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What Biden’s Pledge to ‘Rebuild Alliances’ Really Means

President Joe Biden swears in presidential appointees in a virtual ceremony in the State Dining Room of the White House, January 20, 2021. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)
Practically speaking, deference to Europe equals deference to Russian, Chinese, and Iranian interests.

A common refrain of the Biden campaign was that as president, the Democratic nominee would seek to “rebuild alliances” that the Trump administration had destroyed. The reasons why that was such an attractive message to Biden are obvious: It made him sound like the responsible adult in the room while reminding voters of Donald Trump’s often-embarrassing and sometimes-destructive behavior on the world stage.

For a certain kind of Biden booster, a stated policy of “rebuilding alliances” is likely to be good enough. What these folks are interested in is an administration’s tone and its nominal commitment to international institutions such as the World Health Organization and accords such as the Paris Climate Agreement. They’re especially bothered by Emmanuel Macron’s, Boris Johnson’s, and Justin Trudeau’s snickering at Trump during North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) gatherings. The important questions — With whom does Biden intend to rebuild alliances, and to what end? — are of less interest to them.

That’s because in its approach to foreign policy, the Democratic Party is chiefly concerned with following Europe’s lead, and reorienting the U.S.’s involvement in the Middle East away from Israel and Saudi Arabia and toward Iran. Joe Biden is sure to do both, and that will be enough to please the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Washington Post. It may even be enough to earn him a Nobel Peace Prize, which tells you more about the Nobel Committee than it does about him. Whether it is right or just or in the national interest is beside the point.

Which alliances, exactly, will Biden put back together? Those with European powers such as Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. How were these alliances supposedly destroyed? It began on the 2016 campaign trail, when Trump made comments about NATO that were at best ill-advised and at worst dangerous. For a long time, Trump has been beating the drum about these countries’ failure to meet their defense-spending obligations under NATO. This inclination resulted in his calling the treaty “obsolete” and even suggesting that he might not come to the defense of a member state if it were attacked, which would, in fact, render it obsolete.

On taking control of the executive branch, however, Trump backed away from this troubling talk, while his administration sought to increase military spending and NATO contributions among allies by putting pressure both public and private on delinquents such as Germany and France to meet their obligations. The effect has been to not only create a more equitable contribution scheme, but also to strengthen NATO.

Biden’s rhetoric will undoubtedly be more complimentary toward NATO — and his meaningless recommitment to the Paris accord will be met with plaudits across the European continent — but he is unlikely to keep up the pressure on its member nations to invest in it, which could weaken it over the long term. Moreover, he is less likely than his predecessor to confront allies when they take actions that undermine NATO and put less powerful members at risk. Take the example of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s support of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Here’s my colleague Jimmy Quinn on the threat the pipeline poses to U.S. strategic interests and the boon it would represent to Vladimir Putin’s:

What’s the problem with Nord Stream 2? For one, it would increase European energy dependence on Moscow. It would also circumvent Ukraine, contributing to the country’s strategic encirclement by Russia. This is why Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic States have vocally opposed the project, and it’s why the United States has implemented an aggressive sanctions regime that targets any entities involved in laying the pipeline, which is about 94 percent complete. The U.S. sanctions have over the past several months, however, prevented its completion.

Biden believes Nord Stream 2 is a “bad deal” for Europe, according to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, but he’s also reviewing the sanctions that the Trump administration has put in place to try to stop its completion. It’s encouraging to hear that Biden shares Trump’s skepticism of the project, but troubling that he’s nevertheless considering a rollback of sanctions. Similarly, there is concern that Biden lacks the spine to stand up to Europe on issues of Chinese entanglement. Boris Johnson and the United Kingdom were pressured by the Trump administration not to allow Huawei to play a part in the construction of its 5G network. Ultimately, that effort was successful. Will the Biden administration be so willing to stick its neck out and risk offending allies in the name what is right?

Curiously absent from discussions of rebuilding alliances is the Middle East. This can be explained by the Biden administration’s view that the region is an instrument through which to renew European alliances. Under Trump, the United States cooperated closely with its foremost regional ally, Israel. It even forged new, previously unthinkable alliances between itself, the Jewish state, and strategic partners such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, bringing stability to the region and forming a powerful front against the homicidal and abusive Iranian regime.

If his selection of Antony Blinken as his chief diplomat is any indication, Biden is unlikely to adopt the irrational anti-Israeli attitude that Barack Obama did. But his efforts to re-enter the Iranian nuclear deal to placate Europe are sure to put some distance between Washington and Jerusalem, and could potentially cause great consternation and uncertainty throughout the region.

A president’s words carry weight. Joe Biden understands this, and I have little doubt that his words will be more carefully chosen than his predecessor’s. But no serious observer should let a slogan such as “rebuild alliances” convince them that Biden’s foreign policy will prove beneficial to the U.S., its allies, or the world. To the contrary, the evidence suggests that Biden’s deference to Europe really means deference to Russian, Chinese, and Iranian interests. Better to please neither our allies nor our enemies than to please both.

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