DIS Faculty Perspective: U.S.-European Relations after the Election

As the U.S. election process continues over the next couple of months, we have asked DIS faculty member, Martin Rasmussen, to give his initial assessment of the election and weigh in on what’s to come for future U.S-European relations. Martin Rasmussen is a long-standing and highly cherished faculty member with deep knowledge in political science, international relations, and history.

A Divided Country

Now that most votes are counted across most of the U.S., the strong contours of a presidential win for the Democrats are leaving little doubt of the outcome of the most watched part of this election.

With a historical high voter turnout of more than 145 million, despite the election that has been held in the shadow of the COVID-pandemic, the process as well as the results and consequences for America will nevertheless be the object of political analysis for months to come. Uncertainties are certainly still there.

After this election, Congress seems to remain divided, with the Senate still dominated by a small Republican majority, while the House is retained by a reduced, but still adequate Democratic majority. On top of this, the Senate results from Georgia indicate a rerun in early January 2021 paving the way for yet another intense election battle for control. An America divided seems to be the term most often heard from all sides these days.

DIS Faculty Perspective: U.S.-European Relations after the Election Radhuspladsen
Radhuspladsen on November 3, 2020 – the day of the U.S. Election

U.S. Foreign Policy – Business as Usual? 

At a time like this, the main focus of the coming administration will almost certainly be first and foremost on the domestic challenges – and in the light of the severity of these, it is hard not to argue that this is rightly so. Nevertheless, the coming administration will naturally also have to focus on the international scene with all its challenges and possibilities. The natural question to ask is therefore what to expect from the new administration in the relations between Europe and the U.S.   

It is important to remember that even though the foreign policy of the U.S. in many ways is seen as the prerogative of the president and the executive power, the powers of the legislative branch makes that body essential for any long-term policy to be effective.

The logic of this appears obvious, since it combines the necessity of an efficient chain-of-command (the executive) being able to respond to any security threat to the U.S. with a stability based on long-term agreements rooted in more than an individual while also representing both the state entities and the American people (the legislative). Therefore, the president of the U.S. might use executive power to ensure an immediate result (for example, through executive order), but most often the long-term success of such an initiative will need support and funding from Congress to be truly effective. So, will the U.S. foreign policy towards Europe change or will it be business as usual?

Climate Policies Will Change – But Not Much

The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement by the Trump Administration is a key element. Though done through an executive order by Trump, the charter conditions of the agreement made this withdrawal protracted. Since it was also contested in Congress after the House was lost by the Republicans in the 2018 elections, the act turned out to be to a large extent of a symbolic nature and has put federal coordination of initiatives on stand by and forced the individual states to choose their own way forward.

Not surprisingly, The Biden-Harris administration has put the reentry of the U.S. into the Paris Agreement forward as one of their key campaign promises. Though this can and will most likely be done through another executive order, effectively annulling the Trump decision, the actual efficiency of this will depend on whether adequate political support and money can be found in Congress. So, in other words, the effectiveness of the U.S. on climate change policy is still far from certain despite the promises of the upcoming new president.

The U.S. market for initiatives within green energy, for example windmills and solar, has seen enormous growth in multiple states during the period, despite the policies of the Trump presidency. It has therefore not only made it possible to keep a certain momentum at state level, but also presented good business opportunities for European firms like Vestas, Siemens-Gamesa, and others.

When it comes to the climate policy of the U.S. of the new administration, we might expect much better coordination and lots of political goodwill that will truly accelerate initiatives already taken at state level. At the same time, we can expect a jigsaw uphill battle for the money from Congress that will most likely only give limited results at the Federal level. Therefore, climate policy will change under the new administration, but the impact of the change might not be as substantial as hoped by many.    

DIS Faculty Perspective: U.S.-European Relations after the Election Post-Election Seminar
Martin Rasmussen leading a post-election seminar for DIS students, staff, and faculty

The U.S.-NATO Relationship

Another key area to watch is the new U.S. administration’s relationship with NATO. Though the Trump administration has often been criticized for its haphazard and impulsive approach to its European partners and the often very strained personal relationship between president Trump and the leaders of key NATO members like Germany and France, what will actually change? Well, probably not much.

The keystone of the NATO alliance is article 5 of the NATO charter, which ensures the mutual support from all the member states in case of armed aggression against any of the alliance members. Very quickly, this commitment was confirmed by the U.S., even though the Trump administration has often tried to link it to the upholding of the 2% GDP spending on defense that had been agreed between all the NATO members already in 2006. The Trump presidency has therefore also been in line with the defense procurement demands of both the Bush and the Obama administrations. Given the huge number of jobs associated with in the American military industrial complex, why would Biden-Harris not continue the line of the former U.S. administrations here?              

When confronted with the security aspects of NATO, Biden has named Russia as the foremost threat against the U.S. The conflicts in Syria, the Russian hybrid warfare in the Ukraine, the high-profile killings of political opponents abroad, as well as the potential threat of a Russia-China alliance has ensured that Russia has been watched carefully by the U.S. military as well as the intelligence services. Russia is, after all, still the most powerful nuclear nation in the world after the U.S.

Overall, business will remain the same. This also goes for the U.S. commitments to coalition operations in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, where mutual relationship will ensure only minor adjustments.  

Globalization and Trade

The new administration has already put American commitment to globalization and international trade high on its election agenda, but will that happen? Well, yes, this might be one of the policy areas where we will most likely see a change.

Trade tariffs might still be used by both Europe and the U.S. to protect some of their key industries (for example, the Boeing-Airbus dispute), but the ideological commitment to globalization and free trade of the former Obama-Biden administration was massive and it is truly the opposite of the America-first agenda of President Trump. It is to be expected that Biden will build on Obama’s policies here also because the present dire economic situation in the U.S. and Europe increases the incensement to remove some of the tariffs that the parties have slammed on each other, ensuring a massive mutual loss without much to show for it.

Likewise, the threat of an ever-stronger China will most likely see a substantial strengthening of the economic partnership between Europe and the U.S. to counter Chinese economic influence. Most likely, this will be seen within the fields of high-tech and industry, but could also affect agriculture and finance.

DIS Faculty Perspective: U.S.-European Relations after the Election Martin Rasmussen Teaching
Martin Rasmussen teaching Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Looking Towards the Future

Although the above areas of policy only represent some of the many factors influencing the U.S.-European relations, they are nevertheless among some of the most crucial, and the conclusions are far from clear. They seem to point mainly in the direction of continuity with only a limited change in U.S.-European relations. The structural limitations of a still divided Congress are a key factor here, since it severely limits the room for maneuver of the coming Biden-Harris administration.

The exception will mainly be within the economic relationship, where more liberal trends are to be expected. The policy area of security will remain as it was under Trump with only minor changes expected in the relationship between the U.S. and its NATO allies. Climate policy will most likely receive much political focus with a U.S. reentry into the Paris Agreement, but despite some hope for a U.S. catch-up, the lack of congressional control will be severely felt here and limit the impact of green initiatives by the new administration.

Martin holds a master’s degree in Russian and history from the University of Copenhagen. He teaches a number of classes at DIS related to EU-U.S. relations as well as classes on terrorism, history, and intelligence operations. Martin has been with DIS since 2016 and is also attached to The Royal Danish Defence College. In 2010 Martin crossed the Atlantic in a sailing boat starting from the US Virgin Islands. He lives in Copenhagen with his family.


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