“America Is Back” on the Global Stage at the Munich Security Conference

February 24, 2021 By Grant Thieroff

“America is back, the transatlantic alliance is back, and we are not looking backward. We are looking forward together.”

President Joe Biden made this declaration at the 2021 Munich Security Conference (MSC) Special Edition last Friday, echoing the remarks he made two years earlier at the 2019 conference, when he promised “[America] will be back.”

The president outlined a number of foreign policy priorities during his global address—reaffirming America’s partnership with Europe, addressing emerging global threats with diplomatic solutions, and advocating American values to counter Russia and China—that also align with a bipartisan consensus on the need for U.S. global engagement to protect America’s economic, health and national security interests.

Restoring the Trans-Atlantic Relationship

Speaking from the East Room, Biden sought to “erase any lingering doubt” about America’s role on the global stage, pledging that “The United States will work closely with our European Union partners, and the capitals across the continent, from Rome to Riga, to meet the range of shared challenges we face.”

Strengthening and renewing the U.S.-NATO relationship is a top priority for the Biden administration—and has been since day one. Shortly after arriving at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III made his first official phone call to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Weeks later, Secretary Austin penned an op-ed hailing America’s alliances and partnerships—including NATO—as “a strategic advantage none of our competitors can match.”

Biden similarly praised NATO and reaffirmed his commitment to the alliance and its members during his remarks, saying “I welcome Europe’s growing investment in the military capabilities that enable our shared defense,” and promising America’s unwavering support to defend any NATO ally under attack per Article V.

Support for trans-Atlantic alliances is an important agenda item for both sides of the aisle. Ahead of NATO Defense Ministerial meetings last week, Congressman Michael McCaul (R-TX)—the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee—suggested that “We would not be where we are today without the support of NATO in the aftermath of 9/11,” advising that “we must all remain committed to our shared mission.”

Solving Global Problems with International Cooperation

In his speech, Biden alluded to his earlier meeting with G7 leaders, emphasizing the importance of such dialogues in order to “coordinate multilateral action to address COVID-19, the global economic crisis, and the accelerating climate crisis, and so much else.” And since taking office, the administration has:

  • Rejoined the World Health Organization
  • Committed $2 billion of the $4 billion Congress approved last year for distribution through the COVAX initiative
  • Rejoined the Paris Climate Accords, with plans to send a delegation to the Glasgow Climate Change Conference

By focusing on global healthy security—particularly vaccine distribution— the administration’s actions have renewed hopes of containing the disease and helping the global economy, which has been severely impacted by the pandemic. Projected global economic losses already total $22 trillion and unequal vaccine distribution around the world could cause further losses of between $1.5 trillion and $9.2 trillion, half of which would be shouldered by the richest countries.

Advocates outside the Biden administration also support Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and other global initiatives to combat the pandemic, including Republican Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), who said that “supporting international efforts to curb the COVID-19 pandemic helps to save lives and ensures the U.S. does not backslide on previous investments.”

USGLC President and CEO Liz Schrayer also applauded U.S. commitments to COVID-19 vaccine distribution and global health security, calling them “critical to safeguarding Americans’ health and economic security… eliminating the virus and addressing its destabilizing impacts around the world.”

Democracy and Great Power Competition

This year’s Munich Security Conference came during a period of shifting trans-Atlantic relations as the United States and its European democratic allies consider how to counterbalance the rise of China, Russia, and other authoritarian regimes.

Biden acknowledged these concerns but remained optimistic about the future of democracy within international partnerships, observing that we are “at an inflection point” between the global rise of autocracy and “those who understand that democracy is essential to meeting [the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution and a global pandemic].” He also contended that America’s partnerships “have endured and grown through the years because they are rooted in the richness of our shared democratic values.”

Biden emphasized the need for stronger U.S.-Europe partnerships in the face of growing authoritarianism. He called out China and Russia as threats to our economic stability, particularly the “Chinese government’s economic abuses and coercion” and Putin’s desire to “undermine the transatlantic unity and our resolve.”

U.S. lawmakers from both parties have raised similar concerns, including Senator James Risch (R-ID)–the lead Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee–who recently urged that we must “push back on Russian influence,” or else “risk the abandonment of our Central and Eastern European allies [and] the undermining of NATO.”

A New Way Forward

By doubling down on America’s renewed global leadership, Biden signaled to the world that partnerships are—and will continue to be—key to U.S. international interests.

While President Biden’s remarks were delivered virtually this year, far from Munich, his speech promised that as America makes its return to the world stage, it will draw close to its allies and strategic partners once more.

Photo credit: MSC