The United States is back, after Donald Trump’s four years, in the fight against climate change and the fight against the pandemic. It is Europe that is no longer the same as it was four years ago.
At the Munich Security Conference, the most important world forum on foreign policy, Joe Biden’s ambitions to relaunch the Atlantic Alliance and the resistance of Angela Merkel who does not want and cannot leave Russia and China in the lurch, now full trade partners of Germany and the EU.
It is only the first act of a long and new story. “The era of America first is over, now let’s get to work,” Biden told the old found partners of the Atlantic Alliance, in his first speech as US president to Europe. The new head of the White House intervenes at the extraordinary summit of the G7 via videoconference, but it is the speech he gives immediately after, at the Munich conference on security, that is destined to make history. It is here, at the main world forum on foreign policy, that Biden plants the stakes of the new US approach to Europe, not so new to Russia and China, which remain opposing powers.
NATO must be able to face “the Russian threat” that “uses corruption as a weapon to undermine the alliance,” says the president of the United States. “The Russian leaders want to make the people believe that our system is as corrupt as theirs, they want to undermine the Atlantic Alliance because it is easier to overwhelm individual nations. This is why it must be our priority to safeguard the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine ”.
On Beijing: the US, Europe and their allies “must prepare for long-term competition with China and it will be tough competition.” “We must oppose the economic abuses and coercion of the Chinese government that undermine the foundations of the international economic system. Everyone, everyone must follow the same rules ”. China and its companies, Biden continues, “must respect the same Western standards” and must not “normalize repression”.
Then the lunge: “I’ll be direct: democratic progress is also at risk in Europe, we are at an epochal inflection point: on the one hand there are those who think that the best system is autocracy, on the other those who understand that democracy is central. Democracy must prevail and we must fight to defend it ”. In a nutshell, the warning for Europeans is: “We don’t want to go back to the Cold War, we want every country to be free from outside influences”. To do this, we must avoid having different strategies and parallel agendas with Russia and China.
This is Biden, the American Democrat who warmed the hearts of European Democrats with his election to the White House, who congratulated him as Donald Trump ranted and insisted he had won. The only one out of the chorus was the Slovenian premier, the nationalist Janez Jansa, who sided with Trump. But now that Biden is speaking directly to Europe, the air is not festive. Especially from Merkel, who while appreciating Washington’s return to the table of multilateralism, desperately tries to keep the channel open with Moscow and Beijing, while Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron immediately reposition themselves, somewhat awkwardly.
Taking advantage of Trump’s strategic withdrawal from international scenarios, from 2016 onwards Merkel has further strengthened relations with Russia (the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is almost completed) and signed an investment agreement with China, on behalf of all the EU. The other European states are no less, starting with Italy, the first power of the G7 to sign the agreement as part of the ‘Belt and road initiative’ with Beijing, at the time of the M5s-Lega government. Now it is not easy to go back, a bit for everyone, not just for Merkel who is also at the end of her political cycle.
But at the Munich conference, it’s up to you to resist the new US ‘order’. With Russia, says the chancellor, “sanctions don’t work”. Which suggests that not even the EU Council of Foreign Ministers, convened for next Monday, will adopt sanctions against Moscow after the arrest of dissident Alexei Navalny. But Merkel goes further. For her it is necessary to build a “common transatlantic agenda with Russia, which can make cooperative offers on the one hand and identify differences on the other”.
As for China, “it is a competitor” for NATO, emphasizes the chancellor, but “we need it to solve global problems such as climate change and biodiversity”. “The power of China has grown in recent years and most Asian organizations include or are led by China“, it is necessary to have “a common agenda” on China as well.
It is possible that, at least in the short term, Merkel’s pragmatic approach will prevail. But certainly Biden finds important support at the Munich conference, starting with Jens Stoltenberg, of course.
“The international order is challenged by authoritarian powers – says the NATO secretary general – China‘s growth is a problem for the transatlantic community, with potential consequences for our security, our prosperity and our way of life. For this reason, NATO should strengthen relations with allies such as Australia and Japan ”. And again: “In recent years, serious questions have been raised on both sides of the Atlantic about the strength of NATO. We now have a historic opportunity to build a stronger alliance, regain trust and strengthen our unity “against” the rise of China, sophisticated cyber attacks, disruptive technologies (5G, ed.), Climate change, behavior destabilizing of Russia and the threat of terrorism. No country and no continent can do it alone. On the contrary, we must do more together ”.
Macron welcomes everything, even what he denigrated not even a year ago. The French president spoke of NATO as an alliance now suffering from “brain death”, in an attempt to launch his project of “European strategic autonomy” also in the field of defense. Today, however, he says that this plan would have left Europe more resilient in NATO: “I believe in NATO”. Chapeau.
Johnson is the other one who twirls around to credit himself with his (former) friend Trump’s successor. The US “is back, without reservations, as leaders of the free world” under the presidency of Joe Biden, says the British premier. “It is imperative that our American friends know that their allies on this side of the Atlantic are willing and able to share the risks and burdens to meet the toughest challenges.”
The US is back. Europe still does not.