Biden seeks to reset relations with Europe. But the ground rules have changed.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden walks on stage to speak at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Liberty and Justice Celebration, on Nov. 1, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. AP Photo by Charlie Neibergall

After four years under the “America-first” leadership of former President Donald Trump, restoring relations with Europe is a stated goal for President Joe Biden—but that won’t be as easy as flipping a switch, Northeastern faculty experts say.

“Europeans are pushing for the E.U. to stand on its own, to not defer to the U.S. on certain decisions, and if needed to move forward on its own,” says Mai’a Cross, the Edward W. Brooke professor of political science and international affairs. “The notion that the U.S. is an unreliable ally is an unfortunate dimension of what has to be repaired in the trans-Atlantic relationship now that Trump is out of office.”

A survey of more than 15,000 people in 11 countries, commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations, reveals that Europeans have lost faith in the United States—a warning that relations between the two economic giants may not revert back to normal under President Joe Biden.

Left, Julie Garey. assistant teaching professor of political science. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University. Right, Mai’a Cross, the Edward W. Brooke professor of political science and international affairs at Northeastern. Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

The poll, released Jan. 19, finds widespread belief that the U.S. political system is broken, that China will surpass the U.S. within a decade, and that Europe can no longer rely upon its traditional American partnership.

“Europeans like Biden, but they don’t think America will come back as a global leader,” Mark Leonard, the council’s director, told The Guardian. “When George W. Bush was president (2001-09), they were divided about how America should use its power. With Biden entering the White House, they are divided about whether America has power at all.”

Driving the uncertainty in Europe, says Cross, are concerns that American voters in 2024 will re-elect Trump or opt for a like-minded nationalist to further upend U.S. foreign policy. Though Biden led the popular vote in the November election by 7 million, his electoral college victory was earned by a narrow margin of 44,000 votes across Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin.

But Cross and Julie Garey, an assistant teaching professor of political science who specializes in international relations and U.S. foreign policy, are guardedly optimistic that Biden’s traditional approach will soothe his European partners.

“What Biden brings to his relationship with the E.U. is a sense of continuity: He represents the old establishment of how Washington politics were executed before Trump,” says Garey. “The concern of what happens in four years is valid, but I think that concern might be mitigated in some ways if President Biden does actually bring back the established ways of engagement.”

A separation between the U.S. and Europe may produce constructive results, says Diana Bozhilova, associate professor of politics and international relations at New College of the Humanities in London, part of Northeastern’s global network.

“There may be some permanent damage to the relationship, but I don’t know that that’s necessarily all bad,” says Bozhilova, who has served as an expert witness on the British House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union. “It might mean a more balanced relationship between the E.U. and the U.S.”

Diana Bozhilova, associate professor of politics and international relations at New College of the Humanities in London. Courtesy photo

While Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership with China early in his administration, Europe moved forward with the E.U.-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, while China forged ahead with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, an agreement with 15 countries in Southeast Asia. And yet, in spite of its subsequent trade war with China, the U.S. maintains a stronger strategic relationship with Southeast Asia than does Europe, notes Bozhilova.

The European opinion that American power is shrinking does not account for the country’s enduring strengths militarily and technologically, says Bozhilova. 

“The U.S. by far spends the largest amount on defense globally, almost three times more than China,” Bozhilova says. “There are other dimensions to security as well. There is a lot to be said about the digital space and, by extension, digital sovereignty, and U.S. companies control over 90 percent of that space.”

While Biden is focused on curbing COVID-19 and restoring the domestic economy, he may be able to find common ground with Europe on the environment by rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change, which could lead eventually to increased trade, cooperation, and coordination with the E.U. as trust is rebuilt. 

Additionally, the E.U. is gauging Biden’s strategies on Russia (a major energy supplier to Europe) and the Iran nuclear deal, an international agreement intended to stop that nation’s nuclear buildup, which was abandoned by Trump in 2018. 

Even as the new president is undoing many of Trump’s foreign policies, Bozhilova believes Biden may benefit from his predecessor’s insistence that European nations contribute more to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the tariffs imposed by Trump on a range of E.U. products.

“I think that will bode well for subsequent U.S. presidents,” says Bozhilova, noting that Trump’s actions may re-balance the U.S.-Europe relationship. “Why on earth should the U.S. continue to cover the lion’s share of that bill? The Second World War is long over, the Cold War is long over.” 

The U.S. and E.U. have an appreciation for each other’s wounds: While Trump was diminishing democratic norms and international alliances over the past four years, the Europeans were being weakened by Brexit, which resulted in the United Kingdom’s negotiated departure in December.

The consummation of Brexit adds another dimension to U.S. foreign policy by threatening to weaken its “special relationship” with Britain. Cross anticipates the U.K.’s failure to negotiate protections for its service economy (including financial services) as part of Brexit will contribute to an anticipated drop in gross domestic product by 3 to 4 percent over the next decade, according to the Bank of England. Brexit may also galvanize movements in Scotland and Northern Ireland to break away from the U.K. by 2040. 

“We could be watching, in the coming years, an unraveling of the U.K. itself,” Cross says.

In addition to the economic benefits of trade with Europe, Cross believes that Biden will also be seeking to restore the values that are shared by the U.S. and E.U.

“The trans-Atlantic relationship has always been the backbone of the liberal world order,” Cross says. “The fact that the infrastructure of that relationship is still here is, I think, a reason for optimism that the liberal world order can be repaired.”

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