself.

When faced with an invasion, as we are seeing in Ukraine, NATO members have found unity to be easy: Core national interests are at stake. But as the current sense of shock and disgust gives way to the usual pressures of political and economic cycles, does the West agree on what lessons should be drawn from this crisis? Does it collectively know what it stands for—and whom it stands against?

During the Cold War, these questions had relatively clear answers. The West was the free world, standing for democracy, and opposed to communism. Its leading power was the U.S.; its principal enemy was the Soviet Union. There wasn’t much trade between East and West, and so the basic obligation of being part of NATO was straightforward: to come to the aid of any other member attacked.

Today, the same structure remains, but the world is more complicated. Since the end of the Cold War, the West has helped build a global economy based on the notion that trade is not political—that economics can be separated from foreign policy and national security. This belief has been undergirded by the idea that by building this world, Russia, China, and others would automatically become more liberal and democratic, resulting in a harmonious world in which everyone benefited.

This analysis turned out to be completely wrong. Trade with Russia has not made it any less threatening to European security. Trade with China has made it richer and more powerful, but not more liberal or democratic. As Hillary Clinton wrote recently, China—not Russia—is now “the greatest long-term challenge to the future of democracy.”

In Washington, Clinton’s view is part of the mainstream. But does Europe see it that way? If it does, surely there has to be a shared approach to the threat, creating closer economic unity within the West to reflect the new reality that trade cannot be separated from geopolitics. If it does not, a future President Trump or one of his followers will pose the same set of questions Trump posed about Russia in 2017: Why are we defending these guys if they are not on our side in the main fight?

Right now, despite the impressive unity within the West over Ukraine, we can see the limits to how much pain Europe is prepared to endure to pressure Russia. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has warned that he will not agree to a total ban on Russian energy imports, which, he said, would mean “plunging our country and all of Europe into a recession.” If disengaging with Russia is this hard, imagine how difficult it will be to find a Western consensus to oppose China, a far more powerful and economically important country.

Ideological incoherence is the main threat to the Western alliance, but a close second can be found in the West’s imperial center—the U.S. And here, again, we return to Trump. The essence of his complaint about Europe was not simply that it was not contributing enough; it was that he didn’t really believe in the U.S.-led order itself. Trump believed the whole structure was unfair to the U.S.: Why should it shoulder most of the burden of policing the world? But the thing with orders—liberal, “rules-based,” or any other—is that they need ordering, and this is the job of the hegemon. Burdens can be better shared, and Europe can do more to free America for its contest with China, but ultimately the U.S. either guarantees European security or it doesn’t.

Biden will undoubtedly speak a familiar language to European leaders—one of liberal values and the defense of democracy, and that will be comforting to them. But the question that nevertheless troubles European politicians, diplomats, and officials is whether instead of Trump being an eccentric one-off, his instinctive antagonism to the obligations of global leadership represents a trend in American public opinion more generally. The question that follows is whether the U.S. has the political will to be the hegemonic power it has been since the end of the Second World War, the basis on which the Western world functions.

As one former NATO insider put it to me, the alliance’s strength is its strategic capability, and this is possible only because the U.S. dominates it. An alliance of lots of similar-size states would not be the same: It would be the European Union—a worthwhile political and trade bloc, but not a capable military grouping. What happens if Washington decides it no longer wants the role of leader?

One somewhat counterintuitive conclusion from the past 20 years is that, if anything, America’s relative dominance over Europe has grown, not declined. After the financial crash, it was the Federal Reserve that stepped in to become the global lender of last resort, while Europe descended into a set of rolling crises. The fundamentals of U.S. economic strength remain extraordinary: the dollar, Silicon Valley, America’s universities, Wall Street. Europe lags behind on all of these, and Germany’s sudden commitment to additional defense spending will do little to bridge the yawning security gap.

The reality is that the West functions as an American-led alliance, but it is not clear that Europe entirely agrees on America’s principal strategic threats. Whether Trump returns to the White House or Biden is the one who returns to some future NATO summit, there will come a point when Europe and the U.S. must decide whether and how to renew their alliance for the next challenge—be that Russia, or China, or something else entirely. And if they do, it will take far more than a small uptick in defense spending and a change in energy policy to keep them united.