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US president opts to prioritize trans-Atlantic ties

Herbsttreffen der Medienfrauen 2017 Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl
March 2, 2022

Perhaps the last trans-Atlanticist in the White House, Joe Biden emphasized unity with European allies in his first State of the Union address. DW's Ines Pohl says he deserves respect for not putting America first.

US President Joe Biden with Vice-President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
This was Biden's first State of the Union speechImage: Jabin Botsford/Getty Images

While Joe Biden, the 46th president of the US, gave his first State of the Union address, there were hundreds of thousands of people fleeing a war in Europe. As he talked, nobody could say how many people were dying. Killed in a war launched by a megalomaniac Russian president who has clearly lost his mind harking back to the past.

Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl runs DW's Washington studioImage: DW/P. Böll

Just like his statements in recent days and weeks, Biden's words also seemed to hark back to the past, sounding at times as if they were straight out of a Cold War archive. The president, who is going on 80, talked of the power of joining forces with allies, he threatened Moscow and he defended democratic values. He said how important it was to be united to help ease the suffering of the Ukrainian people, and outlined US sanctions that would hit the Russian economy.

'Defend every inch of territory of NATO'

There was rapturous applause, including from many Republican members. After all, who would not want to commend the courage of the Ukrainians, as well as the strength of the US in such a tragic moment of history? Biden's belligerent rhetoric and the pledge to "defend every inch of territory of NATO countries with the full force of our collective power,” resounded under the Capitol's dome. But this self-centered celebration of the US military strength was just a snapshot.

Joe Biden had very different intentions as he made this important speech, several weeks into the new year. Considering his approval ratings are currently at a drastic low at 41%, he finally wanted a chance to shine and score some points. Eight months away from the crucial midterm elections, which could see him lose all his political leverage, he wanted to talk about his achievements: About the battle against COVID-19, about economic growth and positive developments on the job market. He wanted to celebrate the fact that he is the first president to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court. He also wanted to highlight the fact that he has fulfilled various important pledges, such as getting a major infrastructure spending package through. Of course, he did talk about all that in his speech and earned another round of elated applause, albeit mainly from his own ranks.

A standing ovation at the Capitol in Washington as Biden makes his first State of the Union speech
Biden's support for Ukraine earned him a standing ovationImage: Victoria Spartz/Getty Images

Risk of disappointing voters

However, what will really make a difference for voters is the decision to put the fight for the democratic post-war order in faraway Europe over immediate interests in the US. This means understanding that the impact of sanctions will cause gas prices to explode, and the inflation rate, already hovering at an average 7%, will continue to rise, making life even harder for millions across the US.

The US president also seems to have accepted the fact that populist Republicans could use his campaign against Putin's war crimes against him, as ammunition for their America First fearmongering. They will do this first in this year's midterms and then later in the presidential polls.

Like many of his generation, Biden is convinced that the US has to stand with its European allies in times of crisis. But this conviction is not shared by all of his compatriots. For many, China has replaced Russia as the object of fear. For most of the population, trans-Atlantic ties with the old continent are no longer a priority. Many see the future in Asia and believe that Europe should, finally, look after itself.

Joe Biden has been a politician for 50 years. He will perhaps be the last great trans-Atlanticist in the White House. Without even conjuring up the specter of Trump, regardless of who succeeds him as president, the US will shift its foreign policy priorities. Europe would do well to get used to this and adjust accordingly.

This article has been translated from German. 


Herbsttreffen der Medienfrauen 2017 Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl Bureau head of DW's Washington Studio@inespohl
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