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Europe to Joe Biden: It’s Not All Sugar and Spice

A leading figure in Germany—and an American Purpose Editorial Board member—welcomes the 46th President and reveals the obstacle course ahead.

Josef Joffe

Dear Mr. President-elect:

Europe has applauded your election, especially since Number 45 harbored no warm feelings for the Old World. Indeed, he often treated friends worse than foes, flirting alternately with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. As long as NATO endures, the Europeans won’t forget the “obsolete” label Mr. Trump stuck on the world’s longest-lived alliance.

Nor did they cherish his threats, which boiled down to: “Pay up, or we pull out!” The United States and the European Union have been embroiled in trade disputes dating back to John F. Kennedy and the fabled “chicken war,” yet the mano a mano was enveloped in civility. Not so under Donald Trump, who ruthlessly imposed punitive tariffs. Courtesy goes a long way in the affairs of human beings and nations.

Let me start with principles, then move to the nitty-gritty. Spoiler alert: It’s not going to be all sugar and spice in the next four years because, in the end, states will stress interests over affection. But right now, you can count on good feelings. So let the repair work begin.

Donald Trump’s greatest problem was his transactional take on diplomacy. His game was strictly zero-sum: I win if you lose. The smarter way, practiced by previous U.S. administrations since Truman, is to play non-zero-sum games in which both can win. A strategy that upgrades the common interest brightens the future. Mr. Trump should have talked religion with his Jewish son-in-law. A key Talmudic precept is the mitzvah: One good deed begets another.

Another piece of practical wisdom (not that you need to be tutored after forty years in the foreign policy business) is this: Zero-sum games tend to degenerate into negative contests in which both lose. A classic is trade war. Your old boss, Mr. Obama, slapped punitive tariffs on Chinese tires. China lost out, but so did the United States. Moreover, U.S. tire workers did not gain new jobs, because American importers just shifted to Vietnam, Mexico, and Indonesia. Prices rose in the United States, compressing real income, but the trade deficit did not budge. It was even worse under Mr. Trump’s punitive tariffs: Our deficit in U.S.-China trade has actually grown.

Don’t take my word for it: Consult a renowned economist by the name of Abba Lerner, who invented the Lerner Symmetry Theorem in 1936. Stripped of the math, it states that an import tariff has the same effects as an export tax. In other words, as you make imports more expensive, you also diminish demand for your own exports. Therefore, your deficit does not budge. Let your experts also plow through Douglas Irwin’s 2017 tome, Clashing Over Commerce: A History of U.S. Trade Policy. The gist: No matter what the average tariff was, imports and exports moved in tandem.

So, you might counsel the protectionists in your own party that tariffs don’t work too well. They hurt the American consumer through higher prices. And they damage producers who have to pay more for imported raw materials like steel. For instance, earth-moving machinery made in the United States from penalized Chinese steel will lose out to excavators manufactured in Japan. The best that import walls can do is to favor coddled industries, but at the expense of the nation as a whole, whose real income suffers.

The Europeans, and the Germans in particular, will also cheer you for planning to rescind the Trump withdrawal of twelve thousand troops from Germany. That would be a win-win, since staying in place is equally good for the United States. Its military infrastructure in Europe is concentrated in the Fatherland: command and control, surveillance, forward-based air power, bridgeheads for reinforcement. Apart from cautioning Mr. Putin, these assets support U.S. operations in the Middle East and in Africa. Plus: Your predecessor probably did not listen when told that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently building a five-thousand-room hospital worth a billion dollars in Weilerbach, Germany. So, sticking it out with those “free riders” is a no-brainer.

Now, to the trickier items. It is not likely that Mrs. Merkel will stop Nord Stream 2 through the Baltic on its last hundred miles, but Washington and Berlin can still hash out a deal. The United States is rightly worried about this Russo-German project, which deliberately circumvents Poland and Ukraine and increases Germany’s strategic dependence on Mr. Putin’s Gazprom. But a compromise can be had: It would integrate the “Easties” into the West European gas grid and nudge Berlin toward diversifying its gas supplies.

Transcending such brawls are the big-ticket items arising from America’s sharpening rivalry with a rising China and resurgent Russia. Your more starry-eyed European friends think that harmony and understanding will thrive in your term. They count on your pledge to pursue nuclear disarmament with the Kremlin and return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, which your old boss expected would blunt Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

But the world’s Number 1 also has bigger fish to fry than a New START. The imperative is to balance and constrain China, Russia, and Iran. Call it “Containment 2.0.” Barack Obama thought Hillary Clinton could simply push the “reset” button in Geneva in 2009. But the reset was followed by the Crimea grab, the sub rosa absorption of Ukraine’s Donbass region, and the expansion into the Levant.

