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The Munich Security Conference 2021-America Is Back, but What About the Europeans?

ARTICLES - 24 February 2021

Joe Biden chose the Munich Security Conference-held virtually this year-to deliver his first major foreign policy address to an international audience.

Speaking at this long-standing forum of the US-European defense relationship, the new President proclaimed that "America is back" and stated that his priority was to restore the transatlantic relationship. Seeking to differentiate himself from his predecessor, Biden reaffirmed the centrality of Article V, the mutual defense clause of the North Atlantic Treaty. He added that he was putting on hold Trump’s decision to withdraw 12,000 American troops from Germany at the end of their tour. 

After the American President’s address, Chancellor Merkel spoke from Berlin, President Macron from Paris and finally (after a delay due to his role as G7 President, which also held a virtual summit just before the Munich conference), the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson from London. 

If one looks beyond this exchange of statements, there appears to be two readings of Munich 2021. The first one, essentially, is that the pieces of the transatlantic puzzle are coming together - but still remain scattered.

The pieces of the transatlantic puzzle are coming together - but still remain scattered.

Through carefully worded remarks, the American president spoke of an inflection point in the history of democracies, who are now threatened by the authoritarian powers of China and Russia (for whom Biden had some harsh words). America’s allies in Europe and Asia must therefore come together to face this significant challenge. This will require a long-term effort  - Biden seeks a containment-like policy towards China - but the free nations need to mobilize their internal resources in order to ensure victory.

Interestingly, the American president did not allude to any possible "rebalancing" of the transatlantic relationship. 

Chancellor Merkel and President Macron stressed their approval with Mr. Biden’s speech and their delight at America’s "return". Both, however, refrained from endorsing his vision of an alliance of democracies against China. The Chancellor reiterated Germany’s contribution to NATO’s operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as its objective to allocate 2% of its GDP in military spending (currently at 1.5%). She was critical of Russia’s behavior, but without mentioning any changes to Nord-Stream II. She also spoke of the complementary nature of NATO and European defense efforts. Commentators particularly noted her caution regarding China.
 
Emmanuel Macron layed out the main elements he felt would allow "the West" - a word not often heard from a President of the Fifth Republic - to better confront authoritarian powers. As he had previously done at the G7 Summit, he put forward a proposal for "vaccine diplomacy." This would include covering the needs of all health care workers in Africa (over 13 million doses for 6.6 million health care workers). He also referred to ongoing crises-such as the Sahel, Iran, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh-where continuing cooperation between Europeans and Americans is necessary. 

Commentators, however, emphasized two particular aspects of the French president’s intervention, namely his renewed call for European strategic autonomy and his continuing pleas for dialogue with Russia

Boris Johnson delivered a well-constructed speech, placing significant emphasis on confronting both China and Russia. His speech could be read as the first coherent formulation of the diplomatic aims of "Global Britain." 

However, there is a second reading of the transatlantic puzzle that seems more relevant to us. 

Firstly, if differences between the two sides of the Atlantic and among the Europeans themselves do transpire, a strong, shared core of concerns emerged from the Munich conference. The pandemic, climate change and global recovery, along with the Iranian nuclear deal, were commonly agreed upon as being priorities. There is a shared awareness that these issues will be the first battleground in the "competition of models" with authoritarian regimes. There was no divergence over these issues, and they represent a significant part of the agenda upon which the US converges with the Europeans. 
 

 The pandemic, climate change and global recovery, along with the Iranian nuclear deal, were commonly agreed upon as being priorities.

Due to its specific sensibilities over NATO issues, France is somewhat seen as the black sheep of the transatlantic alliance. However, it must be emphasized how far Macron has gone not only in affirming his belief in the alliance, but also in revising NATO’s "strategic concept"

The Munich conference may well also feed the debate amongst Americans experts over which primary partner they should "choose" in Europe. There is Germany, which is highly Atlanticist but averse to facing up to China. Another option is France, who may be outside the mainstream with regards to Russia and European defense strategy, but is very present in theaters of operation and on global issues. Lastly, there is Britain, anxious to regain a global role and make themselves "useful" but handicapped by their weakened ties with the EU and uncertainty over their international influence. 

Secondly, in addition to the various declarations, we have also seen concrete actions taking place. In the days leading up to Munich, three meetings marked considerable progress in transatlantic cooperation-largely due to the renewed American willingness to listen to their allies. A meeting on the 17th of the "E3+1" Foreign Ministers, i.e. Germany, France, the United Kingdom, plus the United States, led to a breakthrough on the Iranian nuclear issue. This involved offering Washington the opportunity to indicate its readiness to enter into negotiations with Iran on a return to the JCPOA without renouncing its long-term objective of a "JCPOA+". A conference of NATO Defense Ministers on the 16th and 17th led to specific decisions on Afghanistan and Iraq, including an enhanced European contribution to NATO’s training mission in Iraq. Finally, the G7 summit was also a success. 

Yet, the Munich conference may not have provided a complete picture. It gave a boost to the "Great Europeans", but the overall European dynamic is more complex than the differences between those three countries, and the EU’s role was minimized. Additionally, some potentially major players were not involved, such as Erdogan-leader of an important NATO country but a difficult partner for Europe-and the new Italian Prime Minister Draghi, whose international experience should give further gravitas to his country during its G20 presidency. 

Finally, the Munich conference is not designed as a decision-making forum. A more important test of any potential new start for the transatlantic relationship may well be the next NATO summit, which Prime Minister Johnson is seeking to organize as an in-person event dovetailing with Biden’s planned trip to the spring G7 summit. 

Copyright : MANDEL NGAN / AFP

 

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