Recent days have given a clear sign of how the West is realigning after the Trump era and seeking to re-engage with its challenges.
Within minutes the picture had become an internet sensation. It showed Angela Merkel and other world leaders standing over, and glaring at, a seated Donald Trump, his hands crossed in defiance. It had been posted on Instagram by the office of the German chancellor, not one taken to diplomacy by social media, with the deliciously empty caption: “Day two of the G7 summit in Canada: spontaneous meeting between two working sessions.”
That moment in June 2018, reproduced in memes around the world, helped to define in people’s minds Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy – disdain for democrats, respect for authoritarians, petulant isolationism.
Aides recall that Merkel said on her plane home from Quebec that this was the moment she concluded the American president could not be trusted. When he got home, Trump did what he usually did. He went off to play golf and didn’t think any more about it.
That is why what happened two and a half years later, on February 19, 2021, was so important. Nothing sensational happened, and that was the point.
The Munich Security Conference brings together everyone who is anyone in the political and foreign-policy world. The annual get-together, devoid of much of the corporate swagger of Davos, always an impressive line-up in the Bavarian capital.
The Bayerischer Hof hotel played host again this year, but the speakers were required to appear on video. It was an even more impressive array than usual. Jens Stoltenberg came from Nato; Ursula von der Leyen (Commission president) and Charles Michel (Council president) represented the EU; António Guterres, the secretary-general of the UN, and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organisation, also appeared.
John Kerry and Bill Gates were given slots – as was Boris Johnson, on his own in his very British cordon sanitaire. Star billing was the threesome of Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and, most of all, Joe Biden.
With one short sentence, the president proclaimed a new era. “America is back,” Biden declared, three times, in case the message had not got through. The United States was, he insisted, restored to its rightful role as reliable partner and leader.
“We have to prove that our model isn’t a relic of history. We must demonstrate that democracies can still deliver for our people in this changed world. That is our galvanising mission. Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it. Strengthen it. Renew it.”
Statements such as this might in normal times be dismissed as platitudinous. But in his first run-out at a multilateral forum, Biden needed to state the obvious in order to draw a line with the immediate past.
He didn’t admit it himself, and his hosts and remote audience were far too polite to remind him, but even without Trump American leverage is not what it was. What Biden has called “the power of our example” can be interpreted in an unflattering light – the worst pandemic response and a violent attack on one’s own parliament are more testament to an abrogation of power.
The president’s warm words were well received and reciprocated. But alongside them is a reality of a longer-term loosening of ties. Macron’s concept of “strategic autonomy”, which he confidently set out in front of Biden, is a first step in seeking to manage Europe’s gradual shift away from Washington’s orbit and towards greater self-reliance. Most of his focus so far, and that of the Germans, has been on developing a security strategy for China and across Asia.
Merkel tempered her praise for Biden’s decision to reverse Trump’s announcement of US troops withdrawing from Germany with a warning that “our interests will not always converge”.
It was not hard to read between the lines. She was defending the EU-China outline trade agreement reached in December to the scarcely-veiled fury of Washington. And she was serving notice that she will not easily yield on the highly contentious Nord Stream 2 joint gas pipeline with Russia – whatever other measures are taken to punish Vladimir Putin and his regime.
Meeting in Brussels just three days after the Munich conference, EU foreign ministers agreed on a set of new sanctions against Russia in light of the attempted poisoning and subsequent imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. As ever, the outcome was a compromise between those countries that wanted to take a tougher line (Baltics, Poland and the Nordics) and the doves, led by France and Italy, with the Germans playing their usual role of intermediaries.
In the end they agreed on targeting at least four individuals close to Putin as part of a new framework based on US and UK legislation that allows for the seizure of assets of individuals deemed to be responsible for human rights violations.
The mood in Europe has hardened since the diplomatic roughing up of the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, during a visit to Moscow earlier this month. Russia is almost certain to retaliate, but the latest steps are hardly likely to have Putin quaking in his boots.
The EU meeting included a videoconference with the secretary of state Antony Blinken. He welcomed the sanctions announcement, but he was too polite (this time at least) to say that they fell far short of American expectations.
These first multilateral meetings of the Biden era have helped to clarify the parameters for US-Europe relations. Russia, China and Iran will dominate the diplomatic problem-bucket; Covid-19 and the climate emergency will be the focus of long-term multilateral challenges.
Biden has formally re-joined the Paris climate accord, raising expectations for the COP-26 conference in Glasgow in November. He faces far tougher internal and external obstacles on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran.
Amid intensive diplomatic manoeuvring, Washington and Tehran are involved in a game of who blinks first to revive the deal. Iran is demanding that the US suspends sanctions before returning to negotiations on its nuclear programme. Biden will find it politically fraught to meet Iran’s demands, given that several Democrats in Congress would be likely to vote with the Republicans against any quick or significant loosening of sanctions.
Another issue is bubbling under. Von der Leyen used part of her presentation to invite the US join EU initiatives to regulate the digital market, to “create a digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide”. She added: “We want to make sure that what is illegal offline is also illegal online. And we want clear requirements that internet firms take responsibility for the content they distribute, promote and remove”.
Trump had rejected all attempts to rein in the power of the Silicon Valley giants. Facebook’s blocking of its services in Australia, in retaliation at government attempts to make it pays its dues, has accelerated the mood towards greater regulation.
Biden’s first month in office has seen a blizzard of executive orders. He has been, and will continue to be, consumed by domestic pressures, particularly the pandemic. He has embarked down a long trek to win back trust in America around the world; but he also knows that he cannot erase history or reverse long-term trends. Even if the language remains reassuringly familiar, he cannot wish away the rise of China, or the loss of American influence.
These were accelerated during the Trump years – not caused by them. Europe has begun to understand that too.
Josep Borrell’s recent difficult trip to Moscow has seen the EU foreign policy chief face calls for his removal or resignation.
During his visit, he appeared at a press conference where he failed to push back against Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, who accused EU leaders of lying about the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and called the bloc an “unreliable partner”.
Adding further insult, Borrell learned from Twitter during a working lunch after the news conference that Russia had expelled three EU diplomats, one each from Germany, Sweden and Poland, for attending demonstrations in support of Navalny. Borrell demanded explanations and a reversal of the decision but got neither.
More than 70 MEPs have signed a draft letter to Ursula von der Leyen demanding his resignation or removal, calling the events in Moscow “humiliating” and citing “his failure to stand for the interests and values of the European Union”.
It is not the first time the Spaniard has been accused of being too soft in front of geopolitical rivals. Last April, he was called before the European parliament to answer allegations that his office had watered down a report on disinformation to appease China.
Last month, standing with the Turkish foreign minister in Brussels, Borrell failed to read out prepared remarks expressing concern about “rule of law and human rights”. Instead, he voiced concern “about the situation in Turkey from any point of view”.
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