Biden Promised to Confront China with an 'Alliance of Values.' Europe said No, Thanks | Opinion

Joe Biden has for months now conveyed his intention to confront China by forming an "alliance of values" with Europe. The plan was to pressure Beijing to change its tune on democracy, human rights, and trade by showing a united front on these issues. But in only his first two weeks, Berlin, Paris, and Brussels have sent an explicit message that common values cut no ice with them if Biden doesn't also link them to common commercial interests. In what must have been an unwelcome surprise, the European Commission has negotiated a landmark investment treaty with China, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel swore off the "building of blocs" between Europeans and America, all before Biden's first month in office.

Europeans have no obligation to consult with Washington on their economic agreements, and American business is not exactly leaving China over humanitarian concerns. Still, there is palpable alarm in the White House that the allies most relieved by Biden's election victory already seem willing to undermine his promise of a more values-based alliance policy.

Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping
German Chancellor Angela Merkel stands behind Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Osaka Castle Park during the G20 Summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. DOMINIQUE JACOVIDES/ Getty Images

And yet, the idea of an "alliance of values" with America was never going to have much appeal for contemporary Europe, not least because it overstates the role played by democratic ideals in European foreign policy. Indeed, nothing has made Biden look more dated in recent weeks than his continued insistence on a "Summit for Democracy," where he believes the U.S. and Europe will "forge a common agenda to address threats to our common values."

Part of the problem is that aligning values like democracy and liberalism with commercial interests like export markets and investment access is harder now than it was in the Cold War, when Biden formed many of his instincts. Back then, promoting a values-based foreign policy worked due in large part to the weakness of the alternative; core transatlantic beliefs about innovation, dynamism, self-expression, and political economy were vindicated by the fact that the Communist bloc couldn't make anything, create opportunities, or offer other countries much beyond subjugation.

But the democratic creed which appeared to explain the arc of Soviet history is struggling to describe or predict what happens in China. It's not that China is so different from the USSR on the values front; the Chinese surveillance state is more effectively authoritarian than the Soviet Union ever managed to be, and just as repulsive to Western values. But when it comes to what modern China offers its citizens in exchange for curtailing their privacy and freedoms, there is no comparison with the Soviet Union.

China's share of global GDP has risen from two percent to 16% since 1995. Between 2018 and 2024, Bloomberg forecasts that China's GDP growth will outpace other emerging markets by 25% and advanced economies by 35%. China could plausibly lead the world's next technological breakthroughs in everything from payments and high-speed transportation to artificial intelligence and quantum computing. As the historian Adam Tooze wrote last year in Chartbook, it is unclear whether China is on track for the kind of calamitous state overgrowth that Western theory would predict, or if we might be "seeing the emergence of a new streamlined form of state capitalism."

It is unlikely anyone will be able to answer that question in a timeframe relevant to the Biden administration. But it is very likely that in the next four to eight years, China's $14 trillion economy will continue to force U.S. allies to choose between the Enlightenment values they presumably share, the economic opportunities they desperately need, and the possibilities for Chinese retaliation they evidently fear.

Berlin, Paris, and Brussels seem to be telling the new American president that common values mean little to them if he cannot also link them to common interests. In the days preceding the announcement of the EU-China Investment Treaty, Merkel's cabinet approved a bill leaving open the opportunity to include Huawei's technology in Germany's 5G mobile networks. At the same time, the Chinese telecommunications giant announced a 200 million euro investment in a network equipment factory in France. When Merkel was asked in mid-December how concentration camps in Xinjiang affect her thinking on investment in China, she responded, "We will find a very good balance." With better market access for German and European investors, she believes she has.

If he wants to leverage the transatlantic alliance to confront China, Biden will have to appeal less to historic values than to a contemporary conception of commercial interests and security threats. He does bring certain strengths to that challenge. His style and behavior will make it less difficult than Trump did for European politicians to stake their credibility on supporting American policy. And his administration will be more apt than the previous one to find positive-sum outcomes. Taking up Brussels' proposal for a new EU-US Trade and Technology Council to develop and protect emerging technologies could be a good place to start.

But when the U.S. and Europe have worked well together in the past, it was less because they felt a moral obligation to do so than because they shared a collective purpose. Most often, it was defense against a common danger. In the absence of a shared analysis of the Chinese threat, or a consensus that America is not responsible for facing it alone, it is not clear Biden can shepherd Europe into an alliance of either values or interests.

Jeremy Stern is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Europe Center and was previously senior advisor at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.