Like all old friends, the United States and Europe have had their ups and downs. They’ve experienced periods of distance and even tension. But trust—grounded in common values, cultural familiarity, and a legacy of shared triumphs — has kept the relationship intact and generally enabled the two sides to pick up right where they left off.
Donald Trump’s presidency changed all that, straining this trust to near-breaking point. Past episodes of transatlantic divergence, from the Suez Crisis to the Iraq War, centered on intense policy disagreements. But Trump injected doubt into the relationship itself, as he pilloried European leaders and cozied up to avowed enemies of the European project, undermined the European Union (EU) by supporting Brexit, and threatened to pull the United States out of NATO. Such behavior is not easily forgotten—especially as Trumpism remains a potent political force in the United States.
It is hardly surprising, then, that in December the European Union pushed through a new investment treaty with China despite protestations by members of the then-incoming Biden administration. A new US president—even one with as ironclad a record on transatlantic relations as Joe Biden possesses—is not enough for the EU to alter its strategic calculus and give Washington the benefit of the doubt. The EU-China treaty reveals just how much work the Biden administration needs to do to earn back the transatlantic trust that was relinquished during the Trump years.
Biden has already taken positive steps to rebuild this trust—prioritizing introductory phone calls with European leaders, highlighting the importance of the transatlantic relationship at the Munich Security Conference, and most importantly selecting committed transatlanticists, such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for key foreign-policy posts.
European leaders, likewise, are racing to embrace the new US president and thinking through concrete ways to improve transatlantic ties. In the months since Biden’s election, the European Commission has drafted a white paper calling upon leaders to seize a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to forge a new US-EU alliance and proposed establishing a Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council. NATO is reviewing the need for a new strategic concept, which would redefine the alliance’s priorities and spell out how it can confront the current security landscape. NATO has also recommended creating both a new mechanism to coordinate China policy and a Center of Excellence for Democratic Resilience to protect democratic institutions within allied countries.
Reviving the transatlantic partnership, however, will require more than the traditional close diplomacy, warm rhetoric, and lofty white papers. It will demand bold action that proves the United States and Europe can still accomplish major feats together. A unified vision is a good start, but ultimately insufficient: America and Europe must set out to do big things and then execute on them, creating a new legacy of joint triumphs that their citizens can rally around and upon which future generations can build. It is only with such foundational touchstones, which galvanize a fresh political consensus in favor of the transatlantic bond, that real trust and all the benefits that it brings can be restored.
Creating these new touchstones will require investments of time, resources, and political capital. There is a significant list of issues on which deep transatlantic cooperation could make a major difference. Attempting to boil the ocean, however, would be a recipe for failure. US and European leaders must prioritize. The key is to select a small number of urgent and tangible projects with good odds of success. Three projects—ending the COVID-19 pandemic, reinvigorating transatlantic security, and reconciling US and European policies on technology—should rise to the top of the agenda.
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