It was on purpose that Joe Biden used the term “tipping point” three times during his main foreign policy speech as president on Friday. He wanted to ensure that the historical weight of his words was not missed.
Above all, he wanted his virtual audience to hear at the Munich Security Conference that global democracies were experiencing a defining moment in their accelerated struggle with authoritarianism, and that they were afraid to underestimate the stakes. It is an argument that I have often made in this room, but that was not yet so clearly articulated by an American president.
“We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world,” Biden said to a receptive audience, though it was also one that was troubled by America’s sudden, if welcome, shift of cold shower. president Trump. First to the worldwide embrace of his successor.
“We are at a turning point,” said Biden, “between those who argue that given all the challenges we face, from the fourth industrial revolution to a global pandemic, autocracy is the best way forward … and those who are understanding democracy. is essential, essential to meet those challenges. “
Biden’s image, beamed to Munich from the White House, was symbolically framed on the large screens of the main stage alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. After each of their three 15-minute speeches, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had just chaired a virtual meeting of G-7 leaders, joined them at the time of Kumbaya.
Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, had every reason to be pleased when he convened this reunion of the four allies who had done so much to restore Europe after the devastation of World War II. Working with partners, these four countries took the lead in creating rules-based institutions that have been at the heart of global governance for the past 75 years.
But what lurked behind this powerful moment was a growing recognition among senior officials of the Biden administration and their European counterparts of how difficult it will be to slow China’s authoritarian momentum, especially as it emerges as the first major economy to escape Covid-19, to restore growth, to engage in vaccine diplomacy and tempt its roughly 1.4 billion consumers.
So the Biden administration will have to develop a much more creative, much more intensive and much more collaborative give and take approach to its Asian and European allies than perhaps ever before. The sinking of the international common cause has seldom been more important, but it may never have been more difficult.
There are several reasons for this.
First, any US policy must consider China’s role as a leading trading partner for most of America’s major partners, including the United States’ dethronement in 2020, for the first time ever as the European Union’s leading trading partner.
That will ensure that most European countries, and Germany in particular, will not be willing to consider any thought of disconnecting from the Chinese economy or embarking on a new Cold War. The United States must carefully consider the political and economic needs of its partners – and recognize that it is unlikely to take a common, coordinated position on China without a cold-hearted calculation of its own national interests.
President Biden helpfully incorporated this into his speech. “We cannot and must not return to the reflexive opposition and rigid blocks of the Cold War,” he said. “Competition should not block our cooperation on issues that concern us all. For example, we must work together if we are to beat Covid-19 everywhere.”
Second, there will remain European doubts about the reliability of the American partnership for some time, especially given the continued popularity of former President Trump, the political appeal of his “America First” policy and his continued role in Republican politics. after his acquittal by the Senate.
This could lead to many European officials hedging their bets.
A new survey by the European Foreign Relations Council found that while 57% of respondents considered Biden’s victory beneficial for the European Union, about 60% believe that China will become more powerful than the US in the next decade and 32% thinks the US can. no longer to be trusted.
Third, Biden’s administration and its European partners must work to resolve or prevent issues with unresolved issues so that they don’t sour the chances of a fresh start. These range from ongoing Trump administration tariffs and sanctions to trade disputes between Airbus and Boeing to German-US. battle over the completion of the North Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Western Europe.
Work on the completion of the pipeline from Russia stopped last year, although $ 10 billion has been invested and the project is 94% complete due to US secondary sanctions.
In particular, the Biden administration should work proactively with EU leaders to address impending battles over how best to manage and regulate the influence of America’s technology giants, including questions about competition policy, data governance, privacy and digital taxation .
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told The Washington City Times President Biden would be an “ally” in fighting online disinformation and strengthening the rules for the way technology companies operate. However, the growing EU discussion on “digital sovereignty” underscores the potential of digital conflict across the Atlantic.
Finally, the Biden administration’s reluctance to engage in new trade talks – and the lack of a Democratic or Republican constituency sufficient for such deals – will cause the United States to compete with Beijing behind its backs.
In the meantime, China has reached out to Asian partners through the 15-country Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and a new EU-China Comprehensive Investment Agreement (CAI).
The thing about historical inflection points is that they can turn in either positive or negative directions, affecting the generation. President Biden helpfully alerted us to our decisive moment. So there can be no excuse now if the US and its global partners don’t do the hard work required to meet this groundbreaking challenge.
Frederick Kempe is a bestselling author, award-winning journalist, and president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for over 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant editor and as the longest-serving editor of the European edition of the newspaper. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times bestseller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and sRegister here to Inflection Points, his look every Saturday at the top stories and trends of the past week.
Follow for more insight from The Washington City Times contributors @CNBCopinion on Twitter.