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Many European Leaders Hope U.S.-German Relations Will Strengthen


The man expected to lead President-elect Biden's foreign policy has a different perspective on the world. Mike Pompeo, the departing secretary of state, leaves behind a legacy of loyalty to Donald Trump. His replacement has a long history of engaging with other countries. NPR has learned that Tony Blinken is the choice. He served as deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration. Earlier this year, Blinken spoke at the Hudson Institute, which is a think tank, and he described what he thought foreign policy could look like under Biden.


ANTONY BLINKEN: In a Biden administration, we would see more emphasis on the Indo-Pacific, more emphasis on our own hemisphere, as well as some sustained engagement, I would hope, with Africa. And obviously, Europe remains a partner of first resort, not last resort, when it comes to contending with the challenges we face.

INSKEEP: Let's pick up on that thought about Europe. The relationship with Europe has been difficult under President Trump, who pushed allies to contribute more to defense spending. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has spoken with Biden since his victory and has since said that Europe needs to contribute more to the trans-Atlantic partnership once Biden takes office. A few days ago, I asked Peter Wittig, who served as Germany's ambassador to the U.S. until 2018, why Merkel might have made those remarks.

PETER WITTIG: I think she made this statement because she wanted to point to the changes in international relations in recent years. First, Europe is less important to any American president than it used to be. The center of gravity is not Europe anymore for the U.S., but it's clearly Asia and China in particular. And second, the U.S. will not be the policeman of the world anymore. So the obvious conclusion for Europeans and Germans in particular is that we will have to do more for our own security in terms of defense spending and also in terms of security engagement in our neighborhood. So America will not do this for us anymore.

INSKEEP: Is there an irony that Merkel would then say as soon as there's a new president, we really need to step it up?

WITTIG: I think it reflects the change of configuration in international relations, really. I think we are now aware that we have to look after ourselves. And it is also sort of a gesture towards the new president, Biden, that we will not come empty-handed into this new phase of the Atlantic partnership.

INSKEEP: Meaning that Europe still needs the United States even if the United States has to spend more of its time focused on Asia and China.

WITTIG: Well, there's a debate about this in Europe. But I think most people in Germany would say that this fundamental truth is still unchanged. Europe will not be able in the foreseeable future to guarantee its own security without the U.S. We cannot replace the conventional and nuclear capacities of the U.S. So NATO remains for us of utmost importance to Europe, and therefore we welcome that President Biden is such a strong backer of NATO.

INSKEEP: You mentioned that the United States is more focused on China these days. I have heard smart people supportive of the new president here in the United States draw a link between Europe and China and say the United States faces this enormous challenge of contending with China and that the way to do that is to collaborate more closely with Europe because the combined economic power of the European Union and the U.K. and the United States is so enormous that China might more readily have to listen. What do you think of that?

WITTIG: Yes, I think the Europeans are totally aware that the rise of China is the strategic challenge for the U.S. in the next decades. And I don't think that many Europeans expect Biden to perform a U-turn on Sino-American relations, given that the consensus in Washington is being tough on China, but believe that the U.S. should rebalance cooperation with China on global issues like climate change, et cetera, on the one hand, with competition and confrontation vis-a-vis China, on the other hand, maybe in the big political problems that concern all of us. So I think the Europeans would welcome if the new president could work with the Europeans on a joint agenda to address common grievances with China on trade, on security, because that would make us stronger. We would act as allies as two great economic blocs, and it would give us enormous clout to address all the concerns we have with China, from intellectual property theft to forced technology transfer to cyber espionage and the various security risks that a newly assertive China is posing to the world.

INSKEEP: Peter Wittig was the German ambassador to the United States up until 2018. Always a pleasure to talk with you. Thanks.

WITTIG: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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