In an op-ed in The Washington Post, President Joe Biden described his visit to Europe from 8-16 June 2021as being “about realising America’s renewed commitment to our allies and partners, and demonstrating the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age”.[i] Declaring that “America is back”, the visit was fully packed with bilateral meetings and three summits– the G7 Summit in Britain, the NATO Summit and the EU-US Summit in Brussels. Within Europe, the visit was viewed as an opportunity for a transatlantic ‘reset’ following four tumultuous years of the Trump Presidency. The paper looks at the key outcomes and the impact of the latest visit.
Outcomes of the Visit
The summits resulted in expansive joint statements released after the meetings. Nonetheless, four sets of issues resonated in all three meetings – the Covid-19 Pandemic, Climate Change, China and Russia. The meetings also resulted in the signing of a new Atlantic Charter by the UK and US, and the declaration of a massive global infrastructure initiative called ‘Build Back Better World’ at the G7 summit. One of the most crucial outcomes of these meetings was the singling out of China as a security risk, for the first time, by both the G7 and NATO. Following are the key outcomes -
1. A New Atlantic Charter
A New Atlantic Charter was signed by President Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 10 June 2021. It highlighted that - although the world has changed in the past eighty years since the first charter was signed, the core ideals and values shared by the UK and US remain the same. The new charter is modelled on the 1941 statement by then Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt which set out their combined goals for the post-war world. The original Charter was a historic declaration of cooperation between the two countries and the foundation for their ‘special relationship’ for decades to come. The new Charter, while emphasising on the older and shared commitments like democracy, rule-based order; also commits both partners to address the challenges of the 21st century, such as dealing with the threat posed by cyber-attacks, action on climate change, protection of biodiversity, and health security.
The Charter calls upon the partners to maintain collective security and international stability by creating resilience against the spectrum of threats and upholds that “as long as there are nuclear weapons - NATO will remain a nuclear alliance.”[ii] In a rebuke to Russia and China, the Charter “opposes interference through disinformation…and reaffirms our commitment to debt transparency, sustainability and sound governance of debt relief.”[iii]
2. Build Back Better World (B3W)
The G7 launched a global infrastructure development initiative called “Build Back Better World” led by major democracies to help narrow the $40 trillion infrastructure need in the developing world. Through the B3W initiative, the G7 and other like-minded partners will “coordinate in mobilising private-sector capital in four areas of focus - climate, health and health security, digital technology, and gender equity and equality”.[iv] The initial areas identified for the initiative are Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa and Indo-Pacific.
As part of developing a toolkit for financing of the projects, “together with the private sector, other US stakeholders, and G7 partners, B3W will collectively catalyse hundreds of billions of dollars of infrastructure investment for low and middle-income countries in the coming years”.[v] This infrastructure development plan appears to acknowledge the challenges presented by China’s ambitious BRI, under which more than 100 countries have signed agreements with Beijing to cooperate in projects like railways, ports, highways etc. Although nascent, the B3W is an ambitious plan to push forward the infrastructure needs of the developing world, it remains unclear as to how much funds are to be pitched in by the member countries and the private sector.
3. A Unified Stand on China
China emerged to be the central issue of discussion in the summits. While the EU and US, individually, have toughened their postures towards China in the past few months, the G7, NATO and EU-US summit statements can be construed as an effort towards building a unified position against Beijing. One of the major highlights in the G7 statement was on forced labour. Although China is not named, the subtle reference is clear with G7 raising concerns on – “the use of all forms of forced labour in global supply chains, including state-sponsored forced labour of vulnerable groups and minorities, including in the agricultural, solar, and garment sectors”.[vi] The reference follows the sanctions put on Chinese officials in March 2021 by EU, US, UK and Canada[vii] over the issue. Similarly, EU-US statement highlighted the intention to work towards coordinating their approach on issues such as human rights violations in Xinjiang and Tibet. Both statements also underscored the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues. Regarding the situation in the East and South China Seas, the statements opposed any unilateral attempts to change the status quo and increase tensions.
