As he spoke from the sunny steps of the U.S. Capitol during his inauguration, Joe Biden acknowledged that this will be “a time of testing.” He enumerated the crises we face—“an attack on democracy and on truth, a raging virus, growing inequality, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis, America’s role in the world.” He vowed to “repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.”
Despite the president’s strong vision, the events of January 6 remain at the forefront of American concerns: a successful assault on the halls of Congress; a Republican Party in thrall to a politically gifted, defeated, and vengeful demagogue and his supporters; and the painful implications for effective, democratic governance. What has emerged in the near term is a struggle to enforce accountability for the past four years. But most observers understand that it will be impossible to fix the country without addressing the underlying conditions that spawned the ugly events: racism; growing inequalities in wealth and income; and large segments of the American population left behind in an economy driven by financialization and high technology.
In the midst of all this, we are also facing increasingly severe challenges abroad. Recognition is now dawning across America that this includes not just terrorists but also China and Russia. These problems are bound together as consequences of our own choices in foreign policy, politics, and the economy.
We have to recalibrate our policies at home and abroad. Americans can no longer assume that we will be the indispensable power—nor can we simply turn to the private sector to lead the country. We need a new way forward that steels us against both internal and external challenges. That way involves a much deeper, more structured relationship with the European Union and the United Kingdom.
Why the EU and the UK? There are several reasons. Combined, the continent and Britain are home to more than 500 million people, enough to put our collective population on closer footing with that of China. Both the EU and the UK are advanced economies, capable of sustaining important investments in research and infrastructure. But above all else, we must partner with the European Union and the United Kingdom because of our long-standing, shared liberal values and a shared recognition that those values are at risk. These common commitments—to freedom, privacy, equal opportunity, fair labor practices, environmental stewardship, and respect for the rule of law—are threatened both by authoritarian leaders in China and Russia and by practices the U.S. and the EU have condoned or failed to rein in, from tax havens that shield ill-gotten gains to monopolies that undermine entrepreneurs. Recommitting to these principles will allow us to reinvigorate our democracies.
Forming a robust, values-based partnership with the EU and the UK will be difficult. The United States has not done the best job of living up to many of these principles, especially under the previous administration, which may make our partners across the Atlantic doubt our reliability. It will therefore require that we make progressive policy changes that cannot easily be undone. For that reason, it would be best if this deeper, more structured relationship were codified by an agreement binding all parties to a pro-democracy reform agenda.
A formal treaty is ideal, and a sufficient number of Senate Republicans, whose concerns about China have been ramped up by the previous administration, might be motivated to support one. Even without Republican votes, however, there are ways Biden and congressional Democrats could get a binding agreement over the finish line. One way or another, we need to strengthen the Atlantic alliance. Authoritarian demagogues, both domestic and foreign, are testing American and European commitment to democracy. We need to partner with each other to save this system of government—and ourselves.
In the 1990s, the United States was the sole superpower. The American economy led the world by sheer strength. But in the 2000s, against the warning of some allies, we deployed our military power to the Middle East and Southwest Asia in response to the terrorist strikes orchestrated by Osama bin Laden. The invasion of Iraq was the most costly strategic blunder in U.S. history: We empowered Iran; unleashed a worldwide wave of terrorism and displacement; caused hundreds of thousands of deaths; wreaked quiet havoc at home; and distracted our country from its global responsibilities for the better part of two decades. As our economy fitfully recovered from the Great Recession, we continued to struggle with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, remained bogged down in Afghanistan, and contended with Iran.
At the same time, we came to see growing challenges from an increasingly authoritarian China and Russia. Today the American national security community is unified in understanding that China presents a long-term and increasingly profound threat to fundamental American values and interests. Russia is a dangerous spoiler, growing ever more closely aligned with China.
With its 1.4 billion people, China has sustained unprecedented economic growth for more than three decades; its economy will soon overtake that of the U.S. in GDP. The Chinese middle class alone is larger than the population of the United States. The country’s production of steel is 10 times that of America; its automobile production twice as great; its intellectual property production—measured by patents filed—two and a half times as great. For 11 years, China has graduated more science and engineering students than the United States and the six largest EU nations combined. Chinese technology is on a par with the U.S. in many sectors, and perhaps more advanced in fields like artificial intelligence and quantum computing.
