Quick Take: "America Is Back": Biden on Munich's virtual tour

Ian's Quick Take:

Hi everybody, Ian Bremmer here on a snowy Friday in New York City. But if it was any other year, I'd actually be in Munich right now for the annual Munich Security Conference. It's the largest gathering every year of foreign and security policy leaders and experts from the transatlantic community, and increasingly from around the world. It's, for obvious reasons, postponed this year, they're hoping to put something together in the summer in-person, but that didn't stop some of the most prominent leaders across the transatlantic partners from speaking virtually at an event that streamed live over a few hours today. So, given that I thought I'd give you a quick response on what I thought was happening and answer some of your questions.


So, first of all, President Biden, Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and the UK's Boris Johnson all spoke today, as well as multilateral leaders like António Guterres, my buddy from the UN and Dr. Tedros Adhanom of the World Health Organization. The pandemic, vaccine rollout, distribution, renewed commitment to transatlantic partnerships, the big topics today.

Let me first give you some highlights. Obviously, the big news is a sense of enthusiasm from the leaders that were speaking. You look at the transatlantic relationship, America First under President Trump was not meant to be popular in Europe, it was not popular in Europe. All of the leaders speaking today with Biden, happy to bang on the message that the United States is back on the global stage and embraces multilateralism and wants to work primarily with American allies.

Biden himself, committing to working together with partners on a host of issues like pandemic response and vaccine distribution, as well as climate change. Just a very different top-line message, a very different feel from the American president than we've seen from the last four years of Trump. Maybe the most interesting point from Joe Biden was him describing the world as being at an inflection point, calling out the need to defend democracy in the United States, as well as in Europe and saying to combat the rise of autocracy, you have to demonstrate that democracy can deliver for our people. And on the back of January 6th in the United States, on the back of a contested election, that many Americans still believe was stolen, on the back of so many in Western democracies that increasingly see the Chinese model seems stable and it's economically continuing to succeed, but they're getting angry about the effectiveness of their own democracies well before they exported, that certainly was a message, not of American exceptionalism, but rather of American potential, rather of what needs to be done, the work that needs to be done before the US can really be back. I think it's important, it's fine to say that America's back, but it's not like everybody really believes that we can just jump into the status quo ante.

Angela Merkel, this is her swan song. This is 16 years of Chancellor of Germany, and they come to an end this year. A very similar message, a very aligned message. I felt pretty confident that both Merkel and Biden had read each other's draft speeches before they gave their own comments, which is kind of a nice thing to see, shared belief that the democracy is the foundation of the transatlantic partnership, more than shared security, more than economic interests, alignment of values. Again, something that has taken an enormous hit over the past several years, both inside Europe and increasingly inside the United States to an even greater degree. And so, even though the allies may not agree on every issue and in some, they clearly don't, that on core values compared to countries like Russia and Iran and China and other rogue States around the world, that this is what the transatlantic relationship is founded on, and certainly what the Munich Security Conference has been founded on.

The reality is that there is near-term relief from everybody appearing, but also a lot of long-term mistrust, at least unease and still not an awful lot of real policy alignment. I mean, you see President Biden right before this speech announcing tougher "buy American" clauses to ensure that when the US spends trillions of dollars in relief and stimulus, that it goes to the United States and its corporations, and it doesn't go to other countries around the world, no matter how aligned they are. That is much more of an America First policy perspective, and much more unilateralism than the multilateralism that is being touted. But of course, that's a reality for how politics in Washington gets done, especially given how divided and how angry the population is. Europe doing an awful lot of that on issues like trade and technology as well. The US much more worried about China as the principal national security threat out there. Europe, it depends on who you talk to, not so much. Economics, much more important. Certainly, willingness to go after China on values, much, much weaker in the case of Europe these days. And the United States, increasingly not as interested in the Middle East, not like Europe has much of a choice, geographically and that is also going to be an area of tension.

Among other major themes today, climate for sure. Bill Gates, giving a speech drawing comparisons between climate change and global response on pandemic saying, "There is no vaccine for the environment and that we can't wait until it's too late." By the way, I'd add, there's also no vaccine for political divisions inside the United States and Europe. Another big problem, perhaps one that we'll hear Biden say in future speeches. Gates also said that by the end of the century, climate change will kill five times as many people per year as the pandemic is right now. Clearly that is what he is pivoting towards in terms of top priorities now that the vaccines have such a strong kickstart in the United States and increasingly in Europe too.

