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The Transatlantic future beyond Covid

Digital format, 30/06/2020, Digital Panel Discussion

Coping with the pandemic and the socio-economic effects of the lockdown is a tough test of the resilience of transatlantic relations at a substantially unstable global moment.

Donald Trump has chosen to delegate the daily management of the pandemic, to then reopen the economy as rapidly as possible. In any case, the damage that has been done is very serious, especially with regard to employment, and it is not clear whether the ground regained by Wall Street is sustainable. Meanwhile, racial tensions have generated a critical political crisis for the administration that seems to have placed the White House in a decidedly minority stance. Added to this is the President’s vulnerability in relations with some controversial leaders. Indeed, the President’s entire foreign policy approach is closely linked to his personal relations with counterparts such as Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan and Xi Jinping who, according to some, have demonstrated ample ability to manipulate Donald Trump.

The climate surrounding the November elections is further embittering internal conflict and, although it is still early to give Donald Trump’s campaign up for lost, even the most pivotal swing States are watching Democratic Joe Biden pull ahead. It is probable that many – even among conservatives – with foreign policy experience will go one step further than the “never Trumpers” of 2016 and openly align themselves with Biden. In addition to a foreign policy establishment so openly hostile to the current president, there are many members of Congress who fear for their own futures with the November elections, given the recent polls and the political climate.

Since the start of 2020, the President’s image has been heavily tarnished by the widespread perception of systematic scientific, organizational and social incompetence. This potentially devastating combination heightens pre-existing biases and criticisms of the administration’s decisional and communicative style, placing the political sway that Trump has held over the entire Republican Party since 2016 at risk.

The Biden campaign, on the other hand, is being conducted with the maximum caution, and this low profile approach – normally risky for a candidate – is giving the Democrats an advantage vis à vis the President’s apparent political suicide. The great challenge, however, is going to be to mend American society’s inner divisions – a feat impossible to accomplish over the short term, or else that only a sizeable Democratic victory might make possible.

Another important factor for both the November elections and America’s future foreign policy is the firm awareness around the country that domestic priorities call for at least a partial reduction in global commitments.

Biden’s transatlantic roots are certainly strong, and offer solid assurances on that score as well as regarding other traditional US allies in Asia. From Europe’s standpoint, an eventual President Biden would get a warm reception, even though many problems would certainly remain on the table, starting with how to mitigate the current economic crisis.

The pandemic’s repercussions on Europe are going to be serious and are to some extent incalculable; central factors will include lethality rates and capacities for economic recovery. Consumer buying could resume rapidly, but the entire economic system has taken a very deep hit, and the need to clarify what measures are being taken and how the unprecedented amounts of resources earmarked are to be used.  

After an initial phase of confusion, the collective economic support effort has been extraordinary, which could make the difference in countering the social damage wrought by the crisis.

China is going to be a decisive factor – with or without radical technological and commercial “decoupling” efforts – and, in any case, a solid transatlantic alliance is critical to effectively managing the Chinese threat. The overall attitude of a Democratic administration would probably be similar to Trump’s in terms of competition and confrontation with Beijing, but its method would be decidedly more multilateral, and the practical implementation of forms of pressure perhaps oriented more toward human rights (even though Biden does have a pragmatic approach) and less toward direct military counterpoint.

The situation in the EU is contradictory and almost paradoxical: on the one hand, the considerable internal differences in perspective does not bode well for hopes of a “geopolitical commission” and so-called strategic international independence; on the other, the importance of external relations has by now been confirmed as critical to defending European interests, despite an at least temporary ebb in defense commitments. Moreover, the idea of increased economic autonomy (e.g. through reshoring, as well as a stronger euro) is gaining ground, along with a real geo-economic consideration of the African continent. In essence, the EU could really become a stronger and more consistent geo-economic actor, if not a full-fledged, full-spectrum geopolitical leader.

In light of these developments on the two shores of the Atlantic, China will is likely to be the most controversial issue in transatlantic collaboration, even in the best of times, given the many strategic, technological and financial ramifications and Beijing’s tendency to deliberately divide European partners by seeking direct bilateral relations.

Russia could be a problem in some specific sectors and situations, but certainly has neither the weight nor the internal dynamism to pose a threat or strategic alternative. It is true, however, that with its limited resources, Moscow has managed to insert itself into a geopolitical context whose stability is important for Europe – suffice the examples of Syria and, more recently, Libya. In some ways, it has even supplied a model for the international behavior of Turkey, which also poses a serious along the EU’s borders as well as from a transatlantic standpoint. All questions to be addressed with the maximum in intra-European cohesion, without necessarily insisting on a perfect harmony of intent and interests that is probably not realistic.

The EU has the resources and aggregate capacity to confront many problems, but often tends to blunt its real strength due to a lack of preventive coordination – which is also true in relations with a United States at times tempted to exploit the confusion on the Old Continent to negotiate directly with individual capitals.

That said, there is a wide-ranging collective threat associated with public debt that all governments are using as leverage for kick-starting the economy: a financial challenge incorporated into an already very unstable economic context with limited tools for coordinating global governance.