President Joe Biden presented the “America Is Back” narrative at the Munich Security Conference 2021, with plans to improve Transatlantic ties and work closely with US allies.
In 2019 while addressing the Munich Security Conference, Joe Biden, had stated that ‘we shall be back’ and while alluding to the isolationism of the Trump Administration, had also stated that ‘this too shall pass’. While addressing the Munich Conference in his capacity as US President, Biden emphasized on the need to strengthen Transatlantic Relations. Before addressing the Munich Conference, Biden had also attended a meeting of G7 leaders.
Unlike his predecessor Donald Trump, Biden emphatically backed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The US President also referred to the strains in the relationship alluding to the Trump Presidency. One of the major bones of contention between the US and Germany was the stationing of US troops in Germany. Biden stated that he was removing the cap on the number of US forces that could be based in Germany, imposed by the previous administration.
Watch: President Joe Biden’s speech at the Munich Security Conference 2021
Trump had also been critical of NATO and had even refused to clearly commit if the US would invoke Article 5 like allies had for the US in the aftermath of 9/11.
Focus on Democracy
The US President yet again spoke about reviving alliances based on shared values. Interestingly, he also stated that US ties with allies were not transactional and were driven by values. Unlike Trump who made perfunctory references to democracy, Biden spoke not only in favor of democracy being an important binding factor between the US and its allies, but he also pitched in favor of the need for democracy to prevail:
Historians will examine and write about this moment. It’s an inflection point. And I believe with every ounce of my being that democracy must prevail.US President Joe Biden
Biden, while referring to the China threat, said that the US and its allies need to work together and find common ground to deal with the threat posed by China’s economic practices to the International economic system. The US President also stated that he will work jointly with allies on issues like Afghanistan. It would be pertinent to point out that the Biden Administration has been working closely with E3 (UK, France, and Germany) with regard to the Iran issue. His predecessor Trump, on the other hand, was not on the same page with allies.
Finding Common Ground and Fault Lines between China and Russia
Biden didn’t just refer to China’s economic practices but also Russia’s meddling in US affairs. He referred to Putin’s role in attempting to weaken the EU-US relationship. Interestingly, he did distinguish between the threat posed by Russia from that posed by China. In an anonymous paper published by Atlantic Council, an important point had been made that the US needs to take advantage of the fault lines between Russia and China. On Friday, Biden had also made it clear that Russia would not be invited while his predecessor had batted for including Russia in the G7.
During his address to the Munich Security Conference, Biden adopted an aggressive posture vis-à-vis Beijing and Moscow. However, he also said that there were areas where common ground could be found such as dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. Biden also highlighted some of the steps which his administration will take to deal with the challenge of Climate Change now that the US has rejoined the Paris Agreement.
E3 nations react to Biden’s Speech
Boris Johnson, who shared a good rapport with Trump, while referring to Biden’s speech stated that the US President had rightly brought the US as a leader of the free world which was important for the west to unite.
America is unreservedly back as leader of the free world and that is a fantastic thing.UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had differences with Trump, reacted positively to Biden’s speech.
His speech just now, but also his administration’s first announcements, have convinced us that this is not just talk but action.German Chancellor Angela Merkel
French President, Emmanuel Macron struck a note of caution and said that while Biden’s emphasis on ‘common challenges’ was welcome, Europe also had a distinct identity and that it needed to shoulder responsibility for its own protection. Macron stated that NATO needed to have greater clarity and the US being involved in Europe without any long-term interests wasn’t a feasible strategy.
G7 Interaction and Multilateralism
Before addressing the Munich Security Conference, Biden also spoke to leaders of G7 which consists of the US, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Canada where he committed 4 billion USD on behalf of the US to the COVAX initiative. This is in stark contrast to Trump who was skeptical not only of the UN, but had also withdrawn from the WHO. UK Prime Minister Johnson and German Chancellor Merkel also made commitments. Members also discussed the need for coming up with a comprehensive strategy to deal with the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The China challenge was also discussed during the G7 meeting and ways to counter it were explored.
While the joint statement of G7 highlighted some of the important issues which were discussed. The emphasis on multilateralism and working together was significant. The joint statement said: “We, the leaders of the Group of Seven, met today and resolved to work together to beat COVID-19 and build back better. Drawing on our strengths and values as democratic, open economies and societies, we will work together and with others to make 2021 a turning point for multilateralism and to shape a recovery that promotes the health and prosperity of our people and planet.”
China’s mouthpiece disdains Quad meetings
China’s reactions to the Quad meetings of Foreign Ministers, as well as the meeting between US Secretary of State with Foreign Ministers of the E3, were along expected lines. An editorial in the Global Times, ‘The world stage won’t be one against China: Global Times editorial’ published before Biden’s speech, welcomed steps such as US contribution to the WHO-led COVAX scheme and the US’ return to Iran deal, but was critical of attempts to form an Anti-China alliance. The article distinguishes the current world order from the cold war. Another article in the Global Times also emphasizes the fault lines between US and G7 member states. While there was a commonality between Biden’s approach and Trump’s on China, the emphasis on ‘multilateralism’ in both of Joe Biden’s speeches, including at the Munich Security Conference, there was pronounced emphasis on US working with allies was in stark contrast to Trump. Allies seemed to be more comfortable with Biden’s style but have also realized that geopolitical dynamics have changed.
While it is too early to pass any firm judgment, Biden’s approach towards China, Iran clearly shows that the US under him is keen to work with partners and keen to follow an institutionalized approach towards foreign policy. Even with the pandemic, Biden has been focused on a collective effort, while Trump failed to provide real leadership. However, ‘America is back’ sends a positive message but there are domestic problems to address and it is unlikely that the US will be able to act as an ‘interventionist’ as it was in the past. A large number of Democrat supporters too believe that the US should fix problems at home. Another important point that needs to be borne in mind is that many allies, including European ones, realize that they need to adapt to the reality of a more inward-looking US.