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Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden. Image Credit: Agencies

Washington: US President Joe Biden used his first public encounter 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 past four years had taken a toll on its power and influence.

His message stressing the importance of reinvigorating alliances and recommitting to defending Europe was predictably well received at a session of the Munich Security Conference that Biden addressed from the White House.

But there was also pushback, notably from the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who in his address made an impassioned defence of his concept of “strategic autonomy” from the United States, making the case that Europe can no longer be overly dependent on the United States as it focuses more of its attention on Asia, especially China.

And even Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who is leaving office within the year, tempered her praise for Biden’s decision to cancel plans for a withdrawal of 12,000 US troops from the country with a warning that “our interests will not always converge.” It appeared to be a reference to Germany’s ambivalence about confronting China - a major market for its automobiles and other high-end German products - and to the continuing battle with the United States over the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Russia.

But all three leaders seemed to recognize that their first virtual encounter was a moment to celebrate the end of the era of “America First,” and for Macron and Merkel to welcome back Biden, a politician whom they knew well from his years as a senator and vice president.

And Biden used the moment to warn about the need for a common strategy in pushing back at an Internet-fuelled narrative, promoted by both Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China, that the chaos surrounding the American election was another sign of democratic weakness and decline.

“We must demonstrate that democracies can still deliver for our people in this changed world,” Biden said, adding, “We have to prove that our model isn’t a relic of history.”


For the president, a regular visitor to the conference even as a private citizen after serving as vice president, the address was something of a homecoming. Given the pandemic, the Munich conference was crunched down to a video meeting of several hours. An earlier, brief closed meeting of the Group of 7 allies in which Biden also participated, hosted this year by Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, was also done by video.

The next in-person summit meeting is still planned for Britain this summer, pandemic permitting.

Biden never named his predecessor, Donald Trump, in his remarks, but framed them around wiping out the traces of Trumpism in the United States’ approach to the world. He celebrated its return to the Paris climate agreement, which took effect just before the meeting, and a new initiative, announced Thursday night, to join Britain, France and Germany in engaging Iran diplomatically in an effort to restore the 2015 nuclear agreement that Trump exited.

But he also pressed Europe to think about challenges in a new way - different from the Cold War, even if the two biggest geostrategic adversaries seem familiar.

“We must prepare together for long-term strategic competition with China,” he said, naming “cyberspace, artificial intelligence and biotechnology” as the new territory for competition. And he argued for pushing back against Russia - he called Putin by his last name, with no title attached - mentioning in particular the need to respond to the SolarWinds attack that was aimed at federal and corporate computer networks.

“Addressing Russian recklessness and hacking into computer networks in the United States and across Europe and the world has become critical to protect collective security,” Biden said.

The president avoided delving in to the difficult question of how to make Russia pay a price without escalating the confrontation. A senior White House cyberofficial told reporters this week that the scope and depth of the Russian intrusion was still under study, and officials are clearly struggling to come up with options to fulfil Biden’s commitment to make Putin pay a price for the attack.

But it was the dynamic with Macron, who has made a habit of criticizing the Nato alliance as nearing “brain death” and no longer “pertinent” since the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact, that captured attention.

Dominating decision-making

Macron wants Nato to act as more of a political body, a place where European members have equivalent status to the United States and are less subject to the American tendency to dominate decision-making.

Macron also urged that the renovation of Nato’s security abilities should involve “a dialogue with Russia.” Nato has always claimed that it is open to better relations with Moscow, but that Russia is not interested, especially as long as international sanctions remain after its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine about seven years ago.

But Macron, speaking in English to answer a question, also argued that Europe could not count on the United States as much as it had in past decades. “We must take more of the burden of our own protection,” he said.

In practice, it will take many years for Europe to build up a defence arm that would make it more self-reliant. But Macron is determined to start now, just as he is determined to increase the European Union’s technological capacities so that it can become less dependent on American and Chinese supply chains.

Biden, in contrast, wants to deepen those supply chains - of both hardware and software - among like-minded Western allies in an effort to lessen Chinese influence. He is preparing to propose a new joint project for European and American technology companies in areas like semiconductors and the kinds of software that Russia exploited in the SolarWinds hacking.

Manufacturing and distribution of vaccines

While Biden announced he would make good on an American promise to donate $4 billion to the campaign to expedite the manufacturing and distribution of coronavirus vaccines around the world - a move approved last year by a Democratic-led House and a Republican led-Senate - there were clear differences in approach during the meeting.

Underscoring the importance that the European Union accords to Africa, Macron called on Western nations to supply 13 million vaccine doses to African governments “as soon as possible” to protect health workers.

He warned that if the alliance failed to do this, “our African friends will be pressured by their populations, and rightly so, to buy doses from the Chinese, the Russians or directly from laboratories.”

Vaccine donations would reflect “a common will to advance and share the same values,” Macron said. Otherwise, “the power of the West, of Europeans and Americans, will be only a concept, and not a reality.”