By Aamer Madhani | AP
WASHINGTON, DC, 20 February 2021
President Joe Biden used his first address before a global audience Friday to declare that “America is back, the transatlantic alliance is back,” after four years of a Trump administration that flaunted its foreign policy through an “America First” lens.
Speaking to the annual Munich Security Conference virtually, Biden ticked through a daunting to-do list — salvaging the Iran nuclear deal, meeting economic and security challenges posed by China and Russia and repairing the damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic — that he said would require close cooperation between the US and its Western allies.
Without mentioning Donald Trump’s name once in his speech, Biden mixed talk of a reinvigorated democratic alliance with a rebuke of his predecessor’s approach, a message warmly received by Western allies.
’I know the past few years have strained and tested the transatlantic relationship,” Biden said. “The United States is determined to reengage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trusted leadership.”
The president also participated Friday in a virtual meeting of the Group of Seven industrialized nations, where leaders managed to work Biden’s campaign theme into their closing joint statement, vowing to “work together to beat COVID-19 and build back better.”
“Welcome back, America,” said European Council President Charles Michel, effectively summing up the mood of the Munich conference.
But while such happy talk conveyed the palpable sense of relief among allies at Biden’s full-throated commitment to mending frayed US-Europe relations, plenty has changed over the past four years in ways creating new challenges.
China has cemented its place as a fierce economic competitor on the continent as the US has reconsidered long-held national security and economic priorities embedded in the transatlantic alliance. Populism has grown through much of Europe. And other Western countries have, at moments, sought to fill the vacuum left as America stepped back from the world stage.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted that some differences between the US and Europe remain “complicated.” Europe sees China’s economic ambitions as less of an existential threat than the US does and has its own strategic and economic concerns that are not always in sync with Biden on Russia as well.
Still, Merkel, who had a strained relationship with Trump, didn’t hide her preference for an American foreign policy informed by Biden’s world view.
“Things are looking a great deal better for multilateralism this year than two years ago, and that has a lot to with Joe Biden having become the president of the United States of America,” Merkel said. “His speech just now, but also his administration’s first announcements, have convinced us that this is not just talk but action.”
Biden made his address to a global audience as his administration this week took steps to reverse key Trump administration policies.
He said that the US stands ready to rejoin talks about reentering the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal abandoned by the Trump administration. The Biden administration announced Thursday its desire to reengage Iran, and it took action at the United Nations aimed at restoring policy to what it was before Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.
Biden also spoke out about the two-decade war in Afghanistan, where he faces a May 1 deadline to remove the remaining 2,500 US troops under a Trump administration negotiated peace agreement with the Taliban. He also called for cooperation in addressing economic and national security challenges posed by Russia and China and identified cyberspace, artificial intelligence and biotechnology as areas of growing competition.
“We must prepare together for long-term strategic competition with China,” Biden declared.
His message was girded by an underlying argument that democracies — not autocracies — are models of governance that can best meet the challenges of the moment. The president urged fellow world leaders to show together that “democracies can still deliver.”
At the G-7, administration officials said, Biden focused on what lies ahead for the international community as it tries to extinguish the public health and economic crises created by the coronavirus pandemic. He announced the US will soon begin releasing $4 billion for an international effort to bolster the purchase and distribution of vaccine to poor nations, a programme that Trump refused to support.
Biden’s turn on the world stage came as the US officially rejoined the Paris climate agreement, the largest international effort to curb global warming. Trump announced in June 2017 that he was pulling the US out of the landmark accord, arguing that the pact would undermine the American economy.
Biden announced the US intention of rejoining on the first day of his presidency, but he had to wait 30 days for the move to go into effect. He has said that he will bake considerations about climate change into every major domestic and foreign policy decision his administration faces.
“This is a global existential crisis,” Biden said.
Biden also encouraged G-7 partners to make good on their pledges to COVAX, an initiative by the World Health Organization to improve access to vaccines, even as he reopens the US spigot.
Trump had withdrawn the US from WHO and refused to join more than 190 countries in the COVAX programme. The Republican former president accused WHO of covering up China’s missteps in handling the virus at the start of the public health crisis that unraveled a strong US economy.
Biden urged greater international cooperation on vaccine distribution amid growing calls for his administration to distribute some US-manufactured vaccine supplies overseas.
French President Emmanuel Macron has called on the US and European nations to allocate up to 5% of current vaccine supplies to developing countries — the kind of vaccine diplomacy that China and Russia already are deploying.
Biden, who announced last week that the US will have enough vaccine by the end of July to inoculate 300 million people, remains focused for now on making sure every American is vaccinated, administration officials say. Macron on Friday again pressed the US and Europe to do more.
“It is up to Europeans and Americans to allow all the poor and emerging countries in the world to get access to vaccines as fast as possible,” he said.
Allies were listening closely to what Biden had to say about a looming crisis with Iran.
Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency this week that it would suspend voluntary implementation next week of a provision in the 2015 deal that allowed UN nuclear monitors to conduct inspections of undeclared sites in Iran at short notice unless the US rolled back sanctions by 23 February.
“We must now make sure that a problem doesn’t arise of who takes the first step,” Merkel told reporters. “If everyone is convinced that we should give this agreement a chance again, then ways should be found to get this agreement moving again.”