U.S. President Joe Biden urged the Western states during the virtual Munich Security Conference to stand united as democracies against autocratic rivals. Both U.S. and European leaders stressed their commitment to cooperation and strengthening multilateralism. However, beyond solemn rhetoric, there was little concrete change, the problems between the U.S. and the EU remain and the international rivals will do everything to sabotage this newfound harmony.
On the calendar of big international summits, the permanent fixtures at the beginning of the year are Davos (January) and Munich (February). This year, everything is different because of the pandemic, of course, so the physical Munich Security Conference was postponed to an unspecified date “later in the year.” Nevertheless, a small group of Western decision-makers met virtually for the so-called “Special Edition” on Feb. 19.
New President Joe Biden, who had participated three times as vice-president, said two years ago in Munich as a ‘private citizen’ that “America will be back” and used the virtual meeting to underline his claim as a “man of my word. America is back.” Biden is the first U.S. president to attend the conference and it is his first foreign policy ‘visit.’ His speech was a clear commitment to the transatlantic partnership, which entails both a strong cooperation with the EU and full support of NATO, which includes Article 5: “An attack on one is an attack on all.”
In order not to jeopardize the harmony at this first meeting, Biden did not mention the points of contention between the U.S. and Europe. For example, he omitted the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and the NATO agreement to spend at least 2% of GDP on military and defense. But this does not mean that these problems no longer exist. While Biden was talking, his team worked on new sanctions against companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. These issues will come back soon and likely result in confrontation, but Biden wanted to give the Europeans the message that the U.S. and Europe need to cooperate to work against their common challenges.
For Biden, the world is at a crossroads between autocracy and democracy. He is counting on allies in Europe to strengthen the democratic bloc. “We have to prove that our model isn’t a relic of our history.” The major competitors against the West for Biden are China and Russia and these can only be confronted together.
After four years of Trump, who declared the EU an enemy of American interests, one can understand the relief in Europe over Biden and his foreign policy course. Multilateralism will regain weight, but the old world order will not return either.
German chancellor Angela Merkel also spoke of a new chapter in transatlantic relations, but was not specific on the topics of Russia and China. Especially with regard to chin China, Germany's position is not as clear as the U.S. would like it to be. Merkel called China a “systemic competitor” rather than a rival and pointed out that the country was needed to solve “global problems.” Neither Biden nor the Europeans mentioned the investment agreement the EU negotiated with China, even though it was the biggest irritant for Washington regarding a common approach towards China. But, nothing (for now) should disturb the harmony.
French president Emmanuel Macron advocated for a multilateralism that delivers tangible results from climate change to freedom of expression and COVID-19 vaccines. He also made peace with NATO, which he said was no longer "brain dead." Answering questions about “strategic autonomy”, he said in English that “I do believe in NATO,” but that Europe needed to be more in charge of its own security and not depend on the U.S. “This will make NATO stronger.”
For the French president, functioning European defense structures are a complement to NATO, not a competitor. But that is easier said than done. An idea for a common European defense exists on paper, but in practice it is proving difficult. A current example is the dispute over the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), which Germany, France, and Spain are supposed to jointly develop for more than 100 billion euros by 2040. The German magazine Der Spiegel ran the headline about the state of negotiations as “Alliance of distrust,” because France does not want to share its technology with others and Germany fears that it will once again pay the most. European aspirations and reality are still far apart when it comes to European security. Thus, it will be reassuring to know that the United States will become more involved in Europe and with Europe.
Turkey was not a topic of discussion at this short, virtual meeting, but the general message of unity and cooperation will have its effects on Turkey, which profited from Trump’s personalized political style and rejection of international cooperation, especially with other democracies. The recent European shift in Turkey’s foreign policy is interpreted also as Turkey’s fear of confronting a more critical U.S. administration that will push Europeans to be also harsher against Turkey, e.g. by applying sanctions.
However, whether the transatlantic harmony is more than just rhetoric remains to be seen. There is enough potential for conflict with the Western bloc, and major international rivals such as Russia and China will do everything they can to sabotage this unity.