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October 2020

Trump or Biden
Rebuilding the Transatlantic Relationship

Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

Michel Duclos is Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow, Geopolitics and Diplomacy.

Mahaut de Fougières
Head of the International Politics Program

Mahaut de Fougières était responsable du programme Politique internationale jusqu'à Février 2023. Dans ce cadre, elle pilote les travaux de l'Institut Montaigne sur la défense, la politique étrangère, l'Afrique et le Moyen-Orient, et mène des projets transversaux au sein du pôle international. Auparavant, elle était chargée d'études sur les questions internationales, depuis 2018.

Diplômée de King's College London et de University College London (UCL) en relations internationales, elle a également étudié à l'université américaine de Beyrouth (AUB).

All eyes are on the U.S. presidential election. Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: the transatlantic relationship is nearing the end of a cycle. It is true that this observation has developed to a greater extent in France than in the rest of Europe, or in the United States itself. It is of great concern to many officials – as evidenced by the indignant reactions to Emmanuel Macron’s referring to NATO’s "brain death". But strategists are beginning to think that a new transatlantic contract might be necessary – and that without one, the coming years will witness the unraveling of what has long been a key foundation of the international order. 

The proposal we would like to put forward in this policy paper is that Europeans should not wait on a future U.S. administration to determine the structure of this contract: regardless of how the presidential election on November 3 turns out, they must take the lead and advance their own ideas. Europeans are the ones who must put together a strategic offer to present to the next U.S. administration. The question is, how should they go about it?

The end of a cycle

To provide some context, we should begin by reviewing a few key points. 

The shifting center of gravity in American politics

The United States is gradually adapting to a certain relativization of its power in the world. Some would say there has been a decline in U.S. influence, though it remains very considerable due to its financial capability, economic dynamism and military power, among other things. President Obama will probably remain the President who was most cognizant of this development (see Jeffrey Goldberg’s "The Obama Doctrine," published in the April 2016 issue of The Atlantic). Against this backdrop, a common thread shared by successive presidencies has emerged from a willingness to pivot towards Asia, the desire for less involvement in Europe and the Middle East, and the rejection of military interventionism, which has led to the country’s current overextension.

Gérard Araud recently commented that Barack Obama, in effect, overlooked Ukraine, Libya and Syria – three issues essential to European interests. What’s more, in December 2009, the U.S. President, so popular among Europeans, did not hesitate to exclude Europe from the final negotiations of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (which ended being a fiasco). 

The Covid-19 crisis is likely hastening the end of the “9/11 paradigm” that has guided U.S. foreign policy for nearly 20 years.

If the current Covid-19 crisis marks a break, it is because it has “clarified” pre-existing dynamics. With respect to Washington’s current thinking, the crisis is likely hastening the end of the “9/11 paradigm” that has guided U.S. foreign policy for nearly 20 years. The move to refocus American foreign policy on the needs of domestic policy – which has become almost a caricature under Trump – will likely be reconfirmed, regardless of the outcome of the election. 

Any U.S. administration will seek to correct some of the effects that globalization – and now the health crisis – has had, particularly on the middle class. Therefore, among other things, we can expect the continuation of protectionist responses, as well as a relentless determination to maintain the technological domination of the United States.

International challenges of a different nature

As things now stand, the Atlantic Alliance remains the essential structure of the transatlantic relationship. For historical, political and cultural reasons, NATO acts as the primary institution connecting European nations to American power – and the forum that allows Americans to exercise leadership over Europe. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that NATO has survived the diminution of Russia’s strategic threat. Any reinstitution of this threat, perhaps on a smaller scale but just as real (cyberattacks, information warfare, pressure on certain countries, etc.), reinforces the importance of the Alliance in the eyes of the Europeans, particularly for those most vulnerable to Russian revanchism.

The real paradoxes lie elsewhere. This is firstly in the seeming inability of Europeans to make up for the relative lack of American commitment. Many American experts, beyond the knee-jerk reaction to defense spending (2% of each country’s GDP according to a commitment made at a NATO summit in 2014), now believe that it is time Europeans were capable of handling crises in their own backyard. 

Many American experts [...] now believe that it is time Europeans were capable of handling crises in their own backyard.