China’s government maintains its legitimacy by promoting historic Chinese nationalism and delivering wealth and higher standards of living to its people, but its grip is enforced through surveillance and repression. President Xi Jinping has increasingly concentrated power personally, and he takes an assertive and expansionist view of China’s role and responsibilities. Under his leadership, the country has claimed and militarized the South China Sea and is pushing territorial claims against both India and Japan. China continues to strengthen its economy with vast flows of foreign exchange from exports and sales of debt, and also uses these funds to invest in infrastructure abroad though its Belt and Road Initiative and other programs. It is also a major investor in U.S. Treasury debt. China brings a so-called whole-of-society approach to its strategic ambitions: Every business, every student, and every investment is potentially in service to Xi’s dream of a greater China and is a means to collect information, exert pressure, or gain dominance.
China has for decades drawn technology from the West through foreign investments, theft, and cybercrime. According to its most recent Five-Year Plan, China wants increased self-sufficiency from Western technology, and to further its own technological supremacy. Simultaneously, China is seeking freedom from the U.S. dollar in trade and investments, as well as the creation of a new set of global institutions that would replace those established by the United States at the end of World War II. Simply put, China wants to replace the U.S. in global leadership and impose a China-centric, power-dominated global order.
While China doesn’t seek war in its quest for global leadership, it is assembling the military power to protect and project power globally. China’s armed forces now possess stealth aircraft, by far the largest navy in the Pacific, two (soon to be three) aircraft carriers, and an exquisitely developed, missile-backed, anti-access/area denial strategy aimed at deterring the United States. In the event of a conflict in the western Pacific, China could possibly establish regional military dominance in the South China Sea and the western Pacific through the use of its aircraft carriers, land-based bombers and attack aircraft, long-range, maneuverable ballistic missiles, stealthy submarines, and excellent targeting capabilities. While Taiwan is not without defenses, the U.S. would be challenged to defend it effectively if China mounted a full-force attack on the island. Taiwan’s safety relies on deterring conflict, not winning it. China is establishing its “string of pearls” naval bases across the Indian Ocean and into Africa. China’s modernization is reaching into space, with lasers, rockets, and cyberweapons that have the potential to destroy satellites at all altitudes—critical to American military communications and navigation—and an ambitious manned space flight program. As China increases its pressure campaign against Taiwan, the threat of conflict is growing.
For decades, China’s only ally was North Korea—now a nuclear power with the capacity to strike the United States. But today, China and Russia are aligning policies and actions more closely than ever. Russia, since its war with Georgia, has undertaken significant military modernization. Always strong in air defense, it has produced new hardware for air and ground warfare, new technologies, including hypersonic and nuclear weaponry, and effective expeditionary forces. Russia is now in Syria, Libya, and several locations in Africa with its uniformed forces or mercenary organizations, like the Wagner Group. It retains formidable nuclear power.
Like China, Russia has become an increasingly determined rival of the United States, contesting American activities abroad diplomatically and with military advice, assistance, and intervention. It is also undercutting the United States and NATO through a variety of soft-power means. Russian President Vladimir Putin aims to dominate western Europe through supplies of natural gas delivered via various pipelines, including its nearly completed Baltic pipeline, Nord Stream 2, plus reconstruction of Syria’s oil infrastructure, and efforts to control Libya’s oil fields. Russian money flows both legally and illegally into the West, where it buys friends and influence and corrupts democratic processes. Russian cyberactivity spreads disinformation, disrupts elections, and affords opportunities for destructive interference in Western economies and institutions. Russia’s white Christian supremacist doctrine is peddled throughout the West, where it has fueled nationalist sentiments in Hungary and Austria, as well as reaching deeply into the United States.
