Why America and Europe Need a Transatlantic Strategic Council
Stronger U.S.-EU strategic coordination is urgently needed to prevent the possibility that regional conflicts could draw the United States and the Europeans into new forms of “hybrid warfare” against a Eurasian axis of predominantly “authoritarian” states.
In short, U.S. and EU diplomatic engagement with Turkey should go forward—and not be postponed due to Turkey’s significant human rights abuses or on the assumption that Erdogan might soon fall from power.
THE IRANIAN Islamic Revolutionary Guards greeted President Biden by unveiling a new underground base for “strategic missiles” on its Gulf coastline. Tehran, now under the harder-line leadership of Ebrahim Raisi, has engaged in a policy of “maximum resistance” in opposition to Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy. The latter had sought to check Iran’s steps to enter the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization by dumping the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA); yet Tehran and Beijing have moved closer together anyway.
In accord with its “maximum resistance” strategy, Tehran signed a twenty-five-year Strategic Cooperation Accord with Beijing in March 2021. While China and Iran might not have forged a strong secret alliance as previously reported, Tehran has hoped that Chinese and Russian backing will help pressure the United States to grant sanctions relief, while also trying to deter U.S. and Israeli targeted assassinations and military threats—if Tehran continues to upgrade its uranium enrichment capabilities. Beijing and Moscow still need to balance their relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia—but this will not necessarily prevent the Eurasian duo from moving as close to Tehran as possible.
IN SHIFTING away from Trump’s pro-Saudi policy, Biden has been attempting to “re-calibrate” the U.S. relationship with Iran and with the senior Saudi leadership after Riyadh’s assassination of the U.S.-based Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi—a significant human rights violation by a U.S. ally.
In rebalancing Iran-Saudi relations, Biden hopes to put an end to the horrific war in Yemen. His first step was to drop the Donald Trump/Mike Pompeo “terrorist” label on the Yemeni Houthis—a signal to Tehran which has been seen as supporting the Houthis against Saudi interests. Biden likewise promised to pause the sale of “relevant” U.S. arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In effect, Biden has hoped that reducing Saudi-Iranian tensions could also help to reinstitute the JCPOA nuclear accord.
At the same time, however, Biden has not turned his back on Riyadh entirely and affirmed that the United States would continue to defend Saudi territory while concurrently engaging in military operations against the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—in a situation in which allied military supports for the Saudi-led war have not been reduced significantly.
In the meantime, how American lawsuits alleging Saudi government involvement in the September 11, 2001 attacks might impact U.S.-Saudi relations and possibly open the door for Russia and China to augment their influence in the kingdom, remains to be seen.
While UN Contact Group negotiations to renew the JCPOA should remain a separate discussion, new negotiations that seek to put an end to the horrific war in Yemen should also be aimed at winding down Iran-Saudi proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. The latter conflicts have been exacerbated by the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords that align Israel with the UAE, Bahrain, plus Sudan and Morocco, and tacitly with Saudi Arabia, against both Iran and Turkey. Yet given reports that Riyadh has secretly been talking with Tehran at least since April 2021, concerted U.S.-EU-UN diplomacy is crucial to helping achieve an Iran-Saudi non-aggression pact.
As Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have all threatened a regional arms race, missile deployments will also need to be discussed in a separate Contact Group forum. Even if Iran appears opposed to such negotiations at present, efforts to implement an agreement of “no-first-use” of any form of weapon of mass destruction for the region—if not for the world—should be pursued.
AS THE scope of the Abraham Accords largely bypassed the Israel-Palestinian conflict, there is a major risk that intra-Palestinian disputes with Israel could soon provoke violence throughout the wider region. The May 2021 war in Gaza, accompanied by civil strife within Israel itself, forewarns of more extensive regional conflicts. It is accordingly time to revive the long-stalled Quartet peace process involving the UN, the United States, the EU, and Russia, plus other regional actors—in accord with the Quartet’s March 2021 communique in favor of “meaningful negotiations.”
Concerted steps must soon be taken to prevent the further devastation of the “wider Middle East” after the U.S.-led military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere, coupled with direct Russian military intervention in Syria. At a cost of more than $6.4 trillion dollars to U.S. taxpayers, these wars of strategic choice (not strategic necessity) have killed more than 800,000 people, with countless numbers wounded, while displacing as many as 37 million people—while diverting U.S. strategic attention away from Russia and China.