Secondly, the Alliance has serious internal dysfunctions, such as those evidenced when President Macron denounced Turkey’s failure to comply with the rules of solidarity, or when Washington decided, unilaterally and without consultation, to withdraw a significant number of its forces stationed in Germany. 

Finally, and deeper still, these dysfunctions can be seen in the discrepancies that exist between NATO’s fundamentally political-military vocation and the nature of the challenges – much broader and increasingly "geo-economic" - that impact the security of democratic nations (cybersecurity, technological issues, value chains, etc.). Many of these challenges are linked to China’s increasing power. Hence, the desire of some within NATO, such as Secretary-General Stoltenberg, to "globalize" the Alliance. At the same time, any such effort will soon reach its limits: NATO is not about to become a geo-economic institution. 

A sense of unease on both sides of the Atlantic

We should not fall back into a retrospective illusion: the lost paradise of the transatlantic relationship, mourned by many, was never really a paradise at all. Transatlantic "misunderstandings," as Henry Kissinger called them, have often dominated communication between both sides of the ocean. 

A new element might pertain to societal development in particular. In one sense, American and European domestic policies – sadly, under the influence of populism – are now more closely aligned than ever before. While American society has never been as polarized as it is now, a similar polarization has also been taking hold of European societies. On the other hand, the allies’ strategic outlook remains as split up as it was in the early days of Kissinger: some of Europe remains focused on the Russian threat, another part (mainly France) is preoccupied with threats emanating from Europe’s southern flank, America is primarily focused on China and Asia, while Turkey (a member of the Alliance) has been swept up in a kind of adventurism under Erdogan’s leadership. 

Contrasting scenarios following November 3

The prevailing trends mentioned above transcend the vagaries of the electoral process. The fact remains that Trump’s re-election, or a Biden victory, would lead to sharply contrasting results, especially from a European perspective.

What if Donald Trump is re-elected?

Most observers agree that the current President would view his re-election as a mandate to double down on his most radical policies.

  • This means, in particular, a full-on trade war with Europe, a potential attempt to leave NATO or at least weaken it even further, implementing the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, renewed attacks on international institutions (including diminished contributions to the United Nations) and the end of major disarmament agreements, such as START.
  • A re-elected Trump is likely to reconnect with Russia and pursue a policy that plays Russian roulette with China, Iran and North Korea, which would include both the risk of escalations and of watered-down deals (just for the fame of getting a Nobel Peace Prize) and introducing whole new levels of uncertainty among America’s allies.
  • There is a view some hold in France that envisions Trump’s re-election being the "wake-up call" Europe needs in order to finally achieve emancipation from America. Nothing could be further from the truth: it is certainly possible, in such a case, that some Eastern countries, and perhaps even Germany, would back down in the face of prohibitively high tariffs on trade. It is likely that a kind of piecemeal bilateralism between the United States and European countries would become the rule. In fact, for Europeans, one major consequence of a second Trump term would be disunity or, at the very least, an increased risk of division among Europeans.

Biden: the familiar unknown 

Joe Biden is a confirmed Atlanticist who has, for decades, been a fixture at the Wehrkunde (Munich Security Conference, an annual forum bringing together both American and European senior officials alongside experts in international security) and other established forums of the transatlantic relationship. His close adviser, Julianne Smith, has recommended that the former Vice President, if elected, visit Europe within the first 100 days of his inauguration – and that he specifically visit Germany in recognition of Chancellor Merkel’s resistance to attacks from the Trump administration.

One thing is clear: the idea of "bringing normal back" (whatever ‘normal’ is now) with an "Obama remake" does not make much sense given the development of international challenges and America’s internal dynamics. 

Biden’s focus would already likely be on restoring America’s traditional alliances, in line with the instincts of much of the American political establishment. It should be noted that American public opinion remains fundamentally attached to the alliance with Europe, as reported in a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center

If he were to be elected, Joe Biden would also be forced to prioritize the Chinese issue and,as far as he chooses, to respond to Russian campaign meddling

In the Middle East, his instincts would be somewhat conventional. Not only would he be less complacent than Donald Trump towards Saudi Arabia and Netanyahu’s more questionable aspects, but he would also demonstrate an aversion to the use of force, something he already demonstrated while serving under Obama (Syria, Iraq and Libya). 

