Biden's plan to link arms with Europe against Russia and China isn't so simple

China may be a peer rival for the US, but it has long been a vital trade partner for Europe.
China may be a peer rival for the US, but it has long been a vital trade partner for Europe. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Two weeks after President Joe Biden's inauguration, France's president, Emmanuel Macron, spoke publicly about the importance of dialogue with Moscow, saying that Russia is a part of Europe that cannot simply be shunned and that Europe must be strong enough to defend its own interests.

On Dec 30, just weeks before the inauguration, the European Union clinched an important investment agreement with China, days after a tweet by Mr Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan asking for "early consultations" with Europe on China and seeming to caution against a quick deal.

So even as the United States resets under new White House leadership, Europe is charting its own course on Russia and China in ways that do not necessarily align with Mr Biden's goals, posing a challenge as the new US president sets out to rebuild a post-Trump alliance with the Continent.

On Friday (Feb 19), Mr Biden will address the Munich Security Conference, a gathering of leaders and diplomats from Europe and the United States that he has attended for decades and that helped cement his reputation as a champion of trans-Atlantic solidarity.

Speaking at the conference two years ago, Mr Biden lamented the damage the Trump administration had inflicted on the once-sturdy postwar relationship between Washington and Europe's major capitals.

"This too shall pass," Mr Biden said. "We will be back." He promised that the US would again "shoulder our responsibility of leadership".

The president's remarks Friday are sure to repeat that promise and spotlight his now-familiar call for a more unified Western front against the anti-democratic threats posed by Russia and China.

In many ways such talk is sure to be received like a warm massage by European leaders tensed and shellshocked by four years of former President Donald Trump's mercurial and often contemptuous diplomacy.

But if by "leadership" Mr Biden means a return to the traditional US assumption - we decide and you follow - many Europeans feel that that world is gone and that Europe must not behave like America's junior wingman in fights defined by Washington.

Demonstrated by the EU's trade deal with China and conciliatory talk about Moscow from leaders like Macron and Germany's likely next chancellor Armin Laschet, Europe has its own set of interests and ideas about how to manage the United States' two main rivals, ones that will complicate Mr Biden's diplomacy.

"(Mr) Biden is signaling an incredibly hawkish approach to Russia, lumping it in with China, and defining a new global Cold War against authoritarianism," said research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations Jeremy Shapiro.

That makes many European leaders nervous, he said. And other regional experts said they had seen fewer signs of overt enthusiasm from the Continent than Biden administration officials might have hoped for.

Senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund in BerlinUlrich Speck said, "After the freeze in relations under Trump, I expected more warming. I don't see it yet."

Mr Biden quickly took many of the easiest steps toward reconciliation and unity with Europe, including rejoining the Paris climate agreement, renewing an emphasis on multilateralism and human rights, and vowing to rejoin the disintegrating 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

But aligning against Russia and China will be much more difficult.

China may be a peer rival for the US, but it has long been a vital trade partner for Europe. And while European leaders see Beijing as a systemic rival and competitor, they also see it as a partner and hardly view it as an enemy.

And Russia remains a nuclear-armed neighbor, however truculent, and has financial and emotional leverage of its own.

This week's security conference is not run by the German government, but Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany will address it along with Mr Biden, Mr Macron and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain.