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At the Munich Security Conference, Joe Biden proclaimed the revival of the trans-Atlantic alliance with a forward-looking agenda that puts democratic resilience first. But the US still has much to prove to a wary Europe.
"America is back."
Joe Biden couldn't resist repeating his foreign policy mantra during his debut on the (virtual) international stage of the Munich Security Conference, but he went significantly beyond his inaugural promise to repair alliances and restore leadership. Declaring that the US is looking not backward but forward, he outlined a vision of international engagement that puts democratic resilience at the core of Western security. In so doing, he laid the groundwork for new forms of trans-Atlantic cooperation.
Biden is well aware that on neither side of the Atlantic are citizens longing for restoration of an — arguably illusory — Western order in which the US led, materially as well as morally, and Europe followed.
America's domestic political divisions, its citizens' resistance to the role of global policeman, set clear limits to that role. With his campaign promise of a "foreign policy for the middle class," Biden made it known early on that his approach to foreign policy will transcend the old dividing lines between the international and domestic, the economic and security spheres.
Though he made only polite and passing reference to NATO budgetary contributions in his MSC speech, it was clear that he expects his international partners to leverage and buttress US resources, sharing burdens not only on defense spending, but also on health, climate, trade — and, most particularly, in relations with China.
Europeans, too, are wary and weary, well aware that in a deeply polarized US, today's restart could come to a grinding halt four years from now. In a recent speech at the State Department, Biden assured the world that the US had emerged from the January 6th attack on the Capitol "better equipped to unite the world in fighting to defend democracy — because we have fought for it ourselves."
Whether German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her French counterpart Emmanuel Macron will grasp the hand Biden is extending depends on the degree to which the French president, in particular, sees his quest for strategic autonomy as compatible with trans-Atlantic multilateralism, and on whether the European partners are serious about boosting cooperation not only with the US but, first and foremost, amongst themselves.
The fact that France and Germany are currently bickering over their respective industries' share in the development of a new fighter jet scarcely boosts confidence that Europe's Common Security and Defense Policy, or CSDP, is much more than an acronym.
Moreover, EU leaders want to avoid being drawn into "you're-with-us-or-against-us” bipolar conflicts with China and Russia. In his security conference remarks, Biden endeavored to reassure them on that point, affirming that long-term strategic competition with China is not simply about West versus East: "We cannot and must not return to the rigid blocs of the Cold War, competition must not lock out cooperation on issues that affect us all."
There are fruitful areas for US-European engagement on a broader approach to security that puts societal resilience first. These include concerted action on climate and health, as well as cooperation on trade — reforming the WTO and boosting trans-Atlantic input on standards for critical digital technologies. Of new and rising importance on the trans-Atlantic agenda is digital policy in general — on regulation, taxation and competition as a means of mitigating the security threats stemming from concentration of online power as well as disinformation and other "hybrid" measures that undermine democracy. All would go a long way toward addressing the destabilizing risks posed by a rising China and a revanchist Russia, without locking either the US or Europe into regional adversarialism.
All four areas were referenced by the trans-Atlantic trio on the virtual MSC stage. They were united in the view that what the Conference organizers call a "polypandemic" world poses viral societal threats that demand what Chancellor Merkel referred to as "a concept of networked security, interlinked security."
Coming after the nadir of Trumpism, that looks like the beginnings, at least, of trans-Atlantic renewal.