At a broader level, many of those involved in the Democrats’ campaign see the impact of Covid-19 as having changed Biden’s plans. He now understands that he cannot simply be a "restorationist" and repeatedly cites Roosevelt’s New Deal on the campaign trail. It remains to be seen how all this will translate into his foreign policy, although some persuasive predictions have been offered up by various excellent analysts (hereare just a fewfromJames Traub and Thomas Wright).

One thing is clear: the idea of "bringing normal back" (whatever ‘normal’ is now) with an "Obama remake" does not make much sense given the development of international challenges and America’s internal dynamics. With regard to the newly central issue of China, there will clearly be no turning back. There is now a bipartisan consensus among American lawmakers to counter the rise of the People’s Republic – although, of course, the debate surrounding the policy terms will continue.

From Europe’s perspective, three issues deserve particular attention when it comes to a potential Biden administration.

  • The division of roles between "Old and Modern" in the future leadership of European affairs. In the United States, as elsewhere, "personnel is politics." In any event, it is to be expected that some staffers from the Obama (and even Clinton) eras will be returning. However, the defense establishment is typically opposed to any independent European defense efforts and any operations outside of the NATO framework. There is no certainty that this approach will be changed due to pressure from the progressive wing of the Democrats. There is even less certainty that any future administration would break with what has long been the modus operandi of American officials vis-à-vis Europe: a polite practice of consultation in exchange for unequivocal alignment with American positions.
  • The scope of multilateral commitments from a Democratic administration. Candidate Biden has announced his intention to rejoin both the Paris Climate Agreement and the WHO and, if conditions allow, the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). It remains to be seen what the extent of a Democratic administration’s recommitment to multilateralism would be. Under Bill Clinton, the United States refused to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996, the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the International Criminal Court in 1998. 
  • Towards a new alliance of democracies? A Biden administration will focus on restoring "American leadership," according to the title the Democratic nominee gave to his Foreign Affairs article in which he put forward his foreign policy agenda. It outlined a leadership structured around the defense of democracies against authoritarians, which is understandable given both Donald Trump’s friendliness towards dictatorships and the critical challenge of increasing authoritarianism. As a result, the idea of an "alliance of democracies" and a possible "summit of democracies" has re-emerged. Experts have offered critical evaluations of this approach: should India, Poland and Hungary be left out? How should Bolsonaro’s Brazil or Erdogan’s Turkey be addressed? Yet, the notion of uniting democracies together around specific commonalities, such as human rights, electoral protections and the fight against anti-democratic interference, should be a key element in the foreign policy of a Biden-Harris administration. There is even the potential for a new international grouping (the D10?) formed around the leading democracies – namely India, Australia, South Korea and the G7 nations – with a primarily anti-China agenda.

New transatlantic misunderstandings? Or an opportunity to restore balance?

To summarize the points made above, we may surmise that, if re-elected, Trump would behave like an angered ram towards Europe, stubbornly pursuing his destructive goals. Joe Biden, on the other hand, would be more like a tango dancer: seductive but bent on leading the way, and whose attention may soon turn towards indifference. With so many internal and external challenges to deal with, the US would be wrong to forego support from its traditional allies. For similar reasons, it will likely have little patience for Europeans acting as "free riders," to use Barack Obama’s expression.

Julianne Smith’s comments in the article cited above should therefore be further considered: "Now would be a good time for European leaders to start thinking about where they are willing to lead and how they can help." As this perhaps offers some room for over-analysis, we will solely focus on the scenario of a Biden victory for the remainder of this paper. 

Heading for new transatlantic misunderstandings?

Despite these risks, there remains an opportunity to restore balance within the transatlantic relationship – painfully, should Trump be re-elected, and amicably if Biden comes out victorious.

Three factors, amongst others, could undermine efforts to revive the transatlantic relationship, even in the event of Biden being elected.

