Europe Braces for Life After Biden

Joe Biden
President Biden. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
July 5, 2022

Last week was a big one in the world of foreign policy. It began with the Group of Seven meeting in the Bavarian Alps, during which President Joe Biden, along with other G7 leaders, announced a $600 billion global infrastructure initiative to counter China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative. (If you can get infrastructure done at home, why not try it abroad, too, right?) The week then moved on to the Brussels Forum, hosted by the German Marshall Fund, where think tankers, politicians from the U.S. and Europe, and journalists mingled and discussed the most pressing issue for the transatlantic alliance: the war in Ukraine. Events finally wrapped up in Madrid, where NATO was holding a summit, during which the alliance released its 2022 “strategic concept,” a decennial policy document outlining its political concerns and military vision. 

These kinds of events were once a regular feature of life for anyone who works in the fields of national security and foreign policy, a constant loop of flights and conferences and schmoozing over coffee on the sidelines of this or that summit. These forums, incidentally, are one of the primary ways that everyone in the foreign policy establishment, from journalists to policy makers, has gotten to know each other over the years: bouncing from one event to another, sharing drinks, being introduced at dinners after the panels wrap up for the day, and so forth. Few people are actually there to listen to what’s being said on the stage, content that tends to be so polished that your mind slips off the words when it tries to grab a hold of them. People go to make new connections, to reconnect over lunch, find new sources, plant and develop new ideas or glean insights into the national security issue du jour. This may sound a bit like the well-oiled thought-leadership circuit that exists in the hedge fund industry, pharmaceuticals, or sales, but the foreign policy world, especially us transatlantic types, comprises a very small circle. So these conferences are, at least in my opinion, both extremely useful and extremely fun. 

The pandemic temporarily put an end to this swirl of activity, and the circuit is only now gradually coming back to life. It was why the opening of every hallway conversation was about who had had Covid when, and how air travel has or hasn’t changed, and how many delayed flights it had taken to get there. It was also why there was almost a giddy joy in these reunions, despite the awkward name tags and ugly hotel conference rooms—and the tragedy in Ukraine we were all discussing. It had been a long time since everyone had seen each other.

Are You Okay?

Amid all the slightly-too-enthusiastic messages about NATO unity, American domestic politics cast a long shadow over last week’s events. Europeans I spoke to were uniformly horrified by events in the United States. They had thought, or at least hoped, that Biden’s inauguration would put an end to the American carnage that the world had watched for four years. And in many ways, it had. But with the Supreme Court handing down decisions that look absolutely wild to many Europeans (and to many of us, of course), our overseas allies are realizing that maybe Donald Trump (or Trumpism) isn’t really gone. The tone that many Europeans took in conversations with me was one of a good but very concerned friend, something along the lines of, Are you… okay? (It was a dynamic that Politico’s National Security Daily picked up on, too.) 

The upcoming American midterms loomed particularly large, though they paled in comparison with the heartburn people were feeling over the 2024 presidential election. (The German Marshall Fund even hosted a panel on the midterms and what they would mean for transatlantic unity.) Europeans I spoke to gave the Biden administration very high marks for how it has handled both the lead-up and fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But everyone was worried about what a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, with a presumably more MAGA-ified character, would mean for Ukraine and NATO. They were even more worried that Trump—or someone just like him—would win the White House in November 2024. Would that mean that American isolationism would again become ascendant and Europe would have to face down Russia on its own? Would the next American president go back to flattering Putin and knee-capping NATO? Would Ukraine get any aid? (As I wrote back in May, this is hardly an idle concern.)

Two things struck me about these worries. First, among the people I spoke to, it was almost a foregone conclusion that there would be no second Biden term, and, furthermore, that there would not be a Democrat in the White House come January 2025. Second, many felt the damage Trump had done to the alliance—as well as to America’s standing in Europe—was still unhealed and festering. More than two years after Trump violently left office, Europe was still traumatized by the man’s destructive, dictator-friendly foreign policy. The European foreign policy establishment was enjoying the Biden interregnum while simultaneously understanding that it was coming to an end. They were very clearly bracing for what they fear is coming soon: a return of Trumpist, America-first isolationism, leaving Europe at Putin’s mercy.

