It was intended that Joe Biden used the term “turning point” three times in his key foreign policy address as President on Friday. He wanted to make sure that the historical weight of his words was not overlooked.
Above all, he wanted his virtual audience at the Munich Security Conference to hear that the global democracies were experiencing a decisive moment in their accelerating struggle against authoritarianism and that they would not dare to underestimate the effort. It is an argument that I have made many times in this area, but one that has not been so clearly formulated by a US president.
“We are in the midst of a profound debate about the future and direction of our world,” Biden said to a receptive audience, though it was also an audience unsettled by President Trump’s sudden, if welcome, departure from the cold shower of President Trump’s America was first to the global embrace of his successor.
“We are at a turning point,” said Biden, “between those who argue that autocracy is the best way to go in the face of all the challenges from the fourth industrial revolution to the global pandemic … and those who understand that democracy.” is important, important to master these challenges. “
Biden’s picture, which was beamed from the White House to Munich, was symbolically framed on the large screens of the main stage next to Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. After each of their three 15-minute speeches, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had just finished chairing a virtual meeting of G7 leaders, joined them for the Kumbaya Moment.
Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, had every reason to be satisfied when he called this reunification of the four allies who had done so much to repair Europe after the devastation of World War II. Working with partners, these four countries took the lead in creating rule-based institutions that have been at the heart of global governance for 75 years.
However, what lurked beneath this powerful moment was the growing recognition among senior government officials in Biden and their European counterparts of how difficult it will be to slow down China’s authoritarian dynamism, especially if it turns out to be the first major economy to escape Covid-19 to restore growth, conduct vaccine diplomacy and offer the lure of its 1.4 billion consumers.
Therefore, the Biden government needs to develop a far more creative, intense, and far more collaborative approach to give and take towards its Asian and European allies than perhaps ever before. Electroplating the international common cause has rarely been so important, but maybe it was never so difficult.
There are mutliple reasons for this.
First, any US policy must take into account China’s role as a leading trading partner for most of America’s major partners, including the dethroning of the United States in 2020 for the first time as the European Union’s leading trading partner.
This will lead most European countries and Germany in particular not to worry about decoupling from the Chinese economy or entering into a new Cold War. The United States must be careful to consider the political and economic needs of its partners – and recognize that it is unlikely to take a common, coordinated position on China without a cold hearted calculation of its own national interests.
President Biden took this into account in his speech. “We cannot and must not return to the reflexive opposition and rigid blocks of the Cold War,” he said. “Competition must not block our cooperation on issues that affect us all. For example, we must work together if we want to defeat Covid-19 everywhere.”
Second, European doubts about the reliability of the American partnership will persist for some time, especially given former President Trump’s continued popularity, the political appeal of his “America First” policy, and his continued role in Republican politics after the Senate’s acquittal .
This can lead to many European officials hedge their bets.
A new survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations found that 57% of respondents saw Biden’s victory as beneficial to the European Union, but 60% believe that China will become more powerful than the US in the next decade, and 32% believe that that the US can no longer trust this.
Third, the Biden government and its European partners must work to resolve or avoid unresolved problems so that they do not compromise the chance of a fresh start. These range from continued Trump administration tariffs and sanctions to Airbus-Boeing trade disputes and German-American battles over the completion of the North Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Western Europe.
Work to complete the pipeline from Russia halted last year despite investing US $ 10 billion and 94% completion of the project due to secondary US sanctions.
In particular, the Biden administration must proactively work with EU leaders to avoid looming struggles on how best to manage and regulate the influence of American tech giants, including competition, data management, privacy and security issues digital taxation.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told CNBC that President Biden was an “ally” in combating disinformation on the Internet and in tightening the rules of the way technology companies operate. The growing EU talk about “digital sovereignty”, however, underscores the potential for digital conflicts across the Atlantic.
Eventually, the reluctance of the Biden administration to begin new trade negotiations – and the lack of a sufficient Democratic or Republican constituency for such dealings – will keep the United States one hand behind its back with Beijing.
In the meantime, China has reached out to Asian partners through the 15-strong Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and a new Comprehensive EU-China Investment Agreement (CAI).
The thing about historical turning points is that they can turn in positive or negative directions with generational ramifications. President Biden made good sense to draw our attention to our crucial moment. So there can be no excuse if the US and its global partners do not engage in the hard work that is required to meet this epoch-making challenge.
Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, award-winning journalist, and President and CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the most influential US think tanks on global affairs. He worked for the Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant editor-in-chief and senior editor for the European edition of the newspaper. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his view every Saturday of the top stories and trends of the past week.
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