For more than a decade, U.S. national security strategists have recognized that these growing challenges abroad cannot be addressed without first fixing what’s wrong here at home. Foreign-backed disinformation campaigns thrive in a damaged polity, and 40 years of delegitimizing the federal government and increasing our reliance on the private sector have left the economy frayed and social structure weakened. While there has been significant GDP growth with the emergence of new technologies, especially in communications and information processing, most Americans sense that something is amiss—and they are right. During this time an increasingly fragmented and costly education system has been failing to prepare young people for the modern economy. Millions have been left without access to affordable health care despite our costly medical system. Trade agreements, outsourcing, automation, and information technology have gutted American industry, leaving deep pockets of unemployment and underemployment in a system that delivers an ever-increasing concentration of wealth and income at the top as the economy has become financialized. We are suffering a crisis tied to pain-relieving opioids, which saps the energy and economy of much of rural America.
Unfortunately, the American political system has not faced up to the challenges. Partisanship has steadily deepened throughout the country. Struggles over private school funding and alternatives to public schools and teachers’ unions still rage. The Affordable Care Act was never fully implemented, lacks a public option, and has been bitterly fought over for a decade. President Donald Trump started a trade war with China and promised to bring back the coal industry, but he failed to halt the economic hollowing out of American manufacturing, most recently exposed in the nation’s great dependence on foreign suppliers for critical personal protective equipment. Where manufacturers have invested, the increasing reliance on robotics and automation has prevented significant growth in manufacturing employment or the return of organized labor. Even a $15 minimum wage is highly contentious. Opioid manufacturers have been taken to court, but legal accountability has failed to stem the epidemic. No infrastructure bill has been passed despite more than a decade of promises and a very clear need. COVID-19 has killed more than 500,000 Americans while deepening the problems of unemployment, lost wages, and growing inequalities of income and wealth. When all of this is combined with a pervasive climate of disinformation on the political right, it’s little wonder that Trump and his allies were able to incite an angry mob to storm the Capitol.
But even as the Biden administration attempts to address these domestic issues and “build back better,” most strategists recognize that we cannot maintain our place in the world, and our security at home, without relying on our partners overseas. Allies can potentially offset the weight of China’s huge population and formidable economy, with everything that entails in terms of talent, attractive markets, and investible surpluses. Allies can reinforce America’s voice in international institutions, resist the blandishments of strategically significant Chinese and Russian investments, work against money laundering and state-sponsored corruption, and embargo the release or transfer of sensitive technologies to China and Russia. We can help encourage Xi and Putin to modify their aims and fold their countries peacefully into extant international institutions and the rules-based international order.
China, of course, knows this, and as part of their long-range strategy they have worked steadily and systematically to invest abroad and, simultaneously, to undercut American influence with friends and allies. At first, the major area of contention was Africa. Stepping into the aftermath of decolonization and conflict, Chinese army engineers deployed to build roads, the China Rail Corporation and others sought to build railways to connect the continent, and the Chinese government began to offer very attractive loans to African nations looking to fund various endeavors. All of this both assured China access to Africa’s raw materials and also undercut Western influence. Central and South America have been open for Chinese interest and investments, including shipping interests in Panama and deep commercial and agricultural ties with Brazil, Peru, and others in South America. Southeast Asia is all too aware of China’s assertiveness and aims, but is nonetheless heavily reliant on China as an economic engine and is susceptible to Chinese pressures. However flawed the Trans-Pacific Partnership might have been, its cancellation opened the door to greater Chinese influence in the region and cast doubt on America’s long-term dependability as an ally. The historic enmity between China and Japan and the legacy of the Korean War has stymied Chinese expansionism into Northeast Asia, though both Korea and Japan are heavily engaged with China economically.
This leaves Europe the remaining and most important area of contention. To manage China’s ascent, we need its help. Thankfully, we already have close relationships with almost all of its states. The U.S. is the largest investor in the European Union, and the EU nations are the largest source of our direct foreign investment. While its GDP has failed to grow much over the past decade, the EU has technologies and heavy industries either on a par with ours or superior.
But although Europe has been deeply reliant on the U.S. for almost a century, the relationship has always been fraught with tension. Europeans resented American efforts to push decolonization in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s as well as our refusal to share nuclear technology. Germany always felt the magnetic pull of markets to the east, and a large measure of guilt and regret over the tragedy of World War II. France struggled to maintain its language, culture, and economy against what one prominent French politician and intellectual called “the American challenge.” From the beginning, Americans complained that Europe was not bearing a fair share of the defense burden within NATO. The formation of the European Union itself was an effort to preserve cultures and relative freedom of action against the American superpower. Most Europeans opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. When the U.S. pivoted to Asia in 2011, Europe felt a further sense of abandonment. And by early 2021, after four years of criticism and rebuke by Trump, America’s reputation for reliability and competence had been diminished.
