To confront China, Pompeo has to think carefully about European outreach

After last month’s visit to the United Kingdom and Denmark, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s upcoming trip to Central Europe — specifically, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Austria, and Poland — represents another attempt to align the views of America’s European partners on three important transatlantic matters: China, Russia, and Iran.

Efforts at good-faith dialogue deserve praise. However, Pompeo’s outreach is coming on the back of three years of rather unconstructive approaches from the administration: berating Europeans for being “delinquent” on defense spending, slapping tariffs on European exports to the United States, and inserting itself, typically via the President’s Twitter feed, into contentious questions of European politics — to say nothing of the sudden decision to move 12,000 troops out of Germany and the questionable choice of the new US ambassador to the country.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the State Department’s 2021 budget, in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, in Washington, D.C., U.S., July 30, 2020. Greg Nash/Pool via REUTERS

But there
is another wrinkle to Pompeo’s Euro trip. By leaving the EU out of the
conversation and reaching out to national capitals, the administration is
handicapping itself. Whether or not the Czechs or the Slovenians take a more
hawkish stance on China is not going to be a game changer. In contrast, getting
to an agreement with the EU on Huawei, intellectual property standards,
or human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region would change Beijing’s calculus
dramatically.

Of course, reaching
a substantive agreement on, say, China with a bloc of 27 countries would be
extremely hard. Yet the administration is derelict in its duties for not trying
— taking the easier route of mostly insignificant wins in national capitals
that are already inclined to support Washington on partial matters.

True, as I argued in my column in The American Interest, the administration is not avoiding Brussels uniquely on ideological grounds but also because of the practical nature of the question of “whom one calls” when they want to talk to Europe. From the US perspective, it is far from obvious that Josep Borrell, Ursula von der Leyen, or Charles Michel are the US administration’s most effective interlocutors. Still, in the absence of a US-EU dialogue Europeans are under little pressure to arrive at common positions on important matters, which contributes not only to the EU’s strategic impotence but also reduces the bloc’s value as a US partner on issues that matter to America.

Here is to hoping that the next administration will see the value of investing into its relationship with the EU — and also that the EU manages to step up and demonstrate its geopolitical relevance. If not, the transatlantic relationship is bound suffer no matter who is the next occupant of the White House.

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