WASHINGTON — Two weeks after President Biden’s inauguration, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, spoke publicly about the importance of dialogue with Moscow, saying that Russia is a part of Europe that cannot simply be shunned and that Europe must be strong enough to defend its own interests.
On Dec. 30, just weeks before the inauguration, the European Union clinched an important investment agreement with China, days after a tweet by Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, asking for “early consultations” with Europe on China and seeming to caution against a quick deal.
On Friday, Mr. Biden will address the Munich Security Conference, a gathering of leaders and diplomats from Europe and the United States that he has attended for decades and that helped cement his reputation as a champion of trans-Atlantic solidarity.
Speaking at the conference two years ago, Mr. Biden lamented the damage the Trump administration had inflicted on the once-sturdy postwar relationship between Washington and Europe’s major capitals. “This too shall pass,” Mr. Biden said. “We will be back.” He promised that America would again “shoulder our responsibility of leadership.”
Mr. Biden’s remarks on Friday are sure to repeat that promise and spotlight his now-familiar call for a more unified Western front against the anti-democratic threats posed by Russia and China. In many ways such talk is sure to be received like a warm massage by European leaders tensed and shellshocked by four years of President Donald J. Trump’s mercurial and often contemptuous diplomacy.
But if by “leadership” Mr. Biden means a return to the traditional American assumption — we decide and you follow — many Europeans feel that world is gone, and that Europe must not behave like America’s junior wingman in fights defined by Washington.
Demonstrated by the E.U.’s trade deal with China, and conciliatory talk about Moscow from leaders like Mr. Macron and Germany’s likely next chancellor, Armin Laschet, Europe has its own set of interests and ideas about how to manage America’s two main rivals, ones that will complicate Mr. Biden’s diplomacy.
“Biden is signaling an incredibly hawkish approach to Russia, lumping it in with China, and defining a new global Cold War against authoritarianism,” said Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
That makes many European leaders nervous, Mr. Shapiro said. And other regional experts said they had seen fewer signs of overt enthusiasm from the continent than Biden administration officials might have hoped for.
“There was always a cleareyed recognition that we weren’t just going to be able to show up and say, ‘Hey guys, we’re back!,’” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, who was in line to become the National Security Council director for Russia but who did not take the job for personal reasons.
“But even with all of that, I think there was optimism that it would be easier than it looks like it’s going to be,” said Ms. Kendall-Taylor, director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
Ulrich Speck, a senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, added: “After the freeze in relations under Trump, I expected more warming. I don’t see it yet.”
Mr. Biden quickly took many of the easiest steps toward reconciliation and unity with Europe, including rejoining the Paris climate agreement, renewing an emphasis on multilateralism and human rights, and vowing to rejoin the disintegrating 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
But aligning against Russia and China will be much more difficult.
China may be a peer rival for America, but it has long been a vital trade partner for Europe, and while European leaders see Beijing as a systemic rival and competitor, they also see it as a partner, and hardly view it as an enemy.
And Russia remains a nuclear-armed neighbor, however truculent, and has financial and emotional leverage of its own.
Since Mr. Biden was last in the White House during the Obama administration, moreover, Britain, historically America’s most reliable diplomatic partner, has left the European Union and now coordinates foreign policy less effectively with its continental allies.
“That sophisticated British view of the world is absent,” said Nicholas Burns, a former under secretary of state and ambassador to NATO in the George W. Bush administration. “I don’t think the U.S. is intertwined yet with Europe, diplomatically and strategically,” he added.
This week’s security conference is not run by the German government, but Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany will address it along with Mr. Biden, Mr. Macron and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain. And Germany itself illustrates some of the problems the Biden administration will face in its effort to lock arms against Moscow.
Ms. Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Party has chosen Mr. Laschet as party leader, and he is their likely candidate to succeed her in autumn elections. But Mr. Laschet is more sympathetic than Mr. Biden to both Russia and China. He has cast doubt on the extent of Russian political disinformation and cyberhacking operations and publicly criticized “marketable anti-Putin populism.” He also has been a strong supporter of Germany’s export-led economy, which is deeply reliant on China.
Germany still intends to put into operation the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a 746-mile natural gas artery that runs under the Baltic Sea from northern Russia to Germany. The paired pipelines are owned by Gazprom, itself owned by Russia. Work stopped on the project last year — with 94 percent of the pipes laid — after the U.S. Congress imposed further sanctions on the project on the grounds that it helps fund the Kremlin, damages Ukraine and gives Russia the potential to manipulate Europe’s energy supply.
Last year, German politicians responded to threats of economic punishment made by Republican U.S. senators by claiming “blackmail,” “economic war” and “neo-imperialism.” Many want to complete the project, but on Tuesday, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, told reporters that Mr. Biden opposes the pipeline project as a “bad deal” that divides Europe and makes it more vulnerable to Russian treachery.
Despite the sanctions, Russian ships have renewed laying pipes, and Ms. Merkel defends the project as a business venture, not a geopolitical statement. The Germans argue that E.U. energy regulations and new pipeline configurations reduce Russian ability to manipulate supplies and that Russia is more dependent on the income than Europe is on the gas.
There are signs that, as with the China deal, the Biden administration wants to move on and negotiate a solution with Germany, to remove a major irritant with a crucial ally. That could include, some suggest, snapback sanctions if Moscow diverts supplies or halts transit fees to Ukraine.
In France, Mr. Macron has long sought to develop a more positive dialogue with Mr. Putin, but his efforts for a “reset” have gone nowhere. The E.U. foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, tried something similar this month with embarrassing results, when Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia humiliated him at a news conference and called the European Union “an unreliable partner.’’
Together with the attempted assassination and then the jailing of the Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, the treatment of Mr. Borrell means that Brussels is likely to add new sanctions on Russia, but not before the end of March, and will be more open to Mr. Biden’s suggestions for a tougher line.
Biden administration officials say that coordinating with fractious Europe has never been easy and that its leaders welcome restored U.S. leadership — especially on a Chinese threat more apparent to Europe than it was five years ago.
As for China and the investment agreement, after seven years of difficult talks, European officials have defended it as largely an effort to obtain the same access to the China market for their companies that American firms had received through Mr. Trump’s China deal last year.
“There is no reason for us to suffer from an unlevel playing field, including vis-à-vis the U.S.,” Sabine Weyand, the E.U. director general for trade, said in a virtual forum in early February. “Why should we sit still?”
Ms. Weyand said the deal set high standards for Chinese trade practices, which would ultimately put the United States and Europe “in a stronger position to have a more assertive policy together on China.”
The deal must be ratified by the European Parliament, however, which has been critical of its failure to guarantee more labor rights, and it is unlikely to come to a vote until much later this year. And, again, Biden administration officials seem to be willing to move on, given the importance of cooperation with Europe on China.