For China, this has been a tremendous opening. Europe has technologies China covets, is a growing market for Chinese exports as well as a source of capital, and is a general geostrategic target. China has assiduously courted European favor and recently surpassed the U.S. as the largest of Europe’s trading partners. China loves Italian fashions and owns the port of Piraeus in Greece. Rail shipments now connect China and Spain. In December 2020, China and the European Union finished negotiating the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, a deliberate effort from some in Europe to gain greater distance from the U.S. For China, it was a successful wedge between the U.S. and Europe. In the U.S., it was received with shock.
In view of the Russian challenge in Europe, providing our allies the security of the American nuclear umbrella and military deterrence is necessary—and we must support the military modernization and deployments necessary to maintain it. But especially when it comes to China, deterrence and conventional economic arrangements will no longer be sufficient to protect our interests—or theirs. We cannot simply appeal to fear alone. Regaining America’s global leadership requires renewed military commitments, as well as convincing Europe to view alignment with a democratic, fractious U.S. as more attractive than linkage with the rising power of the authoritarian but effective China.
Traditionally, when binding itself more closely to overseas partners, the United States has had separate alliances and trade agreements—broadly related but in two different channels. In the former case, the focus is on military risks, plans, and exercises. As the largest power, and with global interests, American capabilities dominate the alliances, like NATO, and focus on deterrence. In the latter, the U.S. seeks agreements that promote business opportunities abroad and serve consumers at home. These agreements are usually laboriously prepared to protect domestic interests, and there is the inevitable give-and-take for consensus and ratification with negotiating partners and at home.
Facing the China challenge requires blending together our traditional security alliances like NATO with broader economic and social commitments that enable us and our allies to work together to contend with the challenges we face. This will not be easy. Europe has deep and understandable concerns about America’s reliability as an ally. While NATO survived the last administration, Trump’s many disparagements of the alliance rattled its foundations. Meanwhile, efforts begun under the Obama administration to negotiate the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Program, or TTIP, collapsed under Trump, leading the two continents to go their separate ways; the U.S.-China “Phase I” trade agreement was announced in early 2020, and a China-EU investment deal was announced in December.
But there is a decisive opening for the United States: values. There is mutual recognition among most governments in Europe, and among our new government here, that we need to reinforce liberal democratic principles from sustained attack, and the U.S.-China and China-EU agreements do not effectively address that. (Nor, for that matter, did TTIP.) Instead, they are about economic interests and access to markets. While the EU-China agreement has weak promises of transparency and labor standards, they are unlikely to be kept.
It is through this shared goal that the U.S. and Europe can revive and deepen their relationship. Thankfully, the new administration is already taking steps in this direction. Biden has announced his intent to convene what he calls a “Summit for Democracy” with democratic countries from around the world. This provides the framework within which a variety of efforts, programs, and policies can be developed and sustained. Of course, the relationship with the EU will give the summit its scope and power, but we should also invite our Asian democratic allies. Through the summit, we should move forward with the EU on crafting shared policies along multiple tracks: security; finance and investment; the environment and climate change; labor policies and trade; and democratic values.
In each track, progress will be driven by mutual interests, but the efforts in one track can be reinforced by work in another. For instance, efforts in the security track to identify and preclude sales of sensitive hardware to China and Russia might be allied with greater transatlantic research and development programs or some relief for Europe from our policy to “buy American” with defense procurements. Restricting Chinese and Russia investments in sensitive European infrastructure might need to be related to greater American and European Central Bank financing, perhaps with new programs for financing European infrastructure. Certain efforts, like achieving vehicle electrification and phasing out older power plants, might benefit from greater coordination in transatlantic and U.S.-Japanese incentive programs. The art of diplomacy is to manage and coordinate multiple channels and means of influence to achieve the desired result, and creating a new architecture for collaboration would begin with tying many issues together.
