America May Be ‘Back’ in Europe, but How Much Has Really Changed?


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FALMOUTH, England — Few images captured the rupture in trans-Atlantic relations better than that of President Donald J. Trump in 2018, arms folded across his chest as he resisted Chancellor Angela Merkel and other frustrated leaders in their doomed effort to salvage their summit meeting in Canada.

When the same leaders reconvene in Cornwall, England, on Friday, President Biden will reverse the body language, replacing impasse with embrace. But beneath the imagery, it is not clear how much more open the United States will be to give-and-take with Europe than it was under Mr. Trump.

The trans-Atlantic partnership has always been less reciprocal than its champions like to pretend — a marriage in which one partner, the United States, carried the nuclear umbrella. Now, with China replacing the Soviet Union as America’s archrival, the two sides are less united than they were during the Cold War, a geopolitical shift that lays bare longstanding stresses between them.

So a lingering question looms over Friday’s reunion of the Group of 7 industrialized nations: Will this show of solidarity be more than a diplomatic pantomime — reassuring to Europeans traumatized by Mr. Trump’s “America First” policy but bound to disappoint them when they realize that the United States under Mr. Biden is still going its own way?

“America’s foreign policy hasn’t fundamentally changed,” said Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the British Parliament. “It’s more cooperative and inclusive, but substantially it’s the same.”

“Like all leaders,” he added, “Biden is putting his own country first. How he achieves that is what has distracted many.”

Few Europeans question the sincerity of his outreach. More so than even his former boss, Barack Obama, Mr. Biden is an Atlanticist, with decades of involvement in European concerns from the Balkans to Belfast.

On Thursday, he joined Prime Minister Boris Johnson to unveil a new Atlantic Charter, modeled on the post-World War II blueprint signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

In their first face-to-face meeting, Mr. Biden and Mr. Johnson projected unity, each pledging that his country would commit hundreds of millions of vaccine doses to the developing world.

“I’m not going to disagree with the president on that or anything else,” Mr. Johnson said, after Mr. Biden said both he and the newlywed prime minister had “married above our station.”

Yet the president has made a more aggressive approach to China the lodestar of his foreign policy. While American officials are seeking Europe’s support for that effort, analysts said their expectations are limited, given the commercial interests of Germany and other countries and the fact that Ms. Merkel and other Europeans have shown no appetite for a new Cold War with Beijing.

“The Biden administration is determined to be polite, determined to hear them out, and then it will do whatever it was planning to do,” said Jeremy Shapiro, who worked in the State Department during the Obama administration and is now the research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations in London.

“It doesn’t matter what U.S. policy is toward Europe,” Mr. Shapiro said, summarizing what he said was the prevailing view in the administration. “We’re going to get the same amount out of them on China.”

The skepticism runs both ways. Many European officials view Mr. Biden’s declaration that “America is back” with a jaundiced eye, however well-intentioned, given the assault on the U.S. Capitol and other threats to American democracy, not to mention Mr. Trump’s iron hold over the Republican Party.

“We’re living in an era of diminished trust,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the United States who runs the Munich Security Conference, where Mr. Biden has been a regular speaker.

Germans, he said, used to think it did not matter much to the trans-Atlantic alliance if the president was a Democrat or a Republican. Now, Mr. Ischinger said, “We are, for the first time in 70 years, confronted with a new question: What happens if a resurrected Trump reappears on the stage?”

White House officials have carefully choreographed Mr. Biden’s trip to make it a summer festival of alliance repair. But back in Washington, analysts say its personnel moves show a more marginalized role for Europe.

The White House has named prominent officials to coordinate Indo-Pacific and Middle East policy in the National Security Council. There is no counterpart for Europe, nor has the administration made diplomatic appointments, like an ambassador to NATO or an envoy to handle Northern Ireland.

Mr. Biden has welcomed the leaders of Japan and South Korea at the White House, though not yet any major European leader.

On the eve of his visit to Britain, a senior American diplomat expressed blunt concerns to Mr. Johnson’s chief Brexit…

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