06.12.23 USA Analytics

North Atlantic Shuffle: How the American partisan debate on foreign policy could change the United States and Europe

As we approach the presidential election, strategic uncertainty about the future of US foreign policy is growing. This pertains not only to a potential shift if Donald Trump wins the elections but also to the current administration's stance, which faces significant pressure from the political landscape during the pre-election period. The American public is united in its rivalry with China, protecting domestic production and controlling access to strategic technologies, but polarised around issues related to the fight against climate change, the war in Ukraine and US relations with its European allies. Within the major political parties, factions with sharply differing views on priorities and preferred foreign policy strategies have also emerged. Attempts to rethink the perspectives and scope of transatlantic cooperation create the greatest uncertainty, thereby requiring Europe to consider ways to strengthen its strategic sovereignty.

Recent polls show a slight lag by the current President of the United States behind Donald Trump, as well as some increase in the popularity of Trump's isolationist ideas among Americans in foreign policy matters. These two circumstances create strategic uncertainty for the policy of Joe Biden's administration in the pre-election period, when it will be under strong political pressure. The future of US foreign policy looks even more uncertain should Trump win the presidential election.

As former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates noted in a recent article in Foreign Affairs (Re:Russia has recently written about it in detail here), the West's victory in the Cold War was possible in part because the US maintained a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy for nine consecutive presidential terms. The positions of successive presidents may have differed when it came to domestic policy and economic issues, but remained unchanged on the fundamental issues of confrontation with the communist bloc. In addition, there was another foreign policy consensus between the United States and Europe, with the NATO bloc as the institution at its core.

Today, on the threshold of a new global confrontation, there is no consensus at either level. Moreover, Biden's main rival in the election, Donald Trump, is turning the attack against Biden's foreign policy course and claims against Europe on security issues into important themes of his election campaign. This is intensifying polarisation in American society regarding the understanding of foreign policy objectives. The Europeans, in turn, remain heavily dependent on configurations from the previous Cold War, i.e. on American security guarantees. Therefore, understanding the future US foreign policy strategy is an existential issue for them and is prompting them to consider the need to build their own strategic sovereignty, according to experts from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in a report analysing the views of Democrats and Republicans on foreign policy.

Two to six: The partisan debate on foreign policy in the US

There is no doubt that even if Donald Trump returns to the White House, a certain continuity in US foreign policy will remain. Democrats and Republicans are united on issues such as strategic rivalry with China, protecting domestic production and controlling access to strategic technologies. At the same time, they diverge on issues of importance to Europeans, such as combating climate change, the war in Ukraine and US relations with its allies, the ECFR report says.

It should be noted that these divergences are quite deeply rooted within the views of the American Democratic and Republican electorates. According to the Pew Research Centre, Republicans are much more likely than Democrats (56% vs. 26%) to prioritise the task of forcing allies (i.e. Europeans) to shoulder more of the costs of maintaining world order as a foreign policy priority. In turn, Democrats are more likely to consider global problems such as the influx of refugees, climate change, infectious diseases, problems of global cooperation and strengthening international organisations as foreign policy priorities. The divergence on foreign policy issues is thus related to the values of the electorate of both parties.

However, differences in positions can now not only be seen between Republicans and Democrats, but also within the parties themselves. For example, the right-wing, Trumpist wing of the Republicans views the war in Ukraine differently from the majority of Republicans in Congress, while the progressive left among the Democrats has been highly critical of the militarisation of American foreign policy, which is supported by the party leaders. Factions in both parties have formed with differing views on foreign policy issues, further adding to the uncertainty of future foreign policy.

While the vast majority of Republicans share the 'legacy of the Trump era' with its hostility to woke culture, demands for tougher immigration policy and negative attitude to globalisation, the ECFR report identifies three groups within the party. Supporters of the 'containment' strategy support limiting the deployment and use of military force abroad, reducing aid to Ukraine and even withdrawing from alliances, including NATO. They are a minority in the Republican Party elite, but their positions reflect views common among Republican voters (e.g. that taxpayer money would be better spent not on helping Ukraine but on building a wall on the southern border of the United States). The second group, proponents of the 'prioritisation' strategy, view the strategic challenge China poses to the US as an existential threat that requires a response comparable to efforts to contain the USSR. They believe that a confrontation with China over Taiwan is inevitable and will in any case lead to a US withdrawal from Europe and the Middle East, so as a result US attention and resources currently directed to these regions are depleting the country's strength before the coming battle. The supporters of the third strategy, the 'superiority' strategy, on the contrary, believe that it is necessary to maintain US leadership and military presence around the world. They view the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan as a colossal mistake, and Russia's war against Ukraine its direct consequence.

The ECFR experts also distinguish three camps within the Democrats: supporters of the 'leadership' strategy, 'realists' and 'progressives'. The former, who make up a significant portion of the party, continue to believe in America's role as the guarantor of the world order, which should fight back against the revisionist powers of Russia and China. They place great emphasis on maintaining the old order and building new Asian alliances: the Quad, AUKUS, US-ASEAN. In this sense, they are close in their values to the Republican 'superiority' camp. 

'Realists' believe that American power is limited, the international system is inexorably moving towards multipolarity and Washington needs to focus primarily on the vital interests of the country. This position is more prevalent within think tanks than it is in Congress, the authors of the ECFR report note. According to the 'realists,' rhetoric and actions that increase the risk of a US-China conflict over Taiwan should be avoided, and when it comes to Ukraine, the current impasse should be acknowledged and perhaps negotiated, with the expectation that Russia will still learn its lesson if it pays a high price for its acquisitions. To fight authoritarian powers, they suggest using sanctions, as well as anti-corruption and anti-kleptocratic legislation agreed upon with allies.

