Biden Pleads for Democracy Over Autocracy, Repudiating Trump

Biden to Plead for Democracy Over Autocracy in Pivot from Trump

President Joe Biden urged U.S. allies to uphold democracy in his first major speech to an international audience on Friday, warning that the world faces an “inflection point” in history that could result in a tilt toward autocracy.

“We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future direction of our world,” Biden said in remarks delivered remotely to the Munich Security Conference. “Between those who argue that -- given all of the challenges we face, from the fourth industrial revolution to a global pandemic -- autocracy is the best way forward and those who understand that democracy is essential to meeting those challenges.”

Biden Pleads for Democracy Over Autocracy, Repudiating Trump

The new U.S. president seeks to persuade other industrialized democracies that his country is ready to repair alliances and work collectively to confront global challenges, abandoning the “America First” posture of the Trump administration. In the opening minutes of his speech, Biden committed to observe NATO’s mutual defense guarantee, known as Article 5 -- something former President Donald Trump initially declined to do while president, sparking controversy.

“We’ll keep faith with Article 5,” Biden said. “It’s a guarantee. An attack on one is an attack on all. That is our unshakable vow.”

Biden also said he had ordered a halt to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Germany that Trump directed shortly before leaving office, a move interpreted by the U.S. ally as a snub of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who was an occasional foil for the former president.

Unlike his predecessor -- who often complained that the U.S. had been exploited by its partners and demanded trade and defense concessions from longtime allies -- Biden argued that partnerships “rooted in the richness of our shared democratic values” would pay the greatest dividends. U.S. relationships “are not transactional” or “extractive,” an implicit repudiation of former President Donald Trump.

Domestic strife in the U.S. and Europe has left “democratic progress under assault,” Biden warned.

“We must demonstrate that democracies can still deliver for our people,” Biden said. “That is our galvanizing mission. Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it. Fight for it. Strengthen it. Renew it.”

“We have to prove that our model isn’t a relic of history,” he said.

The president’s plea for multilateralism -- which followed a closed-door meeting of Group of Seven leaders on Friday to discuss the pandemic response, Biden’s first as president -- follows U.S. announcements that it will rejoin international institutions and agreements rejected by Trump.

“The change of government in the U.S. has strengthened multilateralism,” Merkel said at a news conference after the G-7 meeting. “The first decisions of the Biden administration have already shown that.”

Friday marks the official return of the U.S. to the Paris Climate Agreement, a multination pact designed to limit global warming. Biden invited other world leaders to participate in an April 22 climate summit to mark Earth Day.

And on Thursday, the State Department said the U.S. would be willing to meet with European partners and Iran to discuss restoring the agreement brokered during the Obama administration to prevent the Islamic Republic from attaining nuclear weapons.

Trump pulled out of the pact, which he said provided too much financial relief without enough concessions from Tehran, and imposed new sanctions on Iran. That prompted the longtime U.S. adversary to accelerate uranium enrichment efforts, which it has said it will cease if Biden first lifts Trump’s sanctions.

While Biden’s speech didn’t include specific timetables for returning to the Iran deal, senior administration officials said the U.S. hoped the gesture signaled a sincere willingness to find a diplomatic solution.

Biden is also expected to ask foreign leaders to match his efforts to make large investments in economic stimulus, infrastructure and technology as he seeks congressional approval for a $1.9 trillion relief package back at home.

“We must prepare together for a long-term strategic competition with China,” Biden said. “We can own the race for the future, but to do so we have to be clear-eyed about the historic investments and partnerships this will require.

He said that Chinese companies must be required to operate in the global economy under the same rules of transparency that apply to Western businesses.

“We have to push back against the Chinese government’s abuses and coercion that undercut the fundamental values of the international economic system,” he said.

The U.S. also announced Friday that it will contribute as much as $4 billion for low- and middle-income countries to acquire coronavirus vaccines through a World Health Organization alliance known as Covax. The administration will match some of that assistance -- to be distributed over the next two years -- to other contributions, in a bid to step up Western aid for vaccinations.

Other G-7 leaders also announced their intention to donate to the Covax project, though some have voiced concern that nations like the U.S. -- which has said it will only donate actual doses after its own population is fully vaccinated -- are making it tougher for poor countries to secure vaccines, particularly from Western manufacturers.

Biden also addressed additional international security challenges, including global competition with Russia and China, cybersecurity, nuclear proliferation and the pending U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. But a senior administration official said the U.S. has not yet decided how, or if, it will implement Trump’s order to cut U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan and remove the remaining 2,500 American forces by May 1, with some officials worried that following through could further embolden the Taliban or endanger NATO forces still in the country.

Biden stands to gain international applause simply by re-engaging with allies and by making traditional declarations of U.S. commitments to mutual defense.

Just 10% of Europeans believe the U.S. would intervene on their behalf during a military crisis, according to a survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations. Nearly six in 10 Europeans surveyed said they would want their country to remain neutral in a conflict between the U.S. and either Russia or China.

Still, some European leaders remain skeptical that the U.S. president’s “middle class” foreign policy will sharply depart from Trump’s “America First” approach, particularly when it comes to trade confrontations.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.