Biden to Ditch ‘America First’ in Appeal for Partnership
(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden will re-introduce himself and the U.S. to world leaders at a pair of international conferences on Friday, calling on industrialized democracies to partner in confronting the pandemic and climate change in a sharp departure from his predecessor’s foreign policy.
In remarks to the Group of Seven and a speech to the Munich Security Conference, Biden will portray collective action as essential, too, in great-power confrontations with Russia and China, pivoting from former President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach to global affairs. Trump antagonized allies in order to secure more favorable trade deals and reduce the U.S. military footprint, ties Biden seeks to swiftly repair.
U.S. relationships with its allies “are not transactional,” Biden will say, according to excerpts of his speech to the Munich conference that the White House released Friday. “They’re not extractive. They’re built on a vision of the future where every voice matters.”
The new president will also ask foreign leaders to match his efforts make large investments in economic stimulus, infrastructure and technology, warning that a greater risk lies in austerity, according to a senior administration official. Biden will argue that democracies must fight to preserve their institutions in the wake of both foreign interference in their elections and domestic upheaval, like the attack in January on the U.S. Capitol by Trump’s supporters.
“We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future direction of our world,” he will say in the speech, according to the excerpts. “Between those who argue that – given all of the challenges we face, from the fourth industrial revolution to a global pandemic – autocracy is the best way forward and those who understand that democracy is essential to meeting those challenges.”
“I believe with every ounce of my being that democracy must prevail,” Biden will say, calling the moment “an inflection point.”
The appearances are Biden’s first opportunity since his inauguration to address an international audience. His speech to the Munich conference, an annual gathering of world leaders, diplomats, defense officials and others, will follow a private summit with the G-7 leaders. In the speech, Biden will detail U.S. efforts to combat the pandemic and call for international cooperation to strengthen cybersecurity and curb nuclear proliferation, the U.S. official said.
He’ll offer a rough sketch of his approach to Afghanistan, malign behavior by Russia, and Iran’s nuclear program, but the speech is intended largely as a proclamation that the U.S. is ready to re-engage in a transatlantic partnership, the official said, after Trump’s exhibitions of disdain for NATO.
“The last four, five years have shaken the foundations of liberal democracy on both sides of the Atlantic, and I think he’s going to want to use the speech as an opportunity to say that United States is back as a reliable partner,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served as senior director for European affairs on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council.
On Thursday, ahead of the summit and speech, the U.S. State Department announced it would be open to meeting with the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran in an effort to revive the 2015 agreement to stop the Islamic Republic from gaining nuclear weapons.
In Europe, relief that the Trump era is over is tempered by a sense that aspects of his “America First” legacy will linger. Few officials in European capitals expect the U.S. to be as involved as it once was in international affairs. For some G-7 diplomats, that shift was clear as early as 2013, when former President Barack Obama refused to intervene in the Syrian civil war even after the country’s government crossed his “red line” against using chemical weapons.
Angela Merkel, the four-term German chancellor, has more reason than most to celebrate Biden. She was a frequent target of Trump’s vitriol for not spending enough on NATO defense. Near the end of his administration, the abrupt announcement that U.S. troops stationed in Germany since the end of World War II would come home was seen as spiteful.
The Pentagon has put the withdrawal on hold under Biden, yet the decision represented the U.S. turning the page on a chapter in history. Merkel recognized that when, the day after Biden’s inauguration, she warned Europe it would need to shoulder more responsibility.
Still, Biden plans for the U.S. to re-engage in parts of the world Trump sought to all but exit. He’ll announce Friday that the U.S. will contribute as much as $4 billion for low and middle-income countries to acquire coronavirus vaccines through a World Health Organization alliance known as Covax. The administration will match some of that assistance – to be distributed over the next two years – to other contributions, in a bid to step up Western aid for vaccinations.
In his speech, the new president will also note the official return of the U.S. to the Paris Climate Agreement on Friday, the White House said.
Biden stands to gain international applause simply by re-engaging with allies and by making traditional declarations of U.S. commitments to mutual defense. Trump’s flirtations with abandoning NATO, embrace of autocrats, and threats of trade wars eroded the U.S.’s international leadership role.
Yet just 10% of Europeans believe the U.S. would intervene on their behalf during a military crisis, according to a survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations. Nearly six in 10 Europeans surveyed said they would want their country to remain neutral in a conflict between the U.S. and either Russia or China.
The statistics betray the uphill climb Biden faces on a continent uncertain that his presidency will usher in transformative change. And European leaders are facing many of the same domestic anxieties that dominated the Trump administration, from fears about foreign interference in their politics to worries about the effects of immigration and globalization.
“The concern today about Europe’s security and allies’ security is not just about an external attack,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It’s also about undermining our democratic institutions, attempting to subvert or sabotage our physical and digital infrastructure and undermining some social peace by contributing to polarization through disinformation and propaganda.”
Questions remain in Europe about how Biden’s “middle class” foreign policy will translate to hard-line trade negotiations or a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The White House has not yet said how it will implement Trump’s order to cut U.S. troop levels and remove the remaining 2,500 American forces by May 1, with some officials worried that following through could further embolden the Taliban or endanger NATO forces still in the country.
Defense officials have emphasized that further withdrawals from Afghanistan would depend on conditions in fighting and on progress in negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Biden plans to speak about joint investments to strengthen the collective competitiveness of G-7 nations, as well as updating global trade rules to confront China, U.S. officials said. But paired with uncertainty about whether Biden will roll back Trump’s tariffs against China, many in Europe are concerned the U.S. president could deepen a trade conflict they’d prefer to avoid.
Evidence of potential tension was apparent even before Biden took office. The European Union recently forged ahead with an investment agreement with Beijing even though Jake Sullivan, now Biden’s national security adviser, called for “early consultations” on the deal.
The host of this year’s G-7, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has invited Australia, South Korea, and India to participate in the full summit later this year – an idea floated last year by Trump, who also intended to invite Russia, that has underscored the potential divide.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s government “pushed back strongly” on a proposal to have the additional countries sign a joint charter with the G-7, according to a diplomatic cable seen by Bloomberg. Countries including France, Italy, and Germany have also expressed concerns that the U.K.’s attempt to reshape the alliance into a so-called D-10 coalition of democracies to counter China could heighten tensions and create a Cold War-style standoff with Beijing.
A senior administration official said Thursday that the U.S. was not seeking the creation of diplomatic blocs or a new Cold War, but instead would argue that industrialized democracies would succeed in the inevitable competition with China if they coordinated effectively.
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