“It’ll Be a Lot Harder”

The Brussels Forum marked nearly 75 years since the adoption of the Marshall Plan, a stroke of American foreign policy genius that rebuilt a European continent razed by World War II and that turned Germany, once America’s bitter enemy, into one of its staunchest allies. With the Marshall Plan, Germany went from being a militarized threat to the European continent to a beacon of European democracy. It was no coincidence that all week, from the Bavarian Alps to Madrid, foreign policy wonks and practitioners discussed the need for a new Marshall Plan, one that would rebuild a war-ravaged Ukraine and build up Eastern Europe into a bulwark against Russian aggression—and Chinese interference. 

At one point, one of the speakers in Brussels mentioned that the Marshall Plan accounted for a full five percent of American G.D.P. when it was enacted in 1948. Five percent, I thought. There is no way that would fly in today’s Washington. If we could barely agree to pay for our own country’s infrastructure, imagine what the Hill—and many American voters—would say to spending so much money on the infrastructure of a faraway foreign country. Four months into the war, American attention has long ago wandered from Ukraine’s misery, and calls are already rising from both the left and the right to scale back American commitments to Kyiv. 

It was, in large part, why everyone was talking about a Marshall Plan for Ukraine now, even as the war seems nowhere close to ending. (For what it’s worth, the negotiations that set up the World Bank and IMF, two institutions that arose from the ashes of World War II, began long before the war was over. Government officials tend to know better than anyone else how slowly government bureaucracies move.) 

“Everybody understands what’s going on here,” Mike McFaul, President Obama’s Russia advisor and ambassador to Moscow, told me in Brussels. “The Ukrainians rightfully have decided to get commitments locked in now because it might be a lot harder a year from now, especially in the United States,” he said. “I think they’re right about that, because if there’s a big change in the government—in both the House and Senate, but especially the House—it’ll be a lot harder. Speaker Pelosi’s 100 percent with President Zelensky. She’s got a very clear view on that. But that’ll change after the midterms. And then we’ll be in an election season.” If Trump is running, McFaul added, “he’s not going to be running to say we should give money to Ukrainians. So that’s why I think it’s wise to have these discussions now.” Indeed, as a senior Hill foreign policy aide who was in Brussels with their boss told me, the appetite to support Ukraine financially is still strong now, but it’s “not going to last forever.”

In other words, everyone from Kyiv to Washington understands that the clock on Ukraine aid is running down and running down quickly. Nobody was pushing for America alone to foot the bill for this new Marshall Plan to rebuild Ukraine—Europe has gone above and beyond in providing military and financial aid to Kyiv, and it is stepping up here, too. But as with so many things in postwar Europe, America sets the tone. If the U.S. were willing to commit funds and political muscle to this next European project in order to push back on Russia and stabilize the continent, Europeans would feel reassured in also committing to the cause. They may yet do so without America, but the resulting package would surely be far leaner and far less effective in accomplishing its goals. 

Hanging over the entire week of fevered diplomacy in Europe was the sense that the time to draw up agreements that could potentially decide the next several decades of Europe’s political landscape was quickly running out. It was a reminder, yet again, of why French President Emannuel Macron had begun to speak, during the Trump presidency, of European self-sufficiency as clouds continued to gather on Europe’s horizons. To Europe’s east, Russia was increasingly hellbent on destruction while China continued on in pursuit of its own illiberal vision of economic and political supremacy. 

Now, to the west, just when things seem more dire than ever, and even with a member of the foreign policy establishment in the White House, America no longer looks like a very reliable ally. The future of Europe instead depends on whether the transatlantic alliance can cobble something together in the last two years of the Biden presidency that can outlast his tenure. It is a tremendous and vitally important task with not a lot of time left to do it—a feeling no one could quite hide last week, no matter how excited they were to get on a plane and put on a name badge for a happy hour in Brussels.