While G7 and EU-US Summit statements called for the convergence and coordination of members on China over strategic and political issues, NATO communiqué highlighted the security aspect. Moreover, the NATO communiqué mentioned China for the first time - reflecting the increasing concerns among the alliance members regarding the military might of Beijing. Although, China is not directly called a threat, there is an acknowledgement that “China’s growing influence and international policies can present challenges that we need to address together as an alliance”.[viii] It calls China’s assertive behaviour and use of disinformation as systemic challenges to the rules-based international order. The communiqué highlights two issues of concern for NATO members – first, is China’s rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal and a larger number of sophisticated delivery systems to establish a nuclear triad. It also points out that China is ‘opaque’ in implementing its military modernisation and ‘it’s publicly declared military-civil fusion strategy’.[ix] Second is its expanding military cooperation with Russia, including through participation in Russian exercises in the Euro-Atlantic area.
4. Addressing the Russian Challenge
Russia remained one of the core issues of discussion during the three summits. Both G7 and EU-US Summits called for stable and predictable relations with Russia. The G7 called on Russia “to stop its destabilising behaviour and malign activities, including its interference in other countries’ democratic systems, and to fulfil its international human rights obligations and commitments”.[x] Adding that, Russia must identify, disrupt, and hold to account “those within its borders who conduct ransomware attacks, abuse virtual currency to launder ransoms, and other cybercrimes”.[xi] The EU-US Summit decided to coordinate their policies through the establishment of EU-US High Level Dialogue on Russia.[xii] The statement highlighted a two-pronged approach towards Russia – it called upon Moscow to address threats from ransomware networks, stop the crackdown on civil society, opposition and independent media and release political prisoners; it also committed both the partners to keep the channels of communication open and possibilities for ‘selective cooperation’ in areas of common interest.
NATO communiqué called Russia’s aggressive actions as constituting a threat to Euro-Atlantic security. The member states agreed to enhance the deterrence and defence posture of NATO, including a forward presence in the eastern part, to address the deteriorating security environment. The communiqué highlighted that NATO “does not seek confrontation and poses no threat”[xiii] to Russia. It identified three major threats emerging from Russia as – first, its growing multi-domain military build-up, assertive posture, novel military capabilities, and provocative activities, including near NATO borders, as well as its large-scale no-notice and snap exercises, military build-up in Crimea, the deployment of modern dual-capable missiles in Kaliningrad, military integration with Belarus, and violations of NATO Allied airspace. Second, is the intensification by Russia of hybrid action against NATO allies, including, through proxies. The third is diversification of its nuclear arsenal, including by deploying a suite of short and intermediate-range missile systems. Russia has recapitalised roughly 80 percent[xiv] of its strategic nuclear forces, and is expanding its nuclear capabilities by pursuing novel and destabilising weapons and a diverse array of dual-capable systems.
5. Managing Covid-19 Pandemic
The immediate focus of the summits was to coordinate efforts to manage the pandemic and to try and vaccinate two-third of world’s population by the end of 2022. While NATO communiqué highlighted the efforts taken by the alliance in supporting the civilian response to the pandemic, ensuring collective defence, providing critical assistance and delivery of vital medical supplies – the joint statements of G7 and EU-US summits highlighted the future course of action. Apart from setting a timeline for vaccinating the world’s population, the G7 summit also committed to providing 870 million doses, to be available as soon as possible and aim to deliver at least half by the end of 2021 primarily through COVAX. The EU-US Summit established a Joint EU–US COVID Manufacturing and Supply Chain Taskforce to deepen cooperation and identify and resolve issues around expanding vaccine and therapeutics production capacity. This taskforce would look at new production facilities, maintain open and secure supply chains, avoiding any unnecessary export restrictions, and encourage voluntary sharing of know-how and technology on mutually determined terms. Both the statements also called for strengthening the World Health Organization (WHO) and supporting it in its leading and coordinating role in the global health system.
On the issues related to the study into the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic, the EU-US statement called for progress on a transparent, evidence-based, and expert-led WHO-convened phase-2 study on the origins of COVID-19, that is free from interference. On the other hand, G7 called for timely transparent, expert-led, study including, as recommended by the experts’ report, in China.
