The US will continue to retreat from the Middle East and North Africa, whoever wins the presidency. Europe needs to get its house in order to defend its interests.

A US restoration in which Joe Biden sweeps aside the disruptive approach of the Trump era is a tantalising prospect for European policymakers, not least in the Middle East and North Africa.

Across the region a Biden victory will certainly have a notable effect, creating space for more constructive transatlantic cooperation, particularly in supporting diplomatic tracks to de-escalate regional tensions and salvaging the nuclear deal with Iran. Both of these are important for European interests given how regional instability can spill over into Europe. A second Trump term, by contrast, risks intensified confrontation with Iran, potentially accelerating Tehran’s move towards a nuclear capability, while also consolidating the US embrace of an authoritarian axis across the region.

But Europeans would be wise to not over-invest in the hope that a Biden administration will solve their regional concerns. There is much about US policy and regional dynamics that will remain the same regardless of who is president, and that in fact date back to Barack Obama rather than Trump. Europeans need to learn three key lessons from recent years if they are to better respond to the possibility of a disruptive second Trump term or lay the pathway for more effective alignment with a Biden administration.

  1. Regional stabilisation will not be made in America

Whoever is the next US president, American regional leadership is on the wane. On the one hand it is clear that the US wants to get out of the Middle East. This is admittedly an outcome that presidents repeatedly struggle to implement, but one which will be energised by acute US domestic challenges and the deepening rivalry with China. At the same time Washington is increasingly unable to impose its will on regional developments; across the Middle East and North Africa, the US is ever more absent in shaping outcomes. This is true whether the issue is sharpening regional fault lines – not just the longstanding Saudi-Iran conflict but also the ever-more prominent Turkish-United Arab Emirates confrontation – or influencing dynamics in Libya, Yemen, or even Syria, despite America’s military presence on the ground.

This is an outcome that Biden will not quickly reverse, if at all. In a trend dating back to the Obama years, regional actors simply do not look to the US for direction as they once did. Trump’s unpredictable, America-first approach has only further diminished US regional influence. Somewhat ironically given initial cheerleading of Trump’s hardline approach, Arab Gulf states have now re-established channels with Tehran as a direct response to escalation risks partly fuelled by US policy toward Iran. Meanwhile, the Israeli-Emirati peace agreement is in many respects a hedging bet against US policy, solidifying a regional alliance partly premised on American disengagement. Other extra-regional powers, such as Russia and Turkey, are increasingly active on regional fronts.

Since the Obama years, regional actors simply do not look to the US for direction as they once did

As Europeans look to the region under either Trump or Biden, they need to internalise the reality that the US is not going to invest significant energy in driving stabilisation efforts in line with European interests. Under Biden, Europeans will therefore need to focus on partnership around key issues where US engagement can play a critical role, such as reviving the nuclear deal, while offering greater European resources to offset a US drawdown, such as supporting Iraqi security needs. In both presidential scenarios, Europeans need to be prepared to seize greater initiative, including in terms of both supporting and pressing regional partners. Here, there may actually be an opportunity as regional actors realise that the US no longer has their backs. This dynamic could push some players towards more constructive accommodation.

  1. Geoeconomics, not geopolitics, is the key

Europeans need to recognise that Trump’s fixation on geopolitics has come at the expense of a focus on structural factors that are core drivers of regional instability. This, again, is a trend that a Biden administration is unlikely to wholly reverse given growing American fatigue with the region and a likely US prioritisation of core security interests.

Trump’s determination to counter Iran not only resulted in the weakening of the nuclear deal but has also distracted attention from the underlying factors – the state of regional economies, demographics, governance issues – that are equally, if not more, significant in shaping regional developments. Indeed, Trump has increasingly used economic tools, namely sanctions, as part of this geopolitical agenda – with counterproductive results. The US maximum pressure campaign against Iran risks feeding state failure across the region and ultimately giving hardline Iranian forces greater space to manoeuvre. The region is quickly seeing socio-economic conditions worsen, accelerated by the effects of covid-19 and the collapse in oil prices. This trajectory risks fuelling intensified instability, conflict, terrorism, and migration flows.

Regardless of who wins the presidency, Europeans need to place greater focus on addressing core structural deficiencies. This is an approach that will ultimately also be more effective in advancing geopolitical ambitions, including by strengthening state structures to dilute Iran’s regional influence. Europeans should acknowledge that a Trump administration will not be a partner on this front. Biden, for his part, has placed greater rhetorical importance on issues such as governance and human right, and states that he will pull back from unconditional relationships with autocratic leaders. But given wider US pressures and priorities and the fact that regional spillover will most directly impact on Europeans, the European Union will need to take a transatlantic lead in addressing many of these issues, particularly on critical economic questions.  

  1. European incoherence feeds irrelevance

Europeans need to coldly self-assess their own policy failures over the past four years. Across the range of issues arising in the Middle East and North Africa, Europeans have been left standing by Trump and regional power-plays. This has resulted in their complete marginalisation on key issues influencing European interests. Libya is a case in point as a country that has magnified European weakness and divisions.

France is perhaps the one European country that has proactively sought to inject itself into the field, for which credit is due. But Paris has nonetheless essentially failed on every regional track it has embarked upon, from saving the nuclear deal, to stabilising Libya, to reforming Lebanon. The obstacles are great but key reasons for this failure include the lack of meaningful European consensus – demonstrated most acutely in Libya – and a political unwillingness to firmly act on European interests – such as on Iran, where the E3’s desire to save the nuclear deal never translated into hard political steps to counter US policy.  

Unless Europeans can present a meaningful and coherent European response to regional developments they will fall further into irrelevance. This will risk passing a point of no return with a new Trump term, but his America-first doctrine is unlikely to completely disappear with Biden. In both presidential scenarios Europeans need to more independently assert their interests, including by finally stepping up to shape a coherent position towards the Libya crisis. And, while regional problems need local solutions, Europeans bring more to the table, in terms of political and economic weight, than commonly assumed. But this needs to be marshalled in a far more coherent and strategic fashion than is currently the case (see a recent ECFR project mapping European leverage across the region).

Put together, these three priorities will be immediately urgent for Europeans regardless of who occupies the White House come January 2021. If Trump is re-elected it should become clearer than ever that Europeans need to go their separate way on policy in the Middle East and North Africa. If Biden becomes president, the risk is that Europeans feel that they can fall back under a US umbrella – which is an outcome that can no longer deliver for European interests.

Read more on: US election 2020, The Middle East and North Africa

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.