  • Objective points of contention: whether it be trade, the taxation of big tech firms, the extraterritoriality of American laws, or more sharing of the defense expenditure burden, there is a long list of topics that are likely to pit Europeans against the US, no matter which administration ends up in the White House. 
  • The risk of starting off on the wrong foot: this would combine a traditional approach towards Europe (see above) and a shift of focus on other issues. For example, it is possible to imagine a Biden administration that expects a Europe that is fully aligned with American policy towards China, but also one that takes a step up in its own defense efforts, without any particular recommitment from the United States, towards those issues that are of particular strategic concern to the Europeans (the Mediterranean, Near East, "European sovereignty"). Moreover, there could also be a belief that America’s return to the Paris Agreement, alongside other multilateral agreements, should be enough to elicit deep gratitude from the allies.
  • The risk of a passive stance from Europe: for their part, Europeans are perhaps guilty of mistakenly believing that affairs will go back to how they once were and that the best option is to blindly follow Washington, as it was in the ‘good old days.’ According to an opinion poll conducted by the ECFR, this is a widespread feeling throughout Europe, with the notable exceptions of Germany and France.

The opportunity to get things back on track

Despite these risks, there remains an opportunity to restore balance within the transatlantic relationship – painfully, should Trump be re-elected, and amicably if Biden comes out victorious. In the latter case, as previously mentioned, the new President will be eager to restore a relationship with his allies that is based on trust. However, any window of opportunity that subsequently opens up for the transatlantic relationship is likely to be time-limited. Not only will a post-Trump Democratic administration need longer than usual to settle in, but the midterm elections of 2022 will also loom on the horizon. 

Before planning out how to make the most of this narrow window, three caveats should be considered.

  • As in all areas of international affairs, the transatlantic relationship will be under pressure in the coming months: we are living in an era of strategic surprises. The period following the November election is likely to be particularly chaotic, whether domestically in the US, internationally, or a combination of the two – revisionist states such as Russia and China may seek to exploit the transition period in Washington, particularly if Trump refuses to concede in the face of an apparent Biden victory.Whatever the scenario, the ongoing health and economic crises will continue to be at the forefront of continuing international cooperation between Europe, America and others.
  • The United States and Europe must get used to their dialogue being disrupted by the China issue. By all indications, China will play a key role in world affairs from now on, both geo-economically and geopolitically (tensions in the Indo-Pacific, Chinese penetration along the "Silk Roads"). We are, therefore, in the early stages of a trilateral China-Europe-U.S. relationship, which, due to their intertwining economies, looks quite different from the USSR-Europe-U.S. triad of the past. In recent months, the European Union has entered a "pushback" phase. This trend was confirmed at the EU-China video conference meeting on September 28 and also by the conclusions from the last European Council. Circumstances are therefore ripe for a fruitful dialogue between Europe and the United States. We suggest that officials on both sides of the Atlantic pay the utmost attention to how the narrative of this dialogue unfolds. While Europe would be wise to avoid any a priori search for a "third way," the US should forgo any similar desire to "conscript" all of Europe. Europe has toughened up its approach, not as a result of giving in to American pressure, but rather in response to the inflexibility of China and out of consideration for their own security interests (Huawei and 5G). 
  • As it happens, France – considered the least "Atlanticist" country in the transatlantic community – has a vested interest in an understanding with Washington. Indeed, its continued political-military involvement in certain crisis zones (particularly with the anti-Daesh coalition and in the Sahel) partially depends on American support. On other issues that concern France more than its European partners, and on which they are not always on the same wavelength, renewed American involvement – however limited it may be – would be particularly welcomed by Paris. This would most likely apply not only to Erdogan’s policy of force and the chaos in Libya, but also towards the Syrian impasse. 

Politically speaking, the emergence of a more "sovereign or "independent" Europe is only likely if a critical mass of the European public opinion supports such a vision. Given the political cultures of our partners, this would also involve some kind of American endorsement, bringing America’s historical support of the European Community up to date. If there is an opportunity to restore the transatlantic relationship, France (exercising the EU presidency for the first half of 2022) should be particularly interested in taking advantage of it. 

Effectively, it is time for the EU to "strategize" a relationship with the United States, which has thus far been a blind spot in European policy.

Due to their political-military capabilities, the French also have a degree of clout in Washington. And with the United Kingdom now out of the picture, France (and a few others, including Germany) becomes all the more critical to discussions about where Europeans might extend their own reach, in exchange for an American recommitment. At the same time, because of the "Chinese factor," the few European countries capable of developing an "Indo-Pacific strategy" can attract more attention from American leaders. 