'Progressives' believe that American politics is too militarised. In domestic and foreign policy, they are in favour of the poor, minorities, immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community and workers. US foreign policy, they believe, should address climate change as a source of poverty and migration in the Global South. 'Progressives' are committed to defending Ukraine but are concerned about the possibility of nuclear escalation. Some are pushing to cut the military budget and redirect some of it to social programmes. The conflict in Israel is dramatically increasing polarisation among Democrats.

To summarise the picture presented above, the distance between traditional Democrats and traditional Republicans is not so far when it comes to foreign policy issues. But there is a more radical wing in both parties — the Trumpists in the Republican Party and the American Left among the Democrats: their views are hostile to the mainstream and directed in opposite directions.

US, Europe, Germany: The China problem and rethinking the basics

Strategic competition with China is the platform with the highest degree of bipartisan consensus. However, there are also points of contention on this issue, the authors of the ECFR report note. This concerns, for example, the role the parties assign to their allies in this rivalry. The future Republican president is likely to take a more unilateral approach, relying more on his own strength and the Europeans' forced willingness to follow the lead of the US than on building a full-fledged coalition with Europe. The current Republican leaders are more likely to insist on faster redeployment of military resources from Ukraine to the Indo-Pacific region. However, even in the event that the Democrats remain in power, the US will continue to persuade allies to engage in containment and review its industrial policy towards China, as well as contribute more to military assistance to Ukraine and European security organisations, which would allow the US to free up its own resources for the Pacific. This process would be less conflictual.

However, this strategy may also cause some tensions to arise. As the polls show, Europeans are much less likely to view China as a threat to their security and Taiwan as an area of responsibility, and believe it is necessary to build relations with China in a way that does not exacerbate, but mitigates, the problem of global rivalry.

A recent Pew Research Center and Körber-Stiftung poll shows points of convergence and divergence in the views of Americans and Germans on foreign policy. It is the interaction between these two powers that will determine the main vector of US-European relations. The arrival of the Biden administration has had a positive impact on assessments of relations between the two countries: as it stands, 85% of Americans and 77% of Germans consider relations between the US and Germany to be good, although in 2020 only 18% of Germans gave the same answer. Moreover, Trump's likely return to office will bring a return of the hostility already formed towards the US. In fact, this prospect can already be felt in the survey responses: over the past year, the share of Americans who rate relations with Germany as good increased by 4 percentage points, while the share of Germans who rate relations with the US positively decreased by 5 percentage points. 

The more sceptical perception of Germans to the status quo is also evident in other issues today. For example, most Americans now view Germany as a partner on key issues, including relations with China and the war in Ukraine. At the same time, Germans show greater scepticism about partnering with the United States on issues related to China (47% vs. 60% of Americans) and climate protection (29% vs. 68% of Americans). However, a majority of German respondents are willing to recognise the United States as a partner on free trade, democracy promotion and the war in Ukraine. Moreover, Germans are even ahead of Americans when it comes to the latter point: 69% of respondents see the US as a partner, while 64% give a comparable answer to the US.

Despite more sceptical assessments of the state of bilateral relations, Germans consider the US to be their main foreign policy partner. This was the answer of 42% of Germans surveyed (+7 percentage points against the level of the previous year). In turn, only 6% of the Americans surveyed viewed Germany as their country's main foreign policy partner. More or as important for the US, according to respondents, are Great Britain (25%), China (11%) and Canada (6%).

Americans are more likely than Germans to perceive Russia as a serious military threat to their security (68% vs. 36%), although in Germany concern about Russia's military capabilities has increased by 14 percentage points since last year. With respect to China, respondents from both countries demonstrate broadly similar views: both Americans (71%) and Germans (62%) believe that China's growing global influence will have a negative impact on their countries. In the US, the greatest concern about China's rise can be seen among Republicans (82%), people over 50 (81%) and people with a bachelor's degree or higher (79%). In Germany, the only outliers are supporters of the far-right AfD: they are much less concerned about China's rise (42% vs. 62% on average). On the whole, Americans tend to see China as a serious military threat to a much greater extent (70% vs. 13% of Germans). At the same time, eight out of ten Germans see China as an economic threat in one way or another, and this is particularly common among supporters of the Greens.

Another point of divergence between American and German respondents is the assessment of Germany's international influence: a majority of Germans believe that their country's influence has decreased over the past two years (57%), while most Americans believe that Germany's influence has remained the same (63%). 

Thus, between the viewpoints of Americans and Germans when it comes to foreign policy, the most significant differences can be found in the acuteness in the perception of security threats and rivalry with China. The German electorate and the German establishment tend to take a much more cautious approach to relations with Beijing, in particular because of the significant dependence on ties to the Chinese economy. And, while Europe is increasingly recognising the risks of this relationship, it will resist US pressure on the 'China' issue.

The main factor of uncertainty remains the possibility of Trump's return to office, which could lead to a radicalisation of American foreign policy approaches. The very possibility of such a turnaround calls into question the status quo of European and German security and therefore is making Europe and Germany seriously consider possibilities for strategic sovereignty, i.e. the need to completely shift the provision of European security onto their own shoulders. This could define a fundamental shift in European policy, a prospect that Europe is only beginning to realise and for which the European public is not entirely ready.