Vice-President Joseph R. Biden Jr. poses with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Petro Poroschenko during the 51st Munich Security Conference in 2015. Photo Credit: Marc Müller
With the 2020 US presidential election, it’s important to remember that Americans have not only elected the President of the United States, but also the leader of the free world responsible for reuniting the divided transatlantic community. President-elect Joseph R. Biden has long regarded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as the pinnacle of transatlantic security and one of the United States’ most valued partners. Given Washington’s status as the alliance’s largest donor and greatest guarantor of international security, it is more important than ever to examine what Biden’s vision for NATO will be and how he plans to unite member-states against the hybrid, transnational, security threats of the twenty-first century.
President-elect Biden is the sum of his 47 years of political office. The father of an Iraq War veteran, he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and negotiated with allies worldwide as vice-president under the Obama administration. Central to his foreign policy are relationships. Joe Biden places alliances at the center of any foreign policy initiative he envisions to protect the international order, safeguard American democracy, and advance peace and prosperity worldwide. He has long supported NATO and other multinational organizations and even led policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Ukraine under the Obama Administration.[i] In a 2019 foreign policy address in New York City, Biden claimed that his administration, if elected, would “place America at the head of the table, working our allies and partners…to mobilize global action on global threats, especially those unique to our century.”[ii] As the United States sets new records nearly every day for coronavirus infections, it is increasingly clear that today’s threats do not respect national borders. Whether facing off against climate change, China, or Covid, Biden’s strategies all incorporate allies.
NATO is uniquely placed among the United States’ many bilateral and multilateral alliances to be at the forefront of this strategy. Critical to overturning some Americans’ negative view of NATO, however, will be the issue of burden-sharing. President Trump decimated transatlantic solidarity over the critical 2% of GDP spending requirements on defense issues—a pledge actually negotiated by the Obama Administration.[iii] The commitment divided allies, particularly when resources for coronavirus are eating a larger share of federal budgets. Ironically, however, Trump’s push for European allies to step up may increase the bargaining space for a Biden administration. Biden acknowledges the challenges emanating from Russian electoral interference, the erosion of democratic institutions across NATO member-states, and the threats of disruptive technology and 5G wielded by a revisionist China. As a result, the Biden administration would likely revise and expand its definition of burden-sharing. Far from a largely symbolic 2% pledge, Biden has an opportunity to push for burden-sharing in terms of capabilities, with principles ordered to exact change, enhance defense and deterrence posture, and ensure the Alliance is fit for a new geopolitical era.[iv]
Mastering this equilibrium starts with reaffirming NATO’s value amongst an American populace that has frequently heard arguments that the alliance is no longer valuable. Biden jokingly claims that NATO and finding a cure for cancer are the only two things Democrats and Republicans agree upon, but he may be right.[v] To unite the country and the transatlantic community, Biden views NATO as the proper vehicle to ensure collective security while reinforcing shared identities and interests. In fact, Biden’s argument at the Munich Security Conference last year emphasized this fact to a shared North Atlantic audience. He tried to assuage Europeans’ fears that they would be abandoned by an “America First” US by claiming, “You can count on us to lead…because it is overwhelmingly in our self-interest” and that of other countries’. Starting straight at the camera, he promised: “We will be back.”[vi] It seems NATO trusts this commitment as well. In a surprisingly partisan move for the Alliance, it announced that it would welcome a President Biden to Brussels for a summit in early spring, whereas a summit with a reelected President Trump would wait until the summer.[vii] This shift makes sense in terms of the policy agenda both candidates would seek to assert, as Trump would likely have fewer and far more divisive initiatives than Biden would. Regardless, the move speaks volumes for an alliance that values American membership dearly.
For all of this to be possible, however, NATO needs to be step up its political game. Biden’s plans to “elevate diplomacy as the United States’ principal tool of foreign policy” will be essential for an organization that requires consensus across 30 disparate nations to move.[viii] Vice President Biden also has a long journey ahead to reassure European allies of America’s resolve to lead, particularly when American citizens’ investment in European security has soured in recent years. One such gesture to start the healing process would be the Summit for Democracy he intends to convene in the first year of his administration. By bringing together the world’s democracies on an equal footing early in his first term, Vice President Biden aims to unite around a common agenda not only with allied nations, but also with civil society organizations, technology companies, and non-governmental organizations. Together, this coalition will align threat assessments and develop cohesive strategies to tackle them as one.[ix] NATO should hold a prominent seat at this summit’s table in addition to individual national representation. NATO members recommitting to their democratic responsibilities offers a sort of vow renewal for the transatlantic marriage that will be key moving forward.