6. Climate Change
Climate change featured heavily in the joint statements with all the partners reaffirming their commitments to and implementation of the Paris Agreement. The G7 committed to accelerating efforts to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and keep the 1.5°C global warming threshold within reach, strengthening adaptation and resilience to mitigate the impact of climate change, halting and reversing biodiversity loss, mobilising finance and leveraging innovation to reach these goals. The G7 reaffirmed their commitment to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and vowing to eliminate[xv] most coal power. The EU and US announced the establishment of the EU-US High-Level Climate Action Group to closely coordinate and promote robust climate measures, address the risk of carbon leakage and cooperate on sustainable finance. On clean energy, the EU-US Energy Council would continue as a coordinating body on strategic energy issues with a renewed focus on clean energy, energy efficiency, the decarbonisation of the energy sector, and sustainable energy supply chains, and energy security. The partners would also work toward a Transatlantic Green Technology Alliance to promote the development and scaling of green technologies required for a climate-neutral future.
Calling climate change as a “threat multiplier” that impacts Alliance security both in the Euro-Atlantic area and in the Alliance’s broader neighbourhood, the NATO communiqué aimed to make the alliance the leading organisation for understanding and adapting to the impact of climate change. It called upon the Secretary-General to formulate concrete targets for the reduction of GHG emissions by the NATO political and military structures and facilities and assess the feasibility of reaching net zero emissions by 2050. NATO also endorsed an Action Plan to implement its Agenda on Climate Change and Security, which would, increases its awareness, adaptation, mitigation, and outreach efforts, while ensuring a credible deterrence and defence posture. To mitigate the impact of climate change, it decided to draw on best practices of Allies, and taking into account their different national circumstances, to develop a mapping methodology to help Allies measure GHG emissions from military activities and installations, which could contribute to formulating voluntary goals to reduce such emissions.
Analysis of the Visit
President Biden’s visit to Europe can be viewed largely as an attempt to repair the alliance with major allies who had grown disenchanted with US global leadership. The symbolism of the visit was crucial – it clearly meant to send out the message that America was back with its allies, NATO was important, transatlantic relations are thriving and a united West can still lead the global order.
Although the visit was welcomed by the European leaders, the public opinion on the reliability of US leadership remained highly pessimistic. In a survey conducted by ECFR earlier this year in 11 European countries, 51% of respondents did not agree with the view that, under Biden, the US was likely to invest in solving international issues such as climate change, peace in the Middle East, relations with China, and European security.[xvi] Also, only 10% of the respondents described Washington as a “reliable” security partner, while almost 60% felt that their country cannot depend on US support in the event of a major crisis.[xvii]
The visit resulted in extensive diplomatic efforts to bring the transatlantic relations back on track. While the allies agreed on broad agendas, there are various lingering issues – first, whether a coherent stand on China is achievable – at the G-7 and NATO summits, President Biden seemed to shift the focus toward China, but it is uncertain if this realignment can be sustained. While the US has adopted a “democracy vs authoritarian”[xviii] narrative for its policy towards China, this sentiment is not entirely shared by the EU member states. The EU prefers an issue-based competition and cooperation approach whereby they recognise the need to cooperate with China on certain issues like climate change, and agree that Beijing is a systemic rival and economic competitor for the EU. Though there is a realisation in the EU regarding their own dependencies and vulnerabilities that emerged during the pandemic, Europeans do not necessarily view China through the US lens. While the EU has taken tough positions on China recently with the sanctioning of Chinese officials over human rights issues and the European Parliament freezing the ratification of the investment treaty between Brussels and Beijing – the commercial interests of many European countries remains strong. This has also been a primary reason why the EU has also been unable to formulate a coherent China policy.
Second, the assessment that both Russia and China posed a similar threat to NATO is not agreed by all European leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron said in a press briefing that “NATO is a military organisation; the issue of our relationship with China isn’t just a military issue. NATO is an organisation that concerns the North Atlantic, China has little to do with the North Atlantic…So, it’s very important that we don’t scatter ourselves and that we don’t bias our relationship with China”.[xix] Similarly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had stressed that Moscow still represented the biggest threat[xx] to European security. There are also several concerns in the Central and Eastern European countries[xxi] that this realignment of the alliance towards China will result in the diverting of resources away from issues closer to home. In short, there are convergences over the challenges posed by China, however, transatlantic differences remain over how to best handle the issues.