We would ask Europe to restrict tech companies like Huawei that might compromise security, or Chinese and Russian infrastructure or other strategic investments that could further either country’s influence. We would also seek assurances that our allies would not export sensitive technologies and capital goods to these countries, or invest in military-related Chinese and Russian enterprises. We would seek an end to the threat of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a project that would increase Europe’s vulnerability to Russia.
The Europeans will also have needs and interests. The American market must be able to welcome more German and Italian heavy industrial products that would otherwise seek outlets in Russia, as well as German and French high tech that might find easier receipt in China. To help eliminate the pipeline, the EU will want a more ready supply of natural gas from the United States.
But perhaps the most significant demands will be more fundamental. As part of any deepened partnership, Europe will want American commitments to move toward a carbon-neutral economy by a fixed date. European politicians will also want to understand the mechanisms to make this happen, regardless of which political party is in power. They will also seek assurances on labor standards, data privacy, monopolistic practices, and the social safety net; this will require U.S. commitments to raise labor’s share of the GDP and to promote workforce development and safety net programs on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as tackling other tough issues at home.
In other words, bringing Europe successfully into alignment on U.S.-China policies will require a greater alignment of our economy with some “European” values. This is not far from what the Biden administration and the increasingly strong progressive voices here have been seeking: strengthening the social safety net; reducing gross inequalities in opportunity, income, and wealth; and trying to make the cost-price models of the private economy more inclusive of the externalities they generate, in everything from greenhouse gas generation to pushing millions of families into greater reliance on debt and government programs. These are some of the issues on which the American political system has faltered in recent decades.
Still, seeking the best of both systems provides benefits on both sides of the Atlantic. Europe has consistently lagged behind the U.S. and China in economic growth and recovery and is, consequently, also struggling with resurgent nationalism. Europe should welcome deeper economic engagement with the United States. But in return, they will expect us to stop some of the vicious cost cutting at the expense of labor and its benefits that has come to define transatlantic industrial competition.
The design and process of negotiating the new agreement should be carefully considered. The discarded TTIP was to be detailed and prescriptive. There would have been winners on both sides of the Atlantic, but there would have been losers, too. It was crafted over three years of negotiations, and, like most trade talks, it was cloaked in secrecy. The same anxieties will be exposed in working on this agreement, but the issues—our national security, economic well-being, and the future of democracy—are even more pressing. A different design and process must be adopted. Instead of rolling out a finished agreement after detailed and meticulous negotiations, the process must begin with alternative structures in mind.
This new agreement would ideally take the form of a treaty alliance. Discussions would follow the model of NATO; the talks that produced that treaty were concluded in little more than a year, following a coup in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet shutdown of ground access to Berlin. The alliance has survived because it was based on broad principles and worked as a living organization, evolving to face new challenges and to continuously meet the interests of member nations. As a treaty, it presented member states with legally binding obligations.
Perhaps this new agreement could be called the “Democracy Partnership.” There could be a relatively rapid set of discussions that could lead to broad but binding commitments in principle, followed by phased implementation via treaty. Similar to NATO, it could have a secretariat and representatives from its member states. There could be periodic meetings at the ministerial and head-of-state levels, perhaps synchronized with the NATO schedule. States would make common commitments and then develop and implement them. The European Union’s role would be a matter of particular consideration. On which issues can it represent its member states? Are its decisions on particular issues recommendations or obligations? Can the EU be made into a stronger partner?
Efforts would likely begin with commitments on climate change and the protection of sensitive technologies. Then there would be agreements on how to consider and approve foreign infrastructure investments—the current EU and U.S. procedures need to be jointly reviewed. Preferential investment incentives in our respective critical infrastructure must also be developed. There are models and memories of such efforts within NATO and its infrastructure program, but now the needs are broader. Unlike TTIP, investment incentives would be geared not so much to the financial sector as to real investments, creating the modern and resilient communications, data, banking, transportation, and power systems that are the lifeblood of modern economies. This could reinforce the long-awaited American infrastructure program and link it to similar investments in the EU.
