President Joe Biden told European leaders America is ready to work with Europe and other liberal democracies to fight against what he calls the autocratic threat of China and Russia.
(CN) — In his first speech to European allies, President Joe Biden on Friday tried to dispel the cloud of uncertainty that descended during the Trump administration over NATO and transatlantic alliances.
Biden’s speech at a virtual edition of the annual Munich Security Conference came amid a flurry of executive orders and actions by the White House to reverse decisions by the Trump administration that alarmed European leaders.
On Friday, the U.S. formally rejoined the Paris agreement on climate change and a day earlier reentered talks on a nuclear deal with Iran. Also, Biden has canceled a troop drawdown in Germany and even said more troops could be stationed there. American and European diplomats also said they are setting up a council to discuss developing common standards for the regulation of the internet and emerging technologies.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Bavarian summit was held online. The high-profile event typically takes place in the five-star Hotel Bayerischer Hof in Munich, Germany. The conference, which began in the 1960s, is billed as a “family reunion” where Western leaders can talk frankly about the problems facing the world. Foreign policy leaders from around the world have attended conferences in the past too, including those from China, Russia and the Middle East, though not this time.
During his long political career, Biden has been a frequent visitor to the conference and in 2019 he made a speech as a former vice president – and Democratic presidential hopeful – in which he promised the U.S. would return to being a strong European ally despite Trump.
“I said at that time, ‘We will be back,’” Biden said via a video link Friday. “I am a man of my word: America is back.”
Biden said he wanted to send a clear message to the world that his administration intends to re-engage in world affairs and he said reinvigorating U.S.-Europe relations is a cornerstone to his strategy.
“The transatlantic alliance is back and we are not looking backward, we are looking forward together,” he said.
Coming after four years of Trump’s deeply divisive “America First” policy, Biden found himself having to commit to the most basic principles of the NATO alliance, such as the core tenet of mutual defense, spelled out in Article 5 of the treaty.
Under Trump, that commitment began to be questioned not only in Washington but also in European capitals. In November 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron even said NATO was suffering from “brain death.” Trump shot back and called Macron’s comment “brain dead.”
“We’ll keep faith with Article 5,” Biden said. “It’s a guarantee. An attack on one is an attack on all.”
Biden seemed to court Europe on many fronts: Unlike Trump, he made only oblique references to a long-standing U.S. demand that Europeans spend more on defense and praised Europe’s “growing investment” on its militaries. The Trump administration relentlessly faulted Europeans for not meeting a NATO goal that each member spend at least 2% of gross domestic product on defense.
Biden also said his White House would consult with European allies. Trump angered European leaders with his unilateral and bullish attitude that took little consideration of European interests, such as withdrawing U.S. troops from Kurdish-held areas of Syria and dropping out of a nuclear deal meant to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for more commerce.
“I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship,” Biden said. “But the United States is determined – determined – to reengage with Europe, to consult with you to earn back our position of trusted leadership.”
Despite striking a tone of friendship, sharp policy differences that were harshly exposed in the past four years – but which were emerging even before Trump came into office – seem set to remain problematic. The most glaring one is over China.
In his speech, Biden called on European allies to join the U.S. in countering China. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron – the only EU heads of state to speak during the event – sounded a much more cautious tone about following the U.S. in its campaign against China.
Many EU leaders are wary of taking sides in the growing conflict between the U.S. and China, in no small part because of business interests and even doubts about whether the U.S. won’t be overtaken by China as the dominant player in world affairs.
Instead, Merkel and Macron spoke about the need for more to be done in dealing with conflict and turmoil in Africa, a continent the U.S. has stepped back from. French troops are deployed in the sub-Saharan Sahel region fighting uprising and terrorist groups.
Macron also spoke about the need for Europe to develop its own military capacities and geopolitical strategies to better handle its security threats.
Biden argued the world is at an “inflection point” as liberal democracies come under assault from China and Russia and that people are wondering whether only autocratic governments can master the complexities of a world marked by a pandemic, climate change and the advent of a new age of robotics and artificial intelligence, dubbed by some as the “fourth industrial revolution.”
“We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world,” Biden said. “We’re at an inflection point between those who argue that given all the challenges we face – from the fourth industrial revolution to the global pandemic – that autocracy is the best way forward, they argue.”
“I believe [with] every ounce of my being that democracy will and must prevail,” he added. “We must demonstrate that democracy can still deliver for our people in this changed world.”
He called on European allies to work with the U.S. to “revitalize the promise of our future” by making sure liberal democracy “isn’t a relic of history.”
He called China and Russia the adversaries of democracy.
“We must prepare together for long-term strategic competition with China,” Biden said, highlight the need for “historic investments.”
“We have to push back against the Chinese government’s economic abuses and coercion that undercut the foundations of the international economic system,” he said. “Everyone must play by the same rules.”
Biden also said the U.S. and EU must fight back against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime, which he said is seeking to weaken the EU and NATO.
“The Kremlin attacks our democracies and weaponizes corruption to try to undermine our system of governance,” he said. “Russian leaders want people to think that our system is more corrupt or as corrupt as theirs.”
Biden also seemed to suggest that a revival of the U.S. economy and society is critical in this overarching goal to protect liberal democracies. He has caused consternation in Europe by launching a “Buy American” campaign.
“Achieving these goals is going to depend on a core strategic proposition, and that is the United States must renew America’s enduring advantages so we can meet today’s challenges from a position of strength,” Biden said. “That means building back better our economic foundations.”
Biden also said the U.S. needs to reclaim “our place in international institutions,” a reference to a perception that American influence in international organizations, such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, has eroded to the advantage of China.
“The last four years have been hard,” Biden said. “But Europe and the United States have to lead with confidence once more, with faith in our capacities, a commitment to our own renewal, with trust in one another, in the ability of Europe and the United States to meet any challenge to secure our futures together. I know we can do this, we’ve done it before.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.