President Biden’s first overseas trip to Europe last week brought focus back to the relationships that defined American foreign policy – and much of world history – in the 20th century.
But do they even matter anymore in the 21st?
Max Bergman, a former State Department official who is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, says the answer is a definite “yes.” By focusing there first, and accomplishing as much as he did, President Biden made a smart strategic choice and hit a foreign policy home run for America.
Listen to the full conversation here:
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
Matt Robison: The world’s biggest military and second biggest economy is in China. India has the biggest population. The country that attacked us most recently is Russia. Our biggest trading partners are Canada and Mexico. So why should Americans care about our military and economic relationship with Europe?
Max Bergmann: Europe is undergoing a massive transformation…it has been since World War II. It’s something called the European Project. Europe is integrating and has formed a union. The economy of the European Union is the same size as the United States’. It’s the same size as China. There’s 450 million people in Europe, which is larger than the United States. It spends as much on defense as Russia and China. EU regulations set a standard worldwide.
On top of that, Europe is quite stable. It is democratic, capitalist and free-market oriented. Europe could be our greatest strategic partner. And on the flip side, if it disintegrates – which is what Russia and China are after – that could be a strategic nightmare for us.
Matt Robison: You say there are those two directions that things could go. It seems like European countries are having the same domestic political divisions and tensions that we are. Is that true?
Max Bergmann: If you were to ask a lot of American foreign policy analysts over the last decade, they would say yes. They might even say that Europe looks unstable, because it’s always in perpetual crisis. But since the 2008 financial crisis, the EU countries have weathered all of these storms. They’ve gotten through them. I think it’s actually a testament to the durability and resilience of the EU. It’s a strong sign of their ability with future crises and come out stronger. And recent polling shows that European citizens want that. They want EU to actually keep getting stronger. They are bought in to it.
This is both hopeful and important for the US. We’re in a new geopolitical era where China has clearly emerged as a major global actor, one that could really challenge the United States and even the concept of a rules-based international order. Wouldn’t it be great if the United States had a really strong ally that had our same basic values?
Matt Robison: You lay out some specific benefits that we could get from pushing the EU toward greater integration and strength as a long term strategic partner for us. The first was around climate?
Max Bergmann: That’s right. The EU is already thinking about a carbon border adjustment mechanism. That’s effectively a tariff on dirty products. But it would be even more powerful with the United States and Europe joined forces in doing that. Our economies are so large together. Around 30% of the global economy is just the US and EU. If our two economies stood together by saying if you want access to our market, you have to make real progress on cleaning up, that would have a real impact.
Matt Robison: Your second argument is that there would actually be a benefit for the US middle class from greater coordination with the European Union. Why is that?
Max Bergmann: One of the things we’ve come to realize over the last 30 years is that our strategy based on open markets – if we open up and do free trade, then other countries are going to democratize and follow the rules – hasn’t really worked. We saw this with our supply chain dependency on China and when it came to things like personal protective equipment during the pandemic. We can’t rely on them as a free and fair trade partner.
But we also need markets. And the European Union is a very big market. They also have really high regulatory standards and policies that ensure much more fairness. They tend to abide by international rules much more. Increasing the economic intensity of our cooperation could be really useful as we try to build new supply chains. A reliable, democratic trading partner will be hugely beneficial to the American middle class.
Matt Robison: And of course there’s a direct effect for our security and our response to autocratic, undemocratic regimes in China and Russia?
Max Bergmann: Yes. This is partly due to market size and how effective our sanctions are. When we sanctioned Russia after the 2014 invasion of Crimea we did it through the European Union. Same thing this year against China for their human rights abuses. When we work together, we can have a much more powerful, values-based foreign policy that prioritizes human rights and democracy. And of course, if we can encourage and support the Europeans – not just NATO but through the EU – in building up their collective defense capability, our coordinated military strength becomes even more potent.
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Matt Robison is a writer and political analyst who focuses on trends in demographics, psychology, policy, and economics that are shaping American politics. He spent a decade working on Capitol Hill as a Legislative Director and Chief of Staff to three Members of Congress, and also worked as a senior advisor, campaign manager, or consultant on several Congressional races, with a focus in New Hampshire. In 2012, he ran a come-from-behind race that national political analysts called the biggest surprise win of the election. He went on to work as Policy Director in the New Hampshire state senate, successfully helping to coordinate the legislative effort to pass Medicaid expansion. He has also done extensive private sector work on energy regulatory policy. Matt holds a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Swarthmore College and a Master’s degree in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He lives with his wife and three children in Amherst, Massachusetts.