Unforced Errors

News sources quoted from: by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
September, 2021
by William Reinsch, Senior Adviser and Scholl Chair in International Business
This week, the Scholl Chair evaluates the United States’ ongoing and long-standing relationship with the European Union. How has the Biden administration’s approach affected the outlook for transatlantic relations? 

Media www.rajawalisiber.com  – During the Obama administration, there was much talk about the “pivot to Asia,” reflecting a newfound emphasis on the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region. The Trump administration was characterized more by a pivot away from everybody, which led me to confidently predict that the Biden administration, among other things, would do something of a re-pivot and devote time to rebuilding our tattered relations with Europe.

Well, it turns out, I was either not entirely right about that, or, if I was right, we’re not doing a very good job of it. While there have been periodic expressions of solidarity with Europeans, there has also been a growing list of actions that have caught them flat-footed because of lack of consultation and that have taken positions contrary to theirs.

Early on, we had the vaccine waiver issue, where the administration surprised everybody, particularly the European Union, with its announced support for a waiver to the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). So far, that hasn’t made much real difference, as the European Union continues to oppose a waiver, and the proponents refuse to compromise on a narrower approach, but the U.S. move made the European Union look bad to public health activists and nongovernmental organizations. More importantly, it came as a surprise, as did the president’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan. In fairness, the European Union should have seen the latter one coming, but once again we failed to consult. Nor did we consult on the creation of the Australia-UK-U.S. (AUKUS) alliance and submarine deal. The French were rightly irritated because the deal will cost them billions of dollars and a lot of jobs by canceling their existing submarine deal with Australia, but the rest of the European Union was similarly annoyed because it came as a surprise, and it nearly derailed the first meeting of the Trade and Technology Council (TTC). Even when we had good news, such as removal of the travel ban for vaccinated people into the United States, we apparently did not give anyone in Europe a heads up.

There seems to be a pattern here: talk nice but don’t necessarily accommodate European views, blindsiding them in the process. Why is that? I am a believer in Occam’s Razor—that the simplest answer is usually the best one—and the simple answer would be that the administration was simply so busy deciding what to do that it forgot to tell anybody beforehand. A charitable word would be inexperience; a less charitable one incompetence. I’m in the charitable group right now, but a few more of these unforced errors, and that group is going to get very small.

As always in Washington, however, there are more Machiavellian explanations. A number of those have been floated, including the idea that the administration is still annoyed over the European Union’s negotiation of a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China, a case in which the shoe was on the other foot and we were blindsided. I don’t believe that is the reason—the agreement was reached under Trump, the current folks were not in office, and it does not appear to be going anywhere anyway. A better one is that the administration wants to demonstrate to the European Union exactly what the latter fears—that its main priorities lie elsewhere.

And in reality, they do. While we can argue over the extent and nature of the challenge China presents, there are very few in the United States arguing that there is no threat. The Biden administration is attempting to meet that challenge in a variety of ways, adopting both of the strategies I have discussed previously—running faster and tripping the other guy.

The president has also made clear that he views dealing with China as a multilateral project that needs the participation of our friends and allies. I predicted rapprochement with the European Union because it was the obvious thing to do. Now we are seeing that there are more options for allies: AUKUS involves the United Kingdom and Australia. President Biden hosted a meeting of the Quad—the United States, Australia, Japan and India—last Friday. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative is starting to talk about closer trade relations with Southeast Asia (not enough, but moving in the right direction).

There may also be a practical reason for a broader focus than the European Union: European countries are still behind the United States in understanding and appreciating the Chinese challenge. They see the security situation differently—they are not Pacific powers—and like businesses everywhere, their companies have been reluctant to confront China and jeopardize their interests there. That hypothesis will be tested this week at the TTC meeting in Pittsburgh. Leaked drafts lay out commitments to cooperate and share information on a number of issues, including semiconductor supply chains, export controls, artificial intelligence, investment screening, global trade challenges, forced labor, and trade and the environment. The U.S. influence over the agenda is clear—these are U.S. priorities. The questions will be how ambitious the final joint statement will be and how to translate commitments to cooperate into tangible outcomes.

To start off that discussion, CSIS is holding a virtual postmortem of the TTC on Friday morning at 9:00 ET. Cecilia Malmström (former European commissioner and nonresident senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics), Rob Atkinson (president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation), and Melissa Griffith (senior program associate at the Wilson Center and adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies) will provide their analyses of the meeting and whether the bilateral relationship is back on track or we have more repair work to do. I suspect the answer to that last question will be “yes,” and the way to begin is to avoid any more unforced errors.

William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. 

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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