Third, climate change – one of the missed opportunities of the summits was the failure of both G7 and EU-US to reach an agreement on a timeline to stop the usage of coal. Also, the G7 pledged to raise their contributions to meet the spending pledge of $100 billion a year by rich countries to help poorer countries cut carbon emissions and cope with global warming, the joint statement lacked detail on their financial commitments. This financial assistance is part of an agreement by the developed countries at the UN in 2009 where they agreed to contribute US$100 billion every year by 2020 towards climate finance for the developing and less-developed world.
Fourth, vaccinations – the developed countries have been criticised for their efforts over access to vaccines during the pandemic. While the G7 leaders pledged over 870 million doses, it was deemed ‘not enough’ by various humanitarian and non-governmental agencies which said the leaders “have failed to take the real action needed to end the pandemic”.[xxii] While both G7 and EU-US statements recognised the importance of combating the pandemic by boosting global manufacturing capacities and, affordable and equitable access to vaccines, neither of the statements refer to the temporary waiver of the intellectual property rights as proposed by South Africa and India at the WTO. While the US backs the temporary waiver to boost the production of vaccines, the EU has so far resisted the proposal.
Despite several differences and shortcomings, the visit reaffirmed the American commitment to the European continent and NATO. The joint statements highlighted convergences over strategic thinking in the Trans-Atlantic alliance towards the core issues. This reset in relations has given them an opportunity to set an ambitious agenda that matches the current realities. It is true, that the Trans-Atlantic relations will not revert to the older times; the EU needs to continue on the path it has forged in the last four years to promote and safeguard its own interests to present itself as a credible partner. What remains to be seen is the will and resources on the part of the alliance members to carry forward the targets and the ambitions that they have set for themselves.
Dr. Ankita Dutta, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i]The Washington Post, 5 June 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/06/05/joe-biden-europe-trip-agenda/ Accessed on 19 June 2021
[ii]The New Atlantic Charter, The White House, 10 June 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/06/10/the-new-atlantic-charter/, Accessed on 19 June 2021
[iv] Fact Sheet: President Biden and G7 Leaders Launch Build Back Better World (B3W) Partnership, The White House, 12 June 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/06/12/fact-sheet-president-biden-and-g7-leaders-launch-build-back-better-world-b3w-partnership/, Accessed on 19 June 2021
[vi] ‘Carbis Bay G7 Summit Communiqué - Our Shared Agenda for Global Action to Build Back Better’, Cornwall, UK, 13 June 2021, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/media/50361/carbis-bay-g7-summit-communique.pdf, Accessed on 20 June 2021
[vii]Politico, 22 March 2021 https://www.politico.eu/article/uk-us-canada-follow-eu-sanctions-on-china-officials/, Accessed on 20 June 2021
[viii] ‘Brussels Summit Communiqué’, NATO, 14 June 2021, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_185000.htm, Accessed on 21 June 2021
[x]Carbis Bay G7 Summit Communiqué, n.6
[xii]EU-US summit statement: “Towards a renewed Transatlantic partnership”, European Council, Brussels, 15 June 2021, https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/06/15/eu-us-summit-statement-towards-a-renewed-transatlantic-partnership/, Accessed on 22 June 2021
[xiii]Brussels Summit Communiqué, n.8
[xv]Carbis Bay G7 Summit Communiqué, n.6
[xvi] Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard, “The Crisis of American Power: How Europeans See Biden’s America”, Policy Brief, ECFR, January 2021, https://ecfr.eu/wp-content/uploads/The-crisis-of-American-power-How-Europeans-see-Bidens-America.pdf, Accessed on 23 June 2021
[xix]Reuters, 13 June 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/g7-summit-macron-china/frances-macron-says-g7-is-not-hostile-towards-china-idUSP6N2IP00T, Accessed on 24 June 2021
[xx]Politico, 14 June 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/nato-leaders-see-rising-threats-from-china-but-not-eye-to-eye-with-each-other/, Accessed on 25 June 2021
[xxi]The New York Times, 16 June 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/06/14/world/nato-summit, Accessed on 25 June 2021
[xxii]Politico, 13 June 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/5-takeaways-from-britain-g7-summit-cornwall-boris-johnson-coronavirus-china-trade-coal-brexit/, Accessed on 25 June 2021