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Sunday, March 7, 2021

The transatlantic cavalry rides again

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Here comes the transatlantic cavalry — back in the saddle and riding to the rescue, at least according to the Western world’s most powerful leaders.

During a videoconference of the G7 advanced democracies on Friday afternoon, followed by a special virtual session of the Munich Security Conference that in many ways amounted to a geopolitical exorcism of Donald Trump, the leaders hailed the arrival of U.S. President Joe Biden and celebrated the substantive and spiritual return of Washington to the forefront of global multilateralism.

“I am sending a clear message to the world,” Biden declared in his speech to the Munich event. “America is back.” It was a line that he and others echoed repeatedly throughout the day.

During the G7 session, convened by U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, leaders pledged an additional $4 billion to international efforts to supply coronavirus vaccines to the developing world and insisted they would continue to prop up battered economies — promises that vulnerable countries will likely believe only when they see results first-hand.

And in both the G7 communique and in a series of speeches at the Munich conference, leaders vowed to work together on a vast constellation of issues: to conquer the pandemic; to push back forcefully against Russian aggression; to curtail what Biden called Chinese “economic abuses and coercion”; to battle climate change; to reengage with Iran; to restore stability in Afghanistan; to combat terrorism; and to promote democracy, not by diktat but by example.

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It all amounted to an extraordinarily tall order — skeptics might say a fantastical pipe-dream — but one that has been given at least momentary hope by the arrival of the new administration in Washington, at just the moment when German Chancellor Angela Merkel, long Europe’s most influential and stabilizing political force, is entering the twilight of her final term.

In his remarks, delivered via video from the White House, Biden gave his counterparts reason to believe. “It comes down to this,” he said. “The partnership between Europe and the United States in my view is, and must remain, the cornerstone of all we hope to accomplish in the 21st century, just as we did in the 20th century.”

Biden proclaimed an unwavering commitment to NATO’s collective defense doctrine and offered tough words for both Moscow and Beijing. But his main message, received enthusiastically, was a promise to collaborate closely with European allies.

“Let me erase any lingering doubt,” he said. “The United States will work closely with our European Union partners in the capitals across the continent, from Rome to Riga, to meet the range of shared challenges we face.”

Merkel, who delivered her speech seated, reading from cue cards with little emotion, nonetheless made clear a sense of relief and newfound optimism.

“The signs for multilateralism are much better this year than they were two years ago,” Merkel said.

“This also has a lot to do with the fact that Joe Biden has become president of the United States of America,” the chancellor added. “His speech just now, but also the first announcements of his administration, have convinced us that it is not just talk, but action. The return to the Paris climate agreement, the return to the World Health Organization, the participation in the U.N. Human Rights Council, the extension of the New START agreement, also the willingness to restart the Iran nuclear agreement — all these are important steps towards more multilateral cooperation.”

Merkel’s overall tone suggested a woman rather exhausted, both by the pandemic but also having carried Western democracy on her shoulders for the past four years.

Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, introduced Merkel by announcing that she was being awarded the Ewald von Kleist Prize, named for the founder of the annual security event, a German statesman who was a conspirator in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler.

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“This award recognizes your outstanding contribution to peace and international crisis management,” Ischinger said. Merkel did not respond to the accolade at all, but quickly launched into her speech, in which she expressed both satisfaction at Biden’s arrival but also characteristic pragmatism in acknowledging inevitable disagreements.

“What we need to do is define the strategic challenges together,” she said. “This does not always mean that our interests are aligned — I have no illusions about that — and we have to talk openly about our differences. But in terms of our basic approach, our values, our convictions, our democracy and our ability to act, we have a broad, good, common foundation.”

Among many policy issues Merkel mentioned, she voiced a particular desire to talk to Biden about assisting countries in the Sahel region of Africa, possibly with a U.N. mission to fight terrorism. “I would advocate that we now also talk again with the United States of America about helping these countries,” she said.

In closing, Merkel said: “For me, the transatlantic perspective is the core of this effort. All I can say is that there is a great deal to be done. Germany stands ready for a new chapter in the transatlantic partnership.”

Merkel was followed by Macron, a relatively new kid on the transatlantic bloc, who repeated some of his recent concerns about NATO losing strategic focus. “We need to rebuild the security agenda or architecture together, this is the new strategic concept of NATO, all I said last year remains valid,” Macron said, a reference to critical comments that led to a review of the alliance.

Like Merkel, Macron stressed the urgency of helping developing countries, especially in Africa. Macron said that it was vital for Europeans and Americans not just to announce monetary donations but to deliver the 13 million doses needed to inoculate the African continent’s health care workers – which he said represents only “0.43 percent of the doses we ordered.”

“If we know how to do that then the West will be present and will be respected in Africa,” Macron said. Otherwise, he said, African leaders will have to buy doses from China or Russia, “and the power of the West, of Europeans, of Americans will be a concept but not reality.”

Such cautionary notes notwithstanding, the Munich event overall — featuring appearances also by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and philanthropist Bill Gates — was a multilateralist love-fest.

Michel, for his part, declared: “Welcome back America!”

Even Johnson, the occasionally rambunctious British prime minister, gave a speech that seemed intended to ease post-Brexit anxieties and reassure allies that Britain remained well-ensconced in the club of like-minded democracies.

Much of Biden’s message felt familiar — and for many listeners, especially those in Europe, that was the best part. “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident,” he said at one point. “We have to defend it.”

For geopolitical rivals like Russia and China, Friday’s events amounted to a clear show of joint purpose by the West, with Biden leading the calls to team up with allies to confront China and push back against Moscow’s malign activities.

“We must prepare together for long-term strategic competition with China,” Biden said. “Competition with China is going to be stiff.” He urged Europe to work with America to “push back against the Chinese government’s economic abuses and coercion.”

Merkel agreed on the need for a “joint agenda” with the U.S. on China, and also referred to Beijing as a competitor. “Recently China has gained more power on the international stage and we as a transatlantic alliance, as democratic countries, need to react to that,” she said.

Von der Leyen made clear that her proposal for a “trade and tech council” with Washington was aimed squarely at China. “We know that those who write global rules are the ones who are shaping the future of their societies,” she said. “You heard the president [Biden]— none of us wants China to do this for us.”

Biden also reached for the stars, describing cooperative efforts by the U.S. and Europe to explore Mars.

“The last four years have been hard,” he said. “But Europe and the United States have to lead with confidence once more.”

Charlie Cooper, Matthew Karnitschnig, Stuart Lau, Rym Momtaz, Merlin Sugue and Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by WCT staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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