President Biden used his first public meeting with America’s European allies to describe a new struggle between the West and the forces of autocracy, declaring that “America is back” while acknowledging that the the past four years had weighed on its power and influence.
His message stressing the importance of re-energizing alliances and resuming the defense of Europe was, as might be expected, well received at a session of the Munich security conference at which Mr Biden s ‘is addressed from the White House.
But there was also reluctance, especially on the part of French President Emmanuel Macron, who in his speech passionately defended his concept of “strategic autonomy” from the United States, arguing that Europe cannot may no longer be too dependent on the United States. States because it focuses its attention more on Asia, especially China.
And even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is stepping down within the year, tempered her praise for Mr. Biden’s decision to cancel plans to withdraw 12,000 American troops from the country by warning that “our interests will not converge. not always”. It seemed to be a reference to Germany’s ambivalence towards China – a major market for its high-end German automobiles and other products – and the ongoing battle with the United States for the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. to Russia.
But the three leaders seemed to recognize that their first virtual meeting was a time to celebrate the end of the ‘America First’ era, and for Mr Macron and Ms Merkel to once again welcome Mr Biden, a politician they knew well. of his years as a senator and vice-president.
And Mr Biden used the moment to warn of the need for a common strategy to fend off an internet-fueled narrative, promoted by two Presidents Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China, that the chaos surrounding the elections America was another sign of democratic weakness and decline.
“We have to demonstrate that democracies can still be of use to our people in this changed world,” Biden said, adding: “We have to prove that our model is not a relic of history.”
For the president, a regular visitor to the conference even as a private citizen after serving as vice president, the speech was kind of a homecoming. Given the pandemic, the Munich conference was reduced to a multi-hour video meeting. A brief closed-door Group of 7 Allies meeting that Biden also attended, hosted this year by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was also captured via video.
The next in-person summit meeting is still scheduled for Britain this summer, if the pandemic permits.
Mr Biden never named his predecessor, Donald J. Trump, in his remarks, but framed them to erase the traces of Trumpism in the US approach to the world. He celebrated his return to the Paris climate agreement, which went into effect just before the meeting, and a new initiative, announced Thursday evening, to join Britain, France and Germany to engage diplomatically Iran in an effort to restore the 2015 nuclear deal that Mr. Trump pulled out.
But rather than detailing an agenda, Mr. Biden attempted to recall the first principles that led to the Atlantic alliance and the creation of NATO in 1949, towards the start of the Cold War.
“Democracy is not the result of chance,” said the president. “We have to defend it. Strengthen it. Renew it. “
In a deliberate contrast to Mr Trump, who has spoken of withdrawing from NATO and has repeatedly refused to recognize the responsibilities of the United States under Article V of the alliance’s charter to come into effect aid to members under attack, Biden launched the The United States stands ready to shoulder its responsibilities as a pillar of the alliance.
“We will keep the faith” with obligation, he said, adding that “an attack on one is an attack on all.”
But he also urged Europe to think about the challenges in a new way – different from the Cold War, even if the two biggest geostrategic adversaries seem familiar.
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“We must prepare together for long-term strategic competition with China,” he said, pointing to “cyberspace, artificial intelligence and biotechnology” as the new territory for competition. And he pleaded for pushing back Russia – he referred to Mr. Putin by his last name, with no attached title – specifically mentioning the need to respond to the SolarWinds attack that targeted federal and corporate computer networks.
“Tackling recklessness and hacking of Russian computer networks in the United States, Europe and the world has become essential to protect collective security,” Biden said.
The president avoided delving into the difficult question of how to get Russia to pay the price without escalating the confrontation. A high-ranking White House cyber official told reporters this week that the scope and depth of the Russian intrusion is still under consideration, and officials are clearly struggling to find options to fulfill the pledge of Mr. Biden to make Mr. Putin pay the price for the attack. .
But it is the dynamic of Mr. Macron, who has become accustomed to criticizing the NATO alliance as close to “brain death” and no longer “relevant” since the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact, which has caught the attention.
Mr Macron wants NATO to act more as a political body, a place where European members have a status equivalent to that of the United States and are less subject to the American tendency to dominate decision-making.
A Europe better able to defend itself, and more autonomous, would make NATO “even stronger than before”, insisted Mr. Macron. He said Europe should be “much more in charge of its own security”, increasing its defense spending commitments to “rebalance” transatlantic relations.
This is not a view widely shared by the many European states unwilling to spend the necessary money, and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are unwilling to leave their security to anyone except the United States. .
Mr. Macron also insisted that the renovation of NATO’s security capabilities should involve “a dialogue with Russia”. NATO has always maintained that it is open to better relations with Moscow, but that Russia is not interested, especially as long as international sanctions remain after it took Crimea from Ukraine about seven years ago. years.
But Mr Macron, speaking in English to answer a question, also argued that Europe cannot rely on the United States as much as it has in recent decades. “We need to shoulder more of the burden of our own protection,” he said.
In practice, it will take many years for Europe to put in place a defense weapon that would make it more autonomous. But Mr Macron is determined to start now, just as he is determined to increase the technological capabilities of the European Union so that it becomes less dependent on US and Chinese supply chains.
Mr Biden, on the other hand, is keen to deepen those supply chains – both hardware and software – among like-minded Western allies in a bid to reduce Chinese influence. He is preparing to come up with a new joint project for European and American technology companies in areas such as semiconductors and the types of software that Russia has exploited in the SolarWinds hack.
It was Merkel who insisted on the complexities of relations with China, given its dual role as a competitor and an indispensable partner of the West.
“In recent years, China has gained global influence and, as transatlantic partners and democracies, we must do something to counter this,” said Merkel.
“Russia is continually dragging members of the European Union into hybrid conflicts,” she said. “Therefore, it is important that we work out a transatlantic agenda towards Russia that makes offers of cooperation on the one hand, but on the other hand names the differences very clearly.”
As Mr Biden announced he would honor the US pledge to donate $ 4 billion to the campaign to speed up the manufacture and distribution of coronavirus vaccines around the world – a move approved last year by a House led by Democrats and a Senate led by Republicans – there were marked differences in approach during the meeting.
Stressing the importance that the European Union places on Africa, Macron called on Western countries to provide 13 million doses of vaccines to African governments “as soon as possible” to protect health workers.
He warned that if the alliance fails to do so, “our African friends will be pressured by their populations, and rightly so, to buy doses from the Chinese, the Russians or directly from the laboratories.”
Vaccine donations would reflect “a common desire to move forward and share the same values,” Macron said. Otherwise, “the power of the West, of Europeans and Americans, will only be a concept and not a reality”.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, also on Friday urged countries and drug makers to help speed up the manufacture and distribution of vaccines across the world, warning that the world could be “Back to place 1” if some countries continued their vaccination campaigns and left others.
“Immunization equity is not only the right thing to do, it’s also the smartest thing to do,” Dr Tedros told the Munich conference. He argued that the longer it would take to vaccinate populations in each country, the more the pandemic would get out of hand.
Melissa Eddy, Elian peltier and Mark Landler contribution to reports.