Also heard today on climate from John Kerry, President Biden's Special Envoy for Climate, it is a cabinet position, a new one, that climate change must be treated as a national security issue. Everyone in the Biden administration is rowing in the same direction on that. By the way, we expect at least two to $3 trillion for green infrastructure after the 1.9 trillion in initial coronavirus relief is passed in the coming weeks. That is an enormously big deal for 2021 made possible because you actually have 50 Democrats in Senate. A lot of that will be paid for by taxes, additional taxes, corporate taxes, taxes on the wealthy, but a lot of that's going to be more deficit financing as well. So, you're going to have your infrastructure year after so much failure for so many decades in the United States for not putting money into that as we see playing out in Texas, for example, right now. Also, Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister calling for building back better and greener after the pandemic, certainly wanting to show how aligned he is with the US and the Biden administration after the shambolic Brexit proceedings over the course of the last five plus years.

Cyber and technology, also a big topic. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen notably calling for ensuring that what is illegal offline is also illegal online and for internet companies to take a lot more responsibility for that. By the way, this is clearly the issue where there's very little alignment between the US and Europe. There is certainly no strategy between the two. I would argue that the Europeans mistrust the United States on tech policy almost as much as they mistrust China, which is quite something and going to be very hard to align this year.

Anyway, the first of several virtual events like this, I'm sure, on the road to Munich 2021, organizers of the conference, very optimistic that an in-person or hybrid event is going to happen later this year. When it does, GZERO will certainly be there to cover it.

Okay, I said I'd answer a couple of your questions. Here we go. I have them from you.

Number one, isn't it in the EU's interest to see more pro-China now that they are their biggest trade partners?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, lots of sharp language about the challenge posed by China across the board and the need to put up better competition. But the Europeans clearly see that on issues of trade and investment, China matters a lot more to them. And unless the United States has a very clear and aligned strategy that is very attractive to the Europeans in the near term, they are going to continue to hedge like crazy. Keep in mind, China's only getting bigger. By 2028, the expectation is that China becomes the largest economy in the world with a very different economic model, a very different political model, a very different technological model, a very different set of standards and architecture. The transatlantic relationship was set up common values, but also security dealing with Russia where actually for the United States, the principal concern now overwhelmingly is China and that's a real serious problem.

Okay. How much does Merkel's departure and Super Mario's arrival matter for US-European relations?

Surprisingly, not a single direct mention of Mario Draghi today. I'm a little shocked about that. I mean, this guy, after Merkel, is the most significant, the most respected leader on the European continent and he has just taken over a big majority as Prime Minister in Italy. This is the best news for one of the largest economies in the EU and he is a super advocate of stronger, more integrated European Union and a strong relationship with the United States. I'm really surprised that there were no callouts about Draghi's. The biggest, biggest mistake in my view made by the leaders speaking today. But I certainly think it will be good for US-EU relations, it will be good for keeping the Europeans closer together. As we know, in Italy, you can never count on governments for long, but this one is good while it lasts.

What will the international community do to ensure universal vaccine equity, particularly where's there's minimal state capacity and/or regime reluctance?

It's going to be tough. It's great that we saw that Joe Biden is committing $2 billion to COVAX with a pledge of an additional $2 billion if others step up. Emmanuel Macron talking about Africa, specifically, calling for a lot more aid to ensure that all healthcare workers there, he says about 6.5 million people, get the vaccine immediately. But the reality is you're getting vaccines to wealthy countries well before it gets to poorer countries, well before it gets to the poorest countries. You're rolling out vaccines, really fast to the wealthy countries, it's extraordinary. Most of the world still hasn't gotten their first jab yet. In most of the world's countries still haven't gotten their first job yet. So, there is an obvious and massive question on vaccine equity and it's going to hurt a lot of the economies of the world pretty stiffly. It's more of an economic issue than a healthcare issue. So many of these countries, very, very young people, which means not many people get really sick. Most of the spread is asymptomatic, but it's going to hurt them in terms of reopening their economies, getting their people to travel, remittances that come from that, all of these challenges, that's a big lift. I hope we'll see more.

So, that's it for me. I hope you enjoyed this. I hope you found the Munich coverage interesting and worthwhile and have a great weekend. Stay safe, stay warm and avoid people.

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