Mr. Obama spoke warmly of Islam while cold-shouldering Israel’s Benyamin Netanyahu. He thought he could entice Tehran into a deal that would postpone Iran’s bomb while moderating its hegemonial aspirations in the Greater Middle East. Since then, these pious revolutionaries have continued to stack up the building blocks for a nuclear armory while extending the reach of their delivery vehicles. Iran has expanded all the way to the Mediterranean.

The United States is the linchpin of the global order. Under your aegis, I presume, the United States would not want to follow in the footsteps of Messrs. Obama and Trump, who both experimented with the retraction of American power. I do understand the domestic impetus—more welfare, less warfare. As an Obama mantra had it, it was “time for a little nation-building at home.” Trump followed up with the pledge of a trillion-dollar infrastructure program.

Still, great powers can’t opt out of the global game, not when China, Russia, and Iran accelerate their expansionist pace. The difference between Trump and you, as your advisers have intimated, is allies—just as during Containment 1.0.

The idea is hegemony at a discount that would harness the Europeans and East Asians into a global coalition against China, the mightiest challenger on the economic as well as strategic fronts.

Don’t expect too much from the Europeans, Mr. President-elect. The other day, a top German official explained to me, “China is just too powerful to be contained.” Translation: Count us out as a strategic ally. The same goes for the rest of Continental Europe, which is reluctant, if not loath, to commit. The EU’s career as “civilian power” requires staying out of harm’s way. And why not? The EU is a global power only in economic terms—Number 2 after the United States and ahead of China. It has neither the will nor the wherewithal to act as a strategic player.

So, be realistic.

On trade and technology, the Europeans are coming around, if ever so fitfully. They worry about Huawei’s getting hold of their 5G networks, and they are willing to brake the theft of Western hi-tech as well as China’s economic penetration along the “Belt and Road.” On the European left, which is none too fond of the United States, resentment is building against Xi’s heavy totalitarian hand at home and in Hong Kong. In short, interests are tilting toward the United States. So, the stage is set for creative coalition diplomacy, whereas Mr. Trump acted as Demolition Man.

But please be modest in your expectations of recruiting the Europeans into the hard-power game. In this arena, the United States will have to carry the bulk of the burden, as always, especially now that Britain, a nation with remnants of a warrior culture, is out of the European Union. The Europeans fear an Iranian bomb, but they fear a disarming strike even more. Nor do they like harsher sanctions, especially secondary boycotts imposed by dint of America’s sheer market power against EU firms.

Hence, as distasteful as the potentates of Cairo and Riyadh may be, don’t go down the road Obama took when he tilted away from Israel and the Sunni states to embrace Iran. Revolutionary powers can’t be killed with kindness; they must be met by “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment,” as George F. Kennan famously counseled in the Soviet case. So, build on the Abraham Accords, the one and only diplomatic achievement Donald Trump has bequeathed to you. This is precisely the kind of regional synergy you have in mind: Arabs and Israelis serving American interests while they pursue their own.

The progressives in your party bridle at realpolitik. They prefer re-engagement to rearmament. I hope your bows to international amity—such as returning to the Paris Climate Agreement and the WHO—will soothe them. A liberal hegemon should honor international institutions. If you work them wisely, you will serve American interests along with those of others—and increase the authority as well as the legitimacy of American leadership.

Before the presidential campaign, you wrote that America “will be back at the head of the table” and “lead with the power of our example.” But the nation at the head of the table cannot lead by example alone. Nor would the retrenchment of American responsibility pursued softly by Obama and brutally by Trump serve American interests.In the end, power talks. So, you will have to contain rivals where you must and extend cooperation where you can. Do try to assemble coalitions. But you will have to persuade the reluctant warriors of Europe and your allies in East Asia, who might be tempted to bandwagon with nearby China if the United States proves a fickle protector.

The best part is that you start out under brighter skies. So, as the 46th President you might sing, “America first, but not alone.” Those who feared or despised the Demolition Man should be reassured as you turn away from his grandstanding and arrogance. As a liberal hegemon, you will soften the edge of America’s mighty sword and show a friendlier face.

America is open for business again. Yet nothing can change certain harsh realities. America occupies the penthouse of power and has interests not necessarily congruent with those of its European and Asian cohorts. As they say, where you sit is where you stand. Nonetheless, we should count our blessings. There will be hard bargaining and disappointment, yet around a common table again. Let’s say goodbye to Donald Trump, who routinely threatened to break up the salon.

A member of the Editorial Board of American Purpose, Josef Joffe serves on the Editorial Council of the German weekly Die Zeit and as a fellow of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.