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What America’s Allies Want and Need to Hear from Biden

The president's speech at the Munich Security Conference offers an opportunity to repair transatlantic relations, in part by addressing sources of tension directly.
February 18, 2021
What America’s Allies Want and Need to Hear from Biden
Joe Biden points during a panel discussion at the Munich Security Conference in 2019. (Photo by Christof STACHE / AFP) (Photo by CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP via Getty Images)

President Biden will be making his first appearance as president before a largely European audience, albeit virtually, when he delivers remarks for the Munich Security Conference on Friday. With transatlantic relations frayed after the Obama and Trump administrations, Biden should address the tensions in the relationship directly while recommitting to working cooperatively and closely with America’s European allies. He could do so by saying something like this:

I’m pleased to return, even if remotely, to the Munich Security Conference, a forum I have attended many times when I was a U.S. senator and as vice president. I fondly recall traveling to Munich many times with the late Sen. John McCain in a bipartisan display of support for vibrant transatlantic relations.

I know the past few years have been a rocky time in our relationship. I acknowledge that even when I was vice president, the “pivot” to Asia did not sit well in European capitals. But I promise you, as I did recently in remarks at the U.S. Department of State, that diplomacy is back. I pledge that I will not denigrate our friends and allies in Europe. I pledge full U.S. support to NATO, the greatest defensive alliance in history. In calls to many of your leaders, I have affirmed that America’s partnership with the European Union and NATO forms “the cornerstone of our collective security and shared democratic values.”

I have said that when Americans unite, together there is nothing we cannot do. I believe the same applies to U.S.-European relations. Together we represent over 800 million people, and our countries host enormous resources and potential. When the United States and Europe act in concert, we can do great things for our own people and for billions around the world.

The previous administration bears a sizable share of the blame for tensions in the relationship, and I’m aware that many Europeans “think the U.S. political system is broken, and that Europe cannot just rely on the U.S. to defend it.” I acknowledge that, in the past few years, the United States has given our European allies reason for pause.

At the same time, our friends in Europe need to look in the mirror. After all, many Americans these days have questions about the EU and Europeans’ commitment to NATO. Restoring this relationship is a two-way street and requires our friends across the Atlantic to address some issues that raise concern here in the United States. None of our systems is perfect, but we must work together to achieve greater results.

We both need to come together in addressing the serious challenge posed by the Chinese Communist Party and Putin’s Russia. The EU’s late December trade deal with China complicates that goal; so does some European allies’ willingness to accept China’s Huawei 5G network, despite security and surveillance concerns. The Chinese leadership’s egregious human rights abuses against the Uyghurs and its ugly crackdown against the citizens of Hong Kong are well known, as is China’s use of economic and military bullying. China often commits to international standards—and then usually just ignores them.

We must not let mercantilism triumph over principles. And let me reassure those Europeans who believe that China will be “more powerful than the U.S. within a decade”—that isn’t going to happen. We must work together—the United States and Europe—in facing the challenge posed by the Chinese Communist Party.

When it comes to addressing the threat posed by the current Russian leadership, I told President Putin in a recent phone call that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions—interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, committing assassinations with chemical weapons in European cities—are over. As I said recently, “we will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia and defend our vital interests and our people. And we will be more effective in dealing with Russia when we work in coalition and coordination with other like-minded partners.”

That is especially true in light of the poisoning and politically motivated arrest of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, the growing repression inside Russia, and its ongoing aggression against Ukraine. Together, we should be pressing for Navalny’s immediate and unconditional release, and Russia’s withdrawal from Georgia and Ukraine, including Crimea—otherwise we should move forward with tougher sanctions.

A bipartisan consensus in Congress and my administration both oppose completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is to run directly from Russia to Germany, obviating the need for transit of Russian gas through Ukraine. This pipeline would deprive Ukraine of nearly $3 billion per year in transit fees and increase Europe’s dependence on Russian energy supplies.

I know my predecessor’s approach in pressing NATO allies to increase their defense spending did not go over well. That said, I support the push to have NATO allies live up to their 2006 commitment to spend at least two percent of their GDP on defense by 2024. To date, only eight European allies, along with the United States, have fulfilled this pledge. That is not sustainable.

Let me also raise the decision by EU member states last month that they no longer consider Juan Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela, downgrading his status as an interlocutor. This decision followed fraudulent elections orchestrated by the discredited Nicolas Maduro, and the EU’s action lends legitimacy to Maduro’s efforts to illegally extend his power. I stand with the European Parliament, which voiced its opposition to this move. We must stand with those fighting for democracy and human rights, from Hong Kong and Minsk to Moscow and Caracas—and even places like the Western Balkans.

As you know, I moved quickly to return the United States to the Paris Climate Accords and the World Health Organization. I also look forward to working with our European friends and allies to address the challenge posed by Iran. We will have our share of disagreements, but we must stay united on matters of principle and commit to working jointly to face our common challenges. Together, the United States and Europe can do great things.

Robert S. Gelbard and David J. Kramer

Robert S. Gelbard is a retired diplomat who served as assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs and special envoy to the Balkans. David J. Kramer is Managing Director for Global Policy at the George W. Bush Institute and served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the George W. Bush administration.