Two years ago, then US vice-president Mike Pence opened his speech at the Munich Security Conference with greetings from Donald Trump, then waited five seconds for applause that never came.
Shell-shocked delegates at the world’s leading defence gathering were still grappling with Pence’s summary of Trumpian security policy – “peace through strength” – when his predecessor as vice-president took to the conference stage, citing a wise woman.
“I promise you, I promise you, as my mother would say, this too shall pass,” said Joe Biden, a serial Munich attendee, in 2019. “We will be back. We will be back. Don’t have any doubt about that.”
On Friday Biden is indeed back – as US president. Though pandemic travel restrictions mean this will be a video appearance, anticipation is growing over his first major foreign policy speech after just a month in the Oval Office.
Long-term conference watchers expect Biden to focus on extending the transatlantic honeymoon, repairing four years of damage to the US-EU relationship. To those ends, he is likely to revisit his own 2019 address, in which he insisted the US – despite Donald Trump’s outbursts – was not “pulling away from the world and our leadership responsibilities”.
“The America I see is not in wholesale retreat from the interest and values that have guided us time and again, to be willing to shoulder our responsibility of leadership in the 20th century, and we can do that again. We must do that again,” he said. “The American people understand that it’s only by working in co-operation with our friends that we are going to be able to harness the forces of a rapidly changing world.”
As president, Donald Trump questioned the postwar multilateral world order and accused many European Nato members – in particular Germany – of being alliance freeloaders for not meeting their defence spending commitments.
Weary after four erratic years, European defence officials say that, for now at least, they would appreciate less stick and more carrot from Washington.
After taking office Biden described the transatlantic alliance as “sacred” in his first conversation as president with Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg.
Trust is something that can’t be built overnight, it is something that takes time. It takes more than words. It takes action
Ahead of a two-day gathering of alliance defence ministers starting on Wednesday, Stoltenberg praised Biden as someone who “knows Nato very well”.
But a more conciliatory tone, he said, would not change the substance of US demands for “fairer burden-sharing” to tackle “an authoritarian pushback against the rules-based international order” from Russia and China.
“We have seen significant progress and we need to make sure that that continues,” said Stoltenberg.
Ahead of Biden’s Munich address, an unnamed senior US defence source told Reuters that the administration’s priority for now was to rebuild relationships. “Trust is something that can’t be built overnight, it is something that takes time. It takes more than words. It takes action.”
Biden’s Munich audience will hope for additional insights into Washington’s review of a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban, supported by the Trump administration. A particular priority: whether the president supports Stoltenberg’s idea to delay withdrawal of Nato troops by May 1st.
His German audience will be listening closely to how Biden raises Washington’s primary source of tension with Berlin: the Russian-led Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline nearing completion off Germany’s Baltic coast.
Biden has described the project – built by a consortium that includes German, French and Austrian companies headed by Russian state-controlled utility Gazprom – as “a mistake”.
We have learned in a shocking way that there is no such thing as a permanent, long-term guarantee that the US will always have our back
Berlin dismisses claims from the US – and its eastern European neighbours – that the project will increase German energy dependence on Moscow. Instead, government officials say imported gas is an important insurance policy for its manufacturing sector as the country transitions away from nuclear power and coal to renewable energy.
Ahead of Friday’s virtual security conference, its chairman, Wolfgang Ischinger, warned EU member states that Biden’s election must not cause them to sink back into complacency.
“We have learned in a shocking way that there is no such thing as a permanent, long-term guarantee that the US will always have our back,” said Ischinger. “Intelligent Europeans will have to deal with the question: What if in four years’ time a president gets elected who runs in the tracks of Donald Trump?”