The next challenge for the Biden Administration would be to address the most pressing transnational challenges with a revitalized NATO: climate change, pandemics, and the influence of disruptive technologies. Biden has repeatedly insisted that he would bring the United States back into the Paris Accords, “follow the science” and “muster the political will to address the threat[s]” of climate change and pandemics.[x] When it comes to technology, Biden has proposed that a U.S.-led coalition of countries should develop shared norms for cyberspace. Since NATO proclaimed cyberspace as a new domain critical to the Alliance’s collective security,[xi] Biden would likely find a willing group of up to 30 states ready to “guide the digital revolution” in stabilizing the internet with shared guidelines and opportunities for collaboration, not competition.[xii]
With new rules of the road determined for today’s ever-evolving threats, a Biden Administration can also marshal support for a new transatlantic strategy to address traditional great power competition with Russia and China. Biden’s approach to Russia boils down to three objectives: “pursue deterrence, cooperation, and strategic stability with Moscow;” jointly impose costs on Russia with our allies; and sustain the pressure until the Minsk agreements are implemented.[xiii] NATO can be useful to Washington’s Russia strategy if it takes steps towards Georgian and Ukrainian membership, enhancement of energy security, and prevention and attribution of cyberattacks.[xiv] Cyberattacks work best under the cover of darkness; finding incontrovertible proof for cyber operations is notoriously difficult, but calling out the Kremlin for its actions will help the alliance speak with one voice, and in so doing, better coordinate intelligence, law enforcement, and informational activities to stop Russian aggression in its tracks.[xv]
On the offensive side, NATO needs to enhance its forward-deployed presence in Eastern Europe and work to match, if not best, the conventional advantage the Russians hold over a potential Baltic invasion. Working together across 30 member states to align efforts against further cyber penetrations and disinformation campaigns will be critical to ensuring robust resilience in the civilian populations as well.[xvi] What Biden recognizes is that the Kremlin fears a strong NATO, one of the strongest bulwarks for a free and secure transatlantic community. A united NATO allows the United States to protect its closest friends (and have them come to our aid as well) and limits the costs for doing so. It is in the United States’ interest to maintain a NATO that can ensure transatlantic security with the United States as one nation among many, and not in its role as international policeman. Not only does this produce a more equitable share in upholding the liberal order, it also denies Moscow the ability to impose the narrative of another troubled American intervention. On the geopolitical chess board, a competent, confident, and American-led NATO is the United States’ queen.
When it comes to China, again Biden’s policy tilts toward alliances as a tool to both project and enhance American power. Biden outlines his strategy to counter China’s rise as a compromise between cooperating where we can—for example, on issues like climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, and global health security—while also checking China’s abysmal human rights and intellectual property records.[xvii] He points out that alone the United States represents about 25% of the world’s GDP, but together with other democracies, our leverage in terms of GDP would more than double. That is a substantial segment of the international economy for China to contend with, especially when it needs Western markets and cooperation to work on labor, trade, and technology issues.[xviii] Here NATO could serve as an effective model for America’s hub-and-spoke network of alliances and relations with Indo-Pacific partners. Working as one transpacific community, united with the transatlantic community at our back, NATO and its East and South Asian partners could address the security threats China poses.[xix] As a political alliance, NATO can provide a forum for robust diplomatic discussions and lend security sector reform expertise to Indo-Pacific allies facing an encroaching Chinese influence.
While Biden normally refers to the “example of our power and the power of our example” as an American responsibility and privilege, imagine the power of the shared transatlantic example on the world stage. Joined together, NATO and the US can forge a new path of cooperation and counter today’s emerging security challenges head on.[xx] NATO’s new 2030 strategy claims that NATO is our past, our present, and our future.[xxi] Biden’s foreign policy aims to make America “a light to the world once again.”[xxii] The Biden Administration can wield a real strategic advantage in executing its ambitious foreign policy agenda and ensuring a transatlantic community free, whole, and at peace.
[i] Marc Caputo and Natasha Korecki, “‘NATO is not a protection racket:’ Biden test drives new Trump attack,” Politico, December 5, 2019, https://www.politico.com/news/2019/12/05/nato-joe-biden-trump-076529.
[ii] Alex Ward, “Joe Biden’s plan to fix the world,” Vox, August 18, 2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/8/18/21334630/joe-biden-foreign-policy-explainer-dnc.
[iii] Nahal Toosi, “The Trump foreign policies Biden might keep,” Politico, September 21, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/09/21/trump-biden-foreign-policy-419130.
[iv] Derek Chollet, Steven Keil, and Chris Skaluba, “Rethink and Replace 2%,” The Atlantic Council, October 14th, 2020, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/content-series/nato20-2020/rethink-and-replace-two-percent/.
[v] Joe Biden, Speech at the Munich Security Conference 2019, February 19, 2019, Joe Biden speech at the Munich Security Conference 2019.
[vi] Joe Biden, Speech at the Munich Security Conference 2019, February 19, 2019, Joe Biden speech at the Munich Security Conference 2019.
[vii] NATO summit decision
[viii] Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Why America Must Lead Again,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again.
[ix] Alex Ward, “Joe Biden’s plan to fix the world,” Vox, August 18, 2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/8/18/21334630/joe-biden-foreign-policy-explainer-dnc.
[x] Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Building on Success: Opportunities for the Next Administration,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2016-08-07/building-success.
[xi] “Cyber defence,”NATO, September 25, 2020, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_78170.htm.
[xii] Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Building on Success: Opportunities for the Next Administration,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2016-08-07/building-success.
[xiii] Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Building on Success: Opportunities for the Next Administration,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2016-08-07/building-success.
[xiv] Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and Michael Carpenter, “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2017-12-05/how-stand-kremlin.
[xv] Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and Michael Carpenter, “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2017-12-05/how-stand-kremlin.
[xvi] Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and Michael Carpenter, “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2018, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2017-12-05/how-stand-kremlin.
[xvii] Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Why America Must Lead Again,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again.
[xviii] Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Why America Must Lead Again,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again.
[xix] James Hildebrand, Harry W.S. Lee, Fumika Mizuno, Miyeon Oh, and Monica Michiko Sato, “Build an Atlantic-Pacific Partnership,” The Atlantic Council, October 14th, 2020, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/content-series/nato20-2020/build-an-atlantic-pacific-partnership/; Joseph Ax and Trevor Hunnicutt, “Exclusive: Biden to review Trump decision to cut troops in Germany if elected,” Reuters, July 9, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-biden-germany-exclusive/exclusive-biden-to-review-trump-decision-to-cut-troops-in-germany-if-elected-idUSKBN24A293.
[xx] Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Why America Must Lead Again,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again.
[xxii] “Transcript: Joe Biden’s DNC speech,” CNN, August 21, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/20/politics/biden-dnc-speech-transcript/index.html.