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Transatlantic Take

Do Biden, Merkel, and Macron Agree on the Future for the West?

5 min read
Photo credit: Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock.com
Despite some positive reactions, particularly in Germany, the mood of the transatlantic community remains mixed at best about the major overture from President Joe Biden to the United States’ European allies in

Despite some positive reactions, particularly in Germany, the mood of the transatlantic community remains mixed at best about the major overture from President Joe Biden to the United States’ European allies in his recent speech at the Munich Security Conference. After the four difficult years of the presidency of Donald Trump, Biden, Chancellor Angela Merkel, and President Emmanuel Macron all emphasized the importance of the transatlantic partnership. But they also presented quite different visions, with their main differences focused on three key strategic questions: Is the United States back? What to do about the rise of China? What should be the transatlantic policy toward Russia?

Biden focused in his speech on the theme “America is back”—back as a force for good and for international cooperation, and back as the leading democracy on the world stage. He invited the United States’ transatlantic partners to forge a new deal that would unite Western democracies in a value-based, perhaps almost ideological, struggle with autocracies—mainly China and Russia—at a time of a “historical inflection point.” His was a positive vision of reuniting the democratic West in a struggle with autocratic and anti-democratic regimes. He seemed to have been saying “We can do this; Let’s do this together.”

On China, Biden outlined a reality of a great-power competition, but instead of proposing confrontation he put forward a vision of competing from a position of strength while cooperating on some key common challenges like climate change or the coronavirus pandemic. He emphasized that he does not seek a Cold War with China—thus attempting to reassure Europeans who do not want to live in a such a black-and-white world. Regarding Russia, Biden clearly outlined an agenda of competition—from cyberspace to Ukraine and human rights. The only area of limited cooperation that he mentioned was arms control, including the recently extended New START Treaty.

In short, Biden invited European countries to join a historical struggle between democracies and autocracies for the future direction of the world.

Merkel focused on multilateralism in her speech while hardly mentioning democracy. She listed all the areas where Germany is already doing a lot and recommitted her country to eventually reaching the target of 2 percent of GDP spending on defense. But she did not mention any new areas where Germany is planning to step up, even given the change in the White House from the detested Trump to Biden.

Merkel did align with Biden on the diagnosis of the two main challenges facing the West—China and Russia—but differed significantly on how to approach them. Regarding Russia, she emphasized the need for dialogue while acknowledging it has been undermining the European Union, in a clear reference to the recent disastrous visit of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell to Moscow. China and the Indo-Pacific did not feature high in her speech, but she clearly stressed the importance of Africa for Europe—a theme that was later strongly picked up by Macron.

In short, Merkel did not seem share Biden’s conviction that “America is back.” Hers was a vision more of continuity than of a “historical inflection point.” She made it clear it is good news for multilateralism that Biden sits in the White House, but she seemed also to want to see how this plays out over time. Merkel supported the idea of working together on the big challenges of the day like climate change or the coronavirus pandemic, but there was no eagerness to jump on the bandwagon of a struggle between democracies led by the United States and autocracies led by China.

Macron aligned himself much more with Merkel than with Biden. Like Germany’s chancellor, He emphasized “effective multilateralism” rather than democracy as the key framework for transatlantic cooperation. He pointed to the importance of Africa and proposed sharing European coronavirus vaccines with health workers there in the context of competing in vaccine diplomacy. Strikingly, in his speech Macron did not mention China even once. When he spoke about Russia, like Merkel, he emphasized dialogue rather than competition or deterrence. In fact, he argued for a new security architecture in the transatlantic space—a term often used by Russian officials to undermine NATO—though he also referred to the need for NATO’s new strategic concept.

Macron did not seem to think that the United States is really back in Europe. For him, the country is and will be a Pacific power, and therefore it is important for European countries to take on more responsibility for the security of their neighborhood via the concept of strategic autonomy. And, like Merkel, Macron did not respond to Biden’s invitation to the struggle between democracies and autocracies. He seemed to be saying “We know that China is your problem; we Europeans will take care of our neighborhood by stepping up in Africa, and by holding a dialogue with Russia.”

On the surface, these three speeches in Munich have painted a vision of a transatlantic accord. And the reactions throughout Europe and the United States were largely positive, though certainly not enthusiastic. The reason for this is that there seems to be no deeper agreement on what the transatlantic new deal will look like. On the key strategic questions—Is the United States back? What to do with China and Russia?—Biden and his counterparts in France and Germany are singing from different sheets of music.