Yet in order to re-engage in concerted UN-backed diplomacy, both Moscow and Beijing will need incentives to help defuse their own regional disputes if they are to fully assist the United States and EU wind down conflicts in Afghanistan, Iran, Israel-Palestine, Syria, Yemen, the Sahel, Venezuela, and other regions.
WASHINGTON HAS been concerned that the EU does not possess a strong interest in challenging China’s strategic-military and political-economic “threats”—particularly since the euro crisis began in 2012, followed by sanctions on U.S. and EU trade with Russia since 2014, coupled with the failure to achieve a U.S.-EU trade pact.
As opposed to Trump’s more pain than gain protectionism, Biden argues that it is within the World Trade Organization that the United States and EU should join forces to press China to reform its “unfair” trading practices. In an effort to obtain “collective leverage” to pressure China, Biden has promised to consult with U.S. allies before placing tariffs on Chinese products.
The Biden administration also hopes that the EU will work closely with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia in an effort to limit China’s predominance in the global supply chain that provides rare earth materials for smartphones, advanced motors, and electric vehicle batteries. The goal is to supersede Chinese advances in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), 5G, quantum computing, and green technologies.
In many ways, U.S.-EU sanctions on Moscow have turned the EU closer to China. Since 2014, sanctions on Moscow have significantly harmed EU (and particularly Eastern European) trade and agri-food relations with Russia, while indirectly diverting EU exports to China and African countries. At that time, in 2015–16, Germany, France, Italy, and Britain all invested in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)—a move then opposed by Washington which saw the AIIB as a Chinese-led rival to the U.S.-led World Bank.
Now, the EU has been debating the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI) with China. If the CAI is approved, the Europeans would be seen by Washington as helping to finance Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and its Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that represent tools for Beijing to govern the burgeoning Asian economy and to reduce China’s dependence upon American markets. The RCEP could encompass more than 50 percent of the world’s GDP by 2030.
There have, however, been growing EU doubts about the CAI. EU sanctions on China due to concerns for human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, followed by Chinese counter-sanctions on EU officials, could postpone the signing of this major investment deal.
CONFRONTED WITH the U.S.-China trade war, coupled with provocative U.S.-led Freedom of Navigation Operations, plus an ongoing build-up of U.S., French, German, and UK naval and air forces intended to prevent Beijing from dominating the South and East China Seas, Beijing is now enraged at U.S. efforts to “constrain” Chinese global influence after the March 2021 Quad summit between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India, and Biden’s subsequent summitry with the UK, G7, EU, and NATO in Europe in June.
In asserting China’s right to non-interference in its “sovereign” affairs, China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats did not mince their words in berating the efforts of Biden administration officials to criticize China in the name of “human rights,” “universal values,” and an “international rules-based order” during the U.S.-China summit in Anchorage in March 2021.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Chinese fighter jets and nuclear-capable bombers engaged in incursions into Taiwanese airspace in April and again in June—just after NATO declared that China’s “assertive behavior” presents “systemic challenges” for the alliance. In effect, Beijing seeks to counter the “deepening unofficial relationship” between Washington (and possibly NATO) and Taipei that helps to sustain U.S. hegemony in the Indo-Pacific.
By pressuring Taiwan, as well as ASEAN allies, such as Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines, China hopes to “win” control of Taiwan and the entire region without actually fighting. Beijing’s threats to Taiwan have taken place after it has, in effect, “peacefully” smothered Hong Kong’s autonomy by applying its new national security law. The Biden administration has subsequently opted to maintain Donald Trump’s largely symbolic decision to revoke Hong Kong’s special status—a policy that will not stop China’s domestic crackdown while harming U.S. business and financial interests.
Beijing has additionally threatened New Delhi, Tokyo, and Canberra against establishing closer defense ties with Washington and Taipei. And while developing the Northeast Arctic trade route to Europe over Russia (concurrently pressing EU members Sweden and Finland closer to NATO), Moscow and Beijing have begun to engage in joint defense measures aimed at pressuring the U.S.-Japan alliance. With Moscow’s tacit backing, President Xi Jinping has continued to assert claims to unify Taiwan by force if necessary.