It is also certainly worth noting that a Biden White House would be less likely to continue a policy of openness towards Putin’s Russia than Trump has been. 

Proposals for rebuilding the transatlantic relationship

Three approaches

Should the window of opportunity open after November 3, we offer three approaches that Europeans – and their transatlantic counterparts, for that matter – could use to make the most of it.

The first involves expanding the transatlantic agenda

or as long as the conversation with Washington centers primarily on the question of the NATO/European defense model, traditional approaches will prevail. Without neglecting security issues, one of the priorities for "Atlanticists" on both sides of the Ocean should be to establish a "new agenda" that focuses on the modern, current challenges such as China, the digital economy, technology, restructuring value chains, climate change and global issues. In this context, NATO would retain its role as a political forum and common security instrument. The EU, meanwhile, would take on its full role as a key geo-economic and geopolitical partner for Washington.

The second involves devising a "European strategic offer" for the United States

Intensive consensus-building work should begin immediately – ideally with all 27 members, with a smaller group for certain topics – to determine the parameters of such an "offer." Effectively, it is time for the EU to "strategize" a relationship with the United States, which has thus far been a blind spot in European policy. As a starting point, three areas can be outlined: 

  • Points of contention, which must still be managed, including some which may worsen with a Democratic administration (trade, Big Tech, the arms market);
  • In terms of security, Europeans must clarify their expectations and on which points they are willing to expand their involvement. This exercise is likely to be more successful in the previously mentioned smaller group; 
  • Finally, a "European offer" should highlight two themes, which can help build bridges with a new US Democratic administration. The first involves policy towards China, as previously mentioned. The second involves the issues related to the idea of "21st century multilateralism"(internet governance, WTO and WHO reform, governance of space, AI, etc.). In particular, America’s return to the Paris Agreement should facilitate the development of joint actions on climate change that extend beyond diplomatic cooperation (such as combining private funding with transition financing). 

It is particularly important that Europe, or specific European countries (E3 on Iran), should be proactive. Before the new administration is inaugurated, Europeans should take measures that are "a done deal," but around which a future US administration is willing to rally. An obvious case would be the Iran issue and, more generally, regional stability. For this, Europe’s wealth of expertise and contacts should help Washington move back towards a more constructive politics. Similar initiatives could be developed in multilateral forums. 

The third involves defining the modalities of a renewed dialogue

While substance remains the priority, diplomatic experience teaches us that process does matter. In addition to ideas, it is worth building a "user’s guide" for this. After the US presidential election, there is likely to be a ’rush’ to Washington, with larger EU member states and relevant organizations racing to arrive first. The transatlantic dialogue is sure to be polyphonic – there is no central phone number to the European government, any more than there is one number in Washington – but we must not let it turn into a cacophony.

A possible user’s guide

For this purpose, we have put together a few suggestions for the aforementioned "user’s guide." 

  • A "European offer" could be the subject of an informal seminar (Gymnich meeting) for heads of state and government, who would meet shortly after November 3. An assessment by all 27 members would be useful in any of these three scenarios: a contested election, Donald Trump’s re-election, and a Biden victory. In the last scenario, the aim would not be to adopt a detailed program, but rather a generalized approach, based on a few key headings that are likely to build consensus: for example, China, digital governance, climate change, WHO and WTO reform, trade, and defense issues. 
  • On both sides of the Atlantic, those in charge should consider holding exploratory meetings as soon as possible in order to establish a new dynamic. In addition to transatlantic visits, one symbolic event might be a meeting at the EU-NATO summit or two back-to-back summits, one NATO and the other EU-US, both attended by the US President.
  • If not, a "new Atlantic Charter," as Biden once envisioned, a general policy document would be of genuine value. It could map out new avenues for transatlantic cooperation and recognize the EU’s role in the new global geo-economic/geopolitical configuration. Such a document could be adopted at a summit in the first half of 2022, during the French Presidency of the EU. 
  • Organizing these events would require the establishment of a steering system, which would inevitably involve a "core group" limited to a few countries and organizations, despite the potential unpopularity of such an arrangement. It would also be a useful gateway for a shift from a NATO-centric transatlantic culture to a more diverse transatlantic culture, with a more prominent role for the EU. 
  • Europeans should ready themselves for forums centered on the defense of democracies: strict multilateralists will argue, however, that this deviates from the idea of universality that is specific to multilateralism. To influence the outcome, it would certainly be advisable to speak with America’s new leadership as soon as possible; simply opposing it would be counterproductive. Whatever the final arrangement, a European identity should be recognized, given the tools available to the EU in terms of, for example, anti-money laundering or privacy protections. 
  • It is time for both sides of the Atlantic to invest in the future. One need not ascribe to the theory of an inevitable "continental rift," as recently developed by Janan Ganesh, for instance. Other entry points to the transatlantic relationship should be sought beyond those resulting from the post-World War II era or even the present configuration. For example, the relationship between business and society, particularly in economic and academic circles, should be developed around issues related to digital technology, space, artificial intelligence, economic competitiveness and, more generally, today’s social issues (e.g., populism). As a second line of action, cooperation should be increased with respect to Africa and other areas that are technically outside the traditional transatlantic perimeter, but which represent key challenges for the future. 

