Joe Biden is on his first trip to Europe as US president. After a G7 summit in England, he is to attend a NATO summit in Belgium and then a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Switzerland.
However, while Europe serves as the locale, the focus is ultimately to be on China, because Biden’s strategic priority is to marshal a united Western response to Chinese behavior. Beijing’s increasing assertiveness and contempt for Europe has soured many European leaders’ views of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) regime, creating an opportunity that Biden dare not miss.
Strange as it might sound, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline connecting Germany to Russia is at the center of Biden’s efforts to woo Europe — particularly Germany — away from China.
For years, Biden has derided Nord Stream 2 as a “bad deal for Europe,” saying that it jeopardized the continent’s security, and particularly that of Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states.
At his confirmation hearings in January, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the then-incoming administration was “determined to do whatever we can to prevent” the pipeline’s completion.
However, US efforts to scupper Nord Stream 2 could have dealt a lethal blow to the transatlantic alliance, because German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s administration regards Russian gas as Germany’s way station for phasing out coal.
In an unexpected about-face, the US last month waived sanctions against the company that is building the pipeline. Since then, German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas has gushed about the “really excellent relations that we’ve built up with the Biden administration.”
To be sure, one of the biggest winners, for now, is Putin. With Nord Stream 2 delivering Russian gas directly to Germany via the Baltic Sea, the Kremlin could cut off supplies to transit countries like Ukraine.
However, while there is no denying that Ukraine’s security, finances and even independence have been cast into doubt, the Biden administration was wise to acknowledge that it could not stop the pipeline. It therefore decided to use acceptance of the project to gain more cooperation from Germany on US policy toward China.
For its part, China views Europe as even more decadent and sclerotic than the US, and has been heaping abuse on the continent, even issuing individual sanctions against Dutch legislators and members of the European Parliament.
In response, the European Parliament has blocked ratification of the draft Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), a deal that the European Commission agreed with China in December last year, openly spurning the then-incoming Biden administration’s request for prior consultations on the matter.
China’s assertiveness has given Germany and the US the encouragement that they needed to make a deal that might unify the West. The terms are clear: Germany is to get the pipeline and, ultimately, the climate policy it wants; the US is to have Germany’s support in implementing a new China strategy and defending a rules-based international order.
Viewed in context, Biden’s concession on Nord Stream 2 was essentially cost-free. With Berlin determined to finish the project, US opposition would only have deepened divisions in the Western alliance.
Unlike former US president Donald Trump, with his bombastic dealmaking and brinkmanship, Biden has recognized reality and extracted material benefits from it. Europe is highly unlikely to allow implementation of the CAI anytime soon.
As for Putin’s Russia, Biden seems confident that the West has the capacity not only to contain it, but perhaps to woo it away from China, too. There is a clear case to be made that increasing dependence on China is not in Russia’s national security interest, and this is presumably the message that Biden will transmit to Putin in Switzerland.
Trump did not think that the US needed allies in Europe to achieve its economic and political objectives, but Biden understands that the transatlantic alliance is essential to US economic and national security.
That is why he is willing to risk burnishing Russian economic interests to strengthen the West’s position vis-a-vis China.
Critics like German journalist Wolfgang Munchau view Biden’s policy as one “based on a misjudgement of German politics, which bodes ill for the chances of a successful Biden administration foreign policy.”
However, anchoring Germany firmly within a Western united front to engage with China might prove to be one of Biden’s pivotal diplomatic achievements. If nothing else, it is a bold gesture that exorcises Trumpism from US foreign policy.
Melvyn Krauss is professor emeritus of economics at New York University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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