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In Europe, Confusion Reigns About the U.S.

After almost two years of Covid-induced absence from Paris and Berlin, I returned to the old world to make a surprising discovery: Europe no longer understands the United States. Between Washington’s shift to the Indo-Pacific, the lingering effects of the Trump presidency (along with fears of a return in 2024), and confusing signals emanating from the


administration, neither the Germans nor French know what to expect anymore. That uncertainty further complicates the difficult task of recasting the Atlantic alliance for a turbulent new era.

The most consequential misunderstandings involve America’s continuing pivot to the Indo-Pacific. After the Aukus explosion last month, the French and the Germans no longer doubt that the pivot is real, but few in Europe have fully grasped what it means.

Many Europeans, including some seasoned observers of the trans-Atlantic scene, believe that if the U.S. sees the Indo-Pacific as the primary focus of its foreign policy, it must be writing off the rest of the world. These observers look at the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and imagine that this is the kind of headlong retreat they can expect from America in Europe and the Middle East.

This is unlikely. American interests are global, and American presidents, like it or not, can’t confine their attention to a single world theater. During the Cold War, Western Europe was the primary focus of American foreign policy, but the U.S. also fought two major wars in Asia. The energy crisis has already forced President Biden to pay more attention to the Middle East. China’s efforts to gain influence in the Middle East and Europe will draw Washington’s attention toward its old NATO partners, as will Moscow’s continued alignment with Beijing.

The China challenge makes the U.S. less isolationist, not more so, and the global nature of China’s ambitions will force American presidents to nurture alliances and work cooperatively with allies around the world.

Europeans also have a hard time grasping what the U.S. wants from its old allies in this new struggle. Britain, France and even Germany have sent token military forces to the Pacific this year. Americans appreciate the spirit behind these gestures, but European assistance in the Pacific means less to the U.S. than many Europeans, accustomed to American eagerness for allied participation in places like Afghanistan, expect.

Few in the U.S. expect Europeans to provide any significant military assistance in the Pacific. And while for domestic political reasons American presidents value European diplomatic support for U.S. military commitments in the Middle East, European support for America’s Pacific deployments carries less weight. Japan, Australia, Vietnam, India and other Indo-Pacific partners will be the countries to which the U.S. turns in the event of regional crises.

Sending token forces to the Pacific in hope of winning American gratitude and cooperation on other issues may be a strategic dead end, but there are other steps Europeans can take to keep trans-Atlantic ties strong in dangerous times. They can do a better job of managing diplomatic and security challenges close to home so the U.S. can shift resources to the Indo-Pacific, and they can join the U.S. in efforts to make the international system more effective against bad Chinese behavior on issues ranging from violations of global trading rules to the use of excessive and unhelpful influence in groups like the World Health Organization. By keeping the international system robust and attractive, European countries can help convince China’s leaders that their best path to a more prosperous and secure future lies through cooperation with existing international arrangements and the observance of global norms.

Besides misreading the implications of the China challenge, many Europeans are also misreading the state of the American union. Perhaps because so many senior Europeans get their views of the U.S. from the more partisan, less level-headed sectors of the American press and academy, a surprising number of people here think that

Donald Trump

came within inches of preventing the inauguration of President Biden last January. Fears that the American military might somehow be coup-happy, or that the conservative majority on the Supreme Court would abandon its constitutional principles to pave the way for a Trumpist putsch, have gained greater purchase in Europe than sober-minded Americans might expect.

Paradoxically, the strength of this belief weakens Mr. Biden’s diplomacy in Europe. The fear of American instability undercuts European confidence in Mr. Biden’s pledges and commitments and strengthens the conviction of some Europeans that they live in a “post-American” era in which Europe is on its own.

To some degree these misunderstandings are due both to the isolation and emotional stress of the pandemic, and with the resumption of travel they will begin to fade. But to the degree that distorted perceptions inform European policy, Americans should think harder about communicating effectively with old allies even as we prepare for new challenges ahead.

Journal Editorial Report: Does Joe Biden even have a border policy? Image: Pedro Pardo/AFP via Getty Images

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