When Joe Biden last addressed the Munich Security Conference two years ago, he made a promise to a packed-in crowd at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof.
“This too shall pass,” Biden said in 2019, lamenting the isolationist turn the US took under then-President Donald Trump. “We will be back.”
On Friday, Biden will declare that “America is back” as he returns — virtually — to the annual security conference to reaffirm the US’ position of global leadership, the power of its alliances and the resilience of democracy — in the United States and abroad.
Paired with his first virtual session of the Group of 7 a few hours earlier, Biden’s back-to-back diplomatic engagements will center on his attempt to restore the transatlantic alliance after it became strained under Trump, who viewed Europe as a trade rival and often said he believed traditional US friends were harder to deal with than adversaries.
And while officials, in previewing his appearances, said that Biden would not be focused mainly on Trump during his outings, his predecessor’s looming influence will nonetheless inform the message the President is seeking to convey.
“He will certainly acknowledge that democracy is under stress, democratic institutions are under stress, under challenge in the United States that they are in parts of Europe and in other parts of the world as well,” a senior administration official said. “But that acknowledgment will be the jumping off point to a confident and assertive claim that he will make in this speech that we have the wherewithal to renew and strengthen our democratic institutions.”
A regular participant in the Munich conference during his years as a senator, vice president and private citizen, Biden has used the event as a testing ground and sounding board for his foreign policy. The event itself, founded at the height of the Cold War as a self-described “trans-Atlantic family meeting,” in some ways epitomizes the type of group-based diplomacy that he has long espoused.
The pandemic has forced the yearly gathering out of its traditional home in the grand Bavarian hotel. Instead, Biden will speak to the conference from the East Room of the White House, where he has spent the first month of his presidency attempting to undo damage he says cost the United States its credibility abroad.
This year, Biden hopes to make the case for a united front against Russia and China, and will lay out specific grievances against those countries’ anti-democratic threats.
After four years of the US unilaterally tackling the challenges posed by China, Biden will outline a multilateral strategy for confronting and competing with Beijing.
As he looks to bolster the US’s more traditional alliances with European countries and other democracies around the world, the President will look to leverage those ties to confront the growing challenges that China presents, urging the US and its allies to “stand together,” the official said.
“With respect to China, he will make clear in the speech that he’s not looking for confrontation and he’s not looking to do cold war, but he’s expecting stiff competition and he welcomes it,” a senior administration official said. “And he believes that the United States and Europe and democracies across the Indo-Pacific should all work together to push back against the Chinese.”
The official said Biden is not expected to make specific asks of US allies during the G7 or Munich Security Conference with respect to China, but will urge US allies to “stand together” and “develop a common outlook.” The official stressed that taking action against China would not be the thrust of Biden’s remarks at either conference, nor would he be engaging in “chest-beating.”
Addressing the security conference one day after the State Department announced that the US will engage in multilateral negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, Biden is expected to reiterate that commitment, but will not divulge his timetable for the talks or an agreement.
“We look forward to engaging in diplomacy. We are keen to sit down and hear what the Iranians have to say. We want to come up with a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear program, and let’s get to work,” the official said. “He’s not going to go further than that in his remarks.”
Before delivering a speech at the Munich conference, Biden will attend a closed session of the G7, during which he will unveil a $4 billion US commitment to COVAX, the World Health Organization’s effort to provide vaccines to poor countries. The President plans to announce $2 billion contribution to the fund and commit to spending another $2 billion, contingent on contributions from other nations.
And just as Biden has pitched his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package by underscoring the risk of “going too small,” not too big, a senior administration official said Biden would underscore a similar message as it relates to the global economic recovery.
“This is an era for action and investment and not for austerity,” the official said, previewing Biden’s remarks.
The session will also mark the United States’ official return to the Paris climate accord, 30 days after Biden announced he would re-enter the US in the pact during his first day in office.
Biden joins a G7 that had been fractured by the presence of Trump, who came to dislike the group and questioned why he needed to participate in its summits at all. At his first meeting, held on a cliffside in Sicily, he felt ganged up upon when the leaders tried to convince him to remain in the Paris deal.
The next year, during a riverside retreat in the northern woods of Quebec, he stubbornly resisted the other leaders’ entreaties on tariffs and left early, rescinding his signature from the concluding statement as he flew to Singapore to meet with Kim Jong Un.
The leaders clashed again a year later during a heated dinner meeting underneath the Biarritz lighthouse in France, when Trump said he wanted Russia to rejoin the group.
By his fourth year in office, when it was his turn to host the summit, Trump went back and forth on where it would be convened, upset that optics and ethics prevented him from holding it at his resort in Doral. Ultimately, at the urging of French President Emmanuel Macron, he held a video conference call. But he never hosted an actual summit.
There is undoubtedly a sense of tensions relaxing with Biden replacing Trump in the United States’ chair around the G7 table. Even among those leaders who attempted to cultivate the former President, like British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Biden provides at least a more predictable and stable presence than Trump, whose sour moods — often prompted by jet lag, aides said — derailed many a G7 session.
In some ways, the restoration of a reliable American voice is Biden’s signal message during his debut multilateral outing, which a senior administration official likened Thursday evening to a “virtual trip to Europe.”
“The President will indicate his very strong view that the US has a deep set of enduring strengths that transcend what we have seen over the course of the last four years,” the official said, previewing the President’s activity on the condition of anonymity.