Strong relationships already exist among central banks on both sides of the Atlantic, but these could be further structured to harmonize more effective fiscal and monetary policies within the EU. Chinese access to U.S. and European capital markets should be more finely regulated to prevent feeding the industrial and military machine that threatens democratic governance in the West. More broadly, Western financial institutions and corporations need guidelines that assure that their pursuit of profits is in line with the security of democratic values and governance, even at the expense of their fiduciary obligations to maximize returns to investors. Basic research and development will need greater investment, and intellectual property will need more rational protection. There would be new measures to harmonize antimonopoly practices and data and privacy considerations. Many of these issues are already actively under discussion or in the court system. What is new is seeking agreements on these issues in multiple forums consistent with broadly agreed transatlantic principles.
Can such a framework be crafted and approved in the United States and Europe? There are serious obstacles. The GOP is hostile to progressive change, and it will be difficult to get 17 Senate Republicans to join Democrats in voting for a treaty that binds America to stronger regulatory standards.
But for three years, the Republican Party has worked against China with protective tariffs and weapon sales to Taiwan. It has staunchly criticized China on the issues of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and COVID-19, and focused on the threat of Huawei and other Chinese tech companies. China might be the single most powerful issue around which Democrats and Republicans could unite. Certainly the Republicans will favor stronger military and military-related efforts to constrain and contain China. Only private consultations with the Republican leadership can ascertain whether they realize that confrontation with China will not be successful if we go it alone, and determine how much support the party is willing to give.
Europe’s deepening ties with China and its concerns about the U.S. also pose challenges. But the promise of economic assistance, such as more infrastructure financing, could help sluggish EU economies sign on. Progressive policy change in Washington, such as the kind Democrats are currently pushing, will also help our promises appear more credible.
If a formal treaty-based organization is not immediately feasible, then perhaps the Summit for Democracy would lead to the creation of a permanent secretariat to coordinate, raise, and steer issues. An official treaty would not necessarily legally bind member states, but there could be preliminary agreement to cooperate, followed by more traditional diplomacy.
One key criterion, however, is that the summit would need to generate prompt actions—if not a treaty, then promises to work on related issues and firm deadlines for agreement and implementation. The secretariat, for example, could condition participation in future summits on passing a nontraditional but still enforceable trade agreement requiring that states fight climate change, combat monopolization, and tighten investment rules to prevent China and Russia from gaining access to critical infrastructure. In the U.S., trade agreements can be ratified via the fast-track process, which is not subject to the filibuster, making Republican support not essential.
Even if we must start small, both the U.S. and Europe might find that momentum for more change will build once we begin to implement a values-based agreement. After all, this deal would help fix the institutional failures that have led isolationism and nationalism in the U.S. and Europe to thrive. For four decades, it has been a mantra in the U.S. that the private sector can do it better than government. Yet it is government that must provide the boundaries, priorities, resources, and incentives that enable the private sector and markets to work for the public good. In Europe, government action has been hobbled by the criteria laid out in the EU’s founding treaty, fears of inflation, and notions of austerity that hearken back to mistaken economic ideas of the 1930s. The resulting public suffering has led to declining respect for governmental and European-wide institutions.
The question, then, is whether nations are willing and able to begin this hard work. Policymakers in the United States and Europe recognize the extraordinary systemic challenge posed by China. But dealing with economic and political interests is far more challenging for democracies than agreeing on military policies to deter or halt aggression. Diplomats and leaders must have the courage to take the necessary risks, because as China strengthens its global reach, such agreements will only become more difficult.
China will, of course, work against such arrangements. For centuries, its emperors sowed division and conflict among the Mongol tribes north of the Great Wall in order to protect their country. China will use its traditional tools of blandishments, rumors, and innuendo. It will also use the magnetic appeal of its culture and rising wealth as well as its modern technologies.
But it is to China’s benefit as well as our own that we create a stronger transatlantic linkage. The West must continue to trade with China and collaborate in areas of common interest, such as climate change; for China, a stronger U.S.-European alliance would provide a more reliable and capable partner in dealing with global issues. It would also give the country a more rational, predictable competitor, and a stronger reason to look for alternatives to coercion and the use of force. Ultimately, this agreement would not be an anti-China alliance; it would be, rather, an effort by a group of democracies to find support for their own values and interests as the emerging economies of the 20th century rightfully move into global prominence.
Going forward with this new transatlantic agenda would be one of the most visible and effective means of restoring American global leadership, as well as dealing with the painful issues exposed on January 6. There is no time for delay.