Antony Blinken, Joe Biden’s Secretary of State nominee, said on Tuesday that the new government will use every persuasive tool to stop the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The statement triggered debate over why Biden’s administration, which voiced multiple times it would repair tattered transatlantic ties, persists in killing the energy project needed in Europe?
The US-Europe relationship was frayed during Donald Trump’s presidency, and quite a few observers have pinned their hopes on Biden to fix the damage. Yet the truth is some damage can be repaired while some gaps are too wide to bridge. The Nord Stream 2 project is a typical example which mirrors huge discord between the US and Europe.
Russia is one of the US’ primary rivals, which means Washington would use any approach possible to weaken Moscow. The US could not digest how Europe, which has been hesitant to pay more for NATO, is paying Russia for energy.
But the project is about the national interests of European countries. It will be a stable channel to transfer affordable energy to Europe, while the US can hardly offer alternative solutions. The gas will be transported to more EU countries from Germany. Europe thus believes it is a commercial program, which should not be connected to NATO’s strategy.
Europe has another geopolitical consideration – it wants to stabilize ties with Russia through the mutually beneficial business.
Moreover, it is a project jointly constructed by Russian and European enterprises. A big sum of money has already been invested in it, which is almost complete, with relevant supporting facilities almost ready to come into service. Many interest groups are involved. Stopping the construction, or persuading Europe to abandon the pipeline, has already become mission impossible.
Biden has been suggesting he would mend ties with Europe, but he shares the same stance with the Trump administration over Nord Stream 2, and will not easily change the stance. Before he takes office, both his team and Europe have clarified their attitude over the case, which can be seen as testing each other’s bottom line. Blinken’s rhetoric, voiced one day before Biden’s inauguration, is piling new pressure on US allies. But the latter, especially Germany, will not give in.
Nord Stream 2 is the sour point in US-Europe ties. It will be a critical weather vane for future relations between the US and Europe.
There is currently a group of sober forces in Europe, who welcome Biden as the new US president, but understand the bilateral relationship will never go back to the good old days, because structural divergences which involve the core interests of the two are hard to resolve.
Other controversies include policies on Russia. The US will be more and more anti-Russia while Germany and France are seeking to rebuild ties with Russia. The US is treating China as a major strategic rivalry while Europe is cooperating with China. Washington wants to maintain its hegemony while Europe pursues multilateralism and strategic autonomy. The US wants Europe to follow its lead every step of the way, yet the latter does not want to.
Europe can see changes in this era. It believes that now is an era of great power competition. The main actors in great power competition are the US, China, Russia and Europe. Another of its perceptions is reflected in more and more opinion polls – an increasing number of Europeans believe that the US can no longer be trusted and doubt Washington’s capacity to shape the world. Especially after the outbreak of the pandemic, many European countries have started to realize they can hardly rely on the US in a crisis.
The new US administration wants to repair relations. Yet Biden has just come into office and his power has not been consolidated. He can only start with the simplest issues, such as return to the Paris climate deal and the WTO, consolidate cooperation with Europe on the COVID-19 fight, stop the trade war and increase coordination in international affairs. The Trump administration has caused too much damage, which can only be repaired slowly.
But major discord between them, such as Nord Stream 2, may need to wait. If Biden is sincere enough, the best he can do now is to put the dispute aside, play down the differences and resolve the issue gradually in a low-key manner. Considering the habits of Europe and the US, as well as their alliance, it is very likely that they would close the door and reach a consensus despite the seemingly tough talks. Perhaps the Nord Stream 2 project will continue in the end, but the purchase volume may be limited.
Unlike Trump, Biden would reduce confrontation. This is already an important change. It means that while the US and Europe can return to cooperation in international affairs, and the two sides’ disputes can also be alleviated. The new administration will bring about an improvement in US-Europe relations. But a structural and fundamental improvement is impossible, so far at least.