WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden delivered a stark warning Friday that “democratic progress is under assault” in much of the world, including the United States and Europe, telling allies that America would challenge authoritarians and seek diplomatic options for problems including Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Biden asserted that democracies will fare better than autocracies in the competitions of the future and promised that the United States would again be an enthusiastic leader among them, as he charted a foreign policy agenda dominated by a post-Trump cleanup campaign.
“I’m sending a clear message to the world: America is back. The transatlantic alliance is back,” Biden said in video remarks to the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of world leaders to discuss matters of war and peace. “And we are not looking backward; we are looking forward, together.”
Biden’s first speech to a global audience as president punctuated his determination to veer sharply from the path set by former president Donald Trump. In just the past two days, Biden has pledged $4 billion to a global vaccine initiative that Trump spurned; officially rejoined the Paris climate accords that Trump pulled out of; and moved to restart talks on the Iran nuclear deal that Trump rejected.
The new president warned of a rise in authoritarianism in many parts of the world and did not spare the threat in the United States, where a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol last month in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Biden from becoming president. He suggested the world faces a fateful choice between autocracy and democracy as the best system to take on sweeping challenges such as the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world. We’re at an inflection point,” Biden said. “I believe that — every ounce of my being — that democracy will and must prevail. We must demonstrate that democracies can still deliver for our people in this changed world.”
After focusing chiefly on domestic priorities in his first month in office, including the pandemic and its economic fallout, Biden flavored his discussion Friday with reminders that the pandemic is a global issue as well.
Speaking to the Munich conference from the White House before a trip to Michigan to tour a vaccine manufacturing site, he stressed the need for international cooperation to end the coronavirus outbreak. And he delivered a similar message in separate closed-door remarks to the Group of Seven large industrial democracies earlier Friday, encouraging other countries to follow his model of big-government investment to turn the tide of the pandemic.
Although Biden never mentioned Trump by name, he cast much of his agenda in deliberate contrast to the defeated Republican — a list of repairs that begins with repudiating the authoritarian model Trump found appealing.
“Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it,” Biden said. “We have to prove that our model isn’t a relic of our history; it’s the single best way to revitalize the promise of our future.”
His appeal to global cooperation and inclusion was an answer to Trump’s populism and isolationism, epitomized in his “America first” slogan. Biden’s pledges to a common defense under NATO and a unified policy on Iran were markers of his return to traditional notions of what America means to Europe and vice versa.
Biden’s central message Friday was that the United States will work “in lockstep” with Europe, where the same nationalist strains that elevated Trump have produced semi-authoritarian leaders in Poland, Hungary and Turkey and where Russia seeks to bully democratically elected leaders.
Trump took Russian President Vladimir Putin at his word that Russia did not meddle in the 2016 U.S. election; Biden flatly said Russia “attacks our democracies and weaponizes corruption to try to undermine our system of governance.”
Trump had basked in praise from Polish President Andrzej Duda, who proposed naming a military base for the American president, and mused about punishing Germany by relocating American forces stationed there. Biden made a point Friday of saying that all U.S. force decisions are on hold.
In announcing the U.S. return to the transatlantic fold, Biden sought to focus on the issues that unite America and Europe, stressing the “existential” threat of climate change and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
He glided over more divisive issues, making little mention of lingering trade frictions and other differences. The European Union inked a trade deal with China just before Biden took office, for example, and several European leaders have taken a far softer stance toward Russia than the new U.S. president.
“This was a homecoming speech — the prodigal American son has returned to the transatlantic family,” said Heather Conley, head of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This was not a time to raise family squabbles or traumas.”
Biden appeared on screen alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron as he wrapped the European leaders in the diplomatic equivalent of a bear hug. Over and over, he reassured allies shunned by Trump that he considers them front-line partners in every major challenge.
The leaders of France and Germany were happy to return the compliment.
“Prospects for multilateralism are a little better than they used to be, and that has a lot to do with Joe Biden being the president of the United States of America,” Merkel said.
She said her country’s troops would stick with America’s if the Biden administration decides to extend its deployment in Afghanistan. She welcomed Biden’s interest in reviving the Iran nuclear deal. And she trumpeted Germany’s rising military spending, one of the biggest areas of contention between the two nations during the Trump presidency.
Macron also played nice, while underscoring that things have changed in Europe as a result of trump’s hostility. Macron has advocated for greater independence from the United States, and like other European leaders, he is wary that U.S. politics could swing back toward isolationism in four years.
Europe would be a stronger partner to Washington if it were less dependent on the United States for its security, Macron said Friday. “It is time for us to take much more of the burden of our own protection,” he said.
Along with relief, European leaders now have high expectations that have to be managed on both sides of the Atlantic, said a senior diplomat, who requested anonymity to describe confidential discussions. The way to do that, the diplomat suggested, is by showing the public the benefits of U.S.-European cooperation.
“The president did not win the election because the American people decided that the one thing missing in the U.S. was love with Europe, right?” said the diplomat. “So we immediately came out with concrete proposals for cooperation, not just nice words. We want to show that the transatlantic relationship delivers on real things that matter to Americans and Europeans.”
Iran’s ability to obtain nuclear weapons is among the most closely watched issues facing Biden as he undoes Trump policies and installs his own. As a candidate, he pledged a conditional return to the 2015 international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear activities, but did not say how he would accomplish that.
That agreement — which also included Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — was former President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy accomplishment. Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, saying it gave too much to the Iranians.
As president, Biden has said that Iran must make the first move by ending uranium enrichment activities that violate the accord. Iran has said it is up to Washington to make the first move by dropping sanctions Trump had reimposed, and it is not entirely clear whether Iran wants to renew talks.
The Biden administration opened the door to talks Thursday, saying it would accept a European invitation to join the other members of the agreement for talks about how both the United States and Iran could return to its fold.
The White House announced Thursday that it would commit $2 billion for the global vaccine initiative known as COVAX and would pledge another $2 billion over the next two years.
“Drawing on our strengths and values as democratic, open economies and societies, we will work together and with others to make 2021 a turning point for multilateralism and to shape a recovery that promotes the health and prosperity of our people and planet,” a joint statement from the G-7 leaders said Friday.
The G-7 leaders are expected to meet in person in Britain in June, and Biden is expected to attend, in what could be his first foreign trip as president.
The White House has not announced any other international travel, and it is likely to be months before Biden hosts any foreign leaders at the White House.
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The Washington Post’s Felicia Sonmez in Washington and Michael Birnbaum in Brussels contributed to this report.