It could be argued that this program only makes sense with a Biden-Harris victory. However, this is only partly true. Even if Donald Trump is re-elected, both sides of the Atlantic must make a concerted effort along the lines previously indicated: expanding the transatlantic agenda, developing a European strategic offer and defining new forms of dialogue.

Closing note

While a collective approach is needed from Europeans, it must be openly acknowledged that the US presidential election places special responsibilities on Germany and France, as well as the United Kingdom. In addition to presiding over the EU at the end of the current year, Germany carries substantial weight in Europe, a status that has been further strengthened by the Covid-19 crisis. 

It is, as Mark Leonard described it so brilliantly, at the intersection/crossroads of most critical issues: economic recovery in Europe, China, restructuring of value chains, European defense, sway with a possible Democratic administration, etc. Chancellor Merkel’s personal character should also be factored in. It is not certain whether she would take political change in Washington as an opportunity to decisively implement her axiom from three years ago, when she said that "Europe must take its fate into its own hands." Be that as it may, she has the authority and experience to convince her partners to enter into a "strategic offer" approach towards America.

A European offer for the United States – and its subsequent long-term monitoring – will only come to fruition after close consultation between France and Germany.

At the recent European recovery plan meeting of July 21, Germany and France re-established the efficiency of their joint project. A European offer for the United States – and its subsequent long-term monitoring – will only come to fruition after close consultation between France and Germany. In addition, beginning early next year, Germany will enter the election campaign to nominate Angela Merkel’s successor. A new German administration will take time to establish itself. The star will naturally return to the European stage via France, specifically in the run-up to the French presidency of the EU (first half of 2022). Against this backdrop, it is worth exploring the aforementioned option of a "Euro-American Declaration" at a transatlantic summit in Paris under the French Presidency. Such a document could have the same significance for legitimizing European autonomy as the 1974 Ottawa Declaration had for French and British nuclear forces. It would probably be necessary to "dial down" relations with the Americans on certain European defense issues (such as third-party involvement in the European Defense Fund and agreement with the European Defense Agency). 

As long as Brexit negotiations have not concluded, the UK cannot be involved with a "proactive" European approach to Washington, except on an ad hoc basis (Iran). At this stage, the precise contours of its "Global Britain" policy remain unclear. For the subject at hand, however, it would be in the nature of British diplomacy to make full use of the NATO card, its special relationship with the United States (a trade agreement being possible with Trump, but less likely with Biden) and even one-upmanship with certain American policies (China, Russia). While the Franco-German tandem fulfills its role as Europe’s center of gravity, London might be encouraged to play a positive role in rebuilding the transatlantic relationship, as suggested in this paper. It may also be an area that transcends the inevitable resentments – even if Brexit negotiations are successful – of the divorce between the United Kingdom and the European Union. 


The author would like to thank Anne Gadel and Pierre-Joseph Beauchamp for their help in writing this paper. He also expresses his gratitude to his colleagues at Institut Montaigne and to all those who were kind enough to share their analyses and reflections with him. The opinions expressed in this paper are the sole responsibility of the author.

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