Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
Joe Biden’s speech for this year’s Munich Security Conference (MSC) was probably an easy one to write.
“Don’t be like the previous guy” will have been the simple steer given in advance. And in just his third paragraph, the president delivered that message: “Two years ago, as you pointed out, when I last spoke at Munich, I was a private citizen; I was a professor, not an elected official. But I said at that time, “We will be back.” And I’m a man of my word. America is back.”
Turning the page on Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ philosophy in rhetorical terms was hardly a surprise. Joe Biden has been an internationalist and a multilateralist throughout his political career, and so the recent brief chapter in which the White House was sympathetic to autocratic strongmen was slammed shut.
An immediate return to the Paris Climate accord and a U-turn on the US approach to the European Union – once again a key strategic ally – mark further divergence, although it is reasonable to expect Biden to retain the pressure applied by Trump on European countries to spend more on defence.
Biden also marks a difference on Iran. He retains a hawkish view, like his predecessor – although in this speech he reinforced his “willingness to re-engage in negotiations with the P5+1 on Iran’s nuclear program” while addressin “destabilising activities across the Middle East”. Concurrently at the MSC, Boris Johnson referred to Iran as one of “the most pressing security issues”.
“I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship”
The MSC is hardly a lynchpin in the political calendar in the same way as the presidential inauguration or a State of the Union address. On that basis, with domestic America hardly tuned it, the President spoke to European allies to whom he felt the Trump administration had given the cold shoulder.
There was a reminder of a recent order to halt the withdrawal of American troops from Germany, and a lifting of the cap imposed by the previous administration on the number of U.S. forces that can be based there.
For the United Kingdom, there was perhaps a curious absence. Biden quickly cantered through a reference about the importance of democracy and the need to “fight for it, strengthen it, renew it”, but did not mention the Government’s proposal to create a “D-10”.
In Boris Johnson’s speech, the Prime Minister confirmed he has invited South Korea, and Australia and India to attend the next G7 summit as guests. This chimes perfectly with Biden’s proposal to host a ‘Summit of Democracy’, which is likely to include the three nations mentioned above.
Making the case for democracies around the world is expected to be a core pillar of US-UK foreign policy, alongside a shared approach to China and increased military spending. As proof of the latter, UK carriers will be deployed to the Indo-Pacific and will be fully integrated with the US Marines.
A pivot away from the pivot to Asia?
Whilst Biden is a known internationalist, the world has changed around him. Trump left the Oval Office with Sino-scepticism seemingly a part of the White House furniture. And yet, the 46th president struck a softer tone that would have been unconscionable for the 45th, referring in his speech to building democratic allegiances in order to “prepare together for a long-term strategic competition with China”.
As well as seeking to lower the political temperature at home, this was a speech by Joe Biden that perhaps looked to do the same in the Asia Pacific area. Biden spoke about the need to “push back against the Chinese government’s economic abuses and coercion that undercut the foundations of the international economic system.” The politics of economics, not conflict.
Barack Obama initiated the ‘Pivot to Asia’ – a political and diplomatic shift towards the Asia Pacific. Biden’s first foreign policy foray may have indicated a pivot back – three mentions of China, compared to seven of Russia. Time will tell whether that was accidental or by design. Perhaps it was a mere reminder to the world that America would revert to a much firmer stance on Russia than we had become used to with Trump in the White House.
The tonality was stark. Whilst China was a mere “competitor”, Russia was described as a “threat”. Here, no punches were pulled. “The Kremlin attacks our democracies and weaponises corruption to try to undermine our system of governance…Putin seeks to weaken European — the European project and our NATO Alliance.” Even more words that it was impossible to think Trump would ever have deployed.
Republicans have tried to label Biden as a “radical” in every respect – immigration policy, climate change, Cabinet nominees, the pricey Covid relief package. But on foreign policy, Biden’s first major intervention appeared anything but radical. Russia was painted a familiar threat, but Johnson went much further in explicitly calling out the attempted murder of Alexei Navalny. China was reframed from a direct threat (Trump) to a mere strategic competitor (Biden). President Biden’s MSC speech was far from radical. If anything risked being disappointingly tame.