President Joe Biden is a familiar face in Munich. Since 1980, he’s been a frequent attendee of the Munich Security Conference, an annual confab of diplomats, government leaders and other foreign policy wonks to talk through global problems.
Biden gave his first major foreign policy address as vice president in Munich in 2009. In the first lines of that speech, he heralded how the U.S. had just “gone through the oldest of our traditions: that is the peaceful transfer of power.” America has been through a lot since then, especially over the last four years. When Biden addresses the conference’s virtual attendees on Friday, things will be a little different than a decade ago, to say the least.
As a candidate, Biden pledged to reverse the isolationist and unilateral policies of former president Donald Trump. As president, his administration is trying to get back to America’s old foreign policy playbook as a way of reintroducing itself to the world. But four years of the United States going rogue have made the last four weeks an awkward affair. America may be back to business as usual — but, aside from the absence of whiplash, is anyone really happy about that?
On the one hand, the Biden administration has drawn a sharp contrast to Trump on human rights. Where Trump readily embraced dictators and authoritarians, Biden has already spent a good amount of time (diplomatically) yelling at them.
Where Trump readily embraced dictators and authoritarians, Biden has already spent a good amount of time (diplomatically) yelling at them.
He’s given Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro the cold shoulder after the right-wing leader echoed Trump’s election fraud claims. Biden’s first phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping was a reminder that he isn’t cool with Xi’s assault on democracy in Hong Kong or China’s human rights abuse toward Xinjiang’s Uighur population. His State Department called out Turkey’s crackdown on LGBTQ protestors and condemned a show trial targeting Turkish political dissidents.
So far, so good as far as getting things back to pre-Trump “normal.” But those are the layups — part of what was so maddening about the Trump administration was its inability to score even the most basic diplomatic points. No, what’s got me worried are the areas where the Biden administration would want to have a bit more leverage but isn’t really finding solid backup from U.S. allies. Earlier this month, generals in Myanmar launched a coup overthrowing the civilian government. Last week, Biden announced that in response to the takeover, Burmese military leaders would face economic sanctions. It’s the kind of firm action that you’d expect our international friends to rally around.
Not so much in practice, though. Japan is hesitant to issue new sanctions, fearing what it would mean for Japanese businesses and potentially pushing Myanmar even further into China’s camp. India is also likely to stay on the sidelines rather than join the U.S.’s pressure campaign, not wanting to upset its strategic position against China.
Our allies are also not exactly super thrilled to have a more assertive U.S. back on the field, even if it’s a more logical and less petty and toddler-like version of the U.S. than under Trump. According to the conference’s schedule, Biden will be appearing virtually alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday.
It might be for the best that the panel is remote this year. Merkel isn’t very happy with the Biden administration’s belief that the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Germany and Russia shouldn’t be completed. Macron and other French leaders are meanwhile sure that “certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States” on race, colonialism, and gender are undermining French society (Yes, wokeness is apparently a threat to France’s way of life.)
Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead neatly summed up the challenges Biden faces in getting America’s ride-or-dies to, well, ride:
Many governments in Asia share U.S. concerns about China but feel threatened by America’s propensity to proselytize for democracy. In the Middle East, key aspects of the Biden agenda alienate virtually everyone. Many Latin Americans see Chinese money and influence as a healthy offset to U.S. hemispheric dominance. While Europeans share some American concerns about China and Russia, Paris and Berlin see little reason to accept Washington’s prescriptions for dealing with them.
I do disagree with Mead when he predicts that it’s likely that the U.S. will find itself outnumbered by skeptics when faced with Biden’s agenda. For one, it’s still early days. There’s a lot of cobwebs to shake off here and areas for cooperation that will bear fruit. The Trump years left the world feeling unsure if there’s any space for a dominant United States anymore — or if they even want one. It will take time for that feeling to recede in the face of more active diplomacy.
And second, the Biden administration is already looking for ways to jumpstart some of the ties that have been left to languish. It would be a big show of Biden’s commitment to diplomatic solutions if, as journalist Laura Rozen reported, he announces on Friday that the U.S. intends to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal alongside France and Germany. Would that win over Berlin and Paris and get them to sign-up for Washington’s broader game plan? Probably not right away. But it’s a start.