The start of America’s 2020 election was just under a year away. The world had not yet been brought to a standstill by a global pandemic, but thanks to Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda, tensions on both sides of the ocean had not been higher in decades.
But Mr Biden, then simply a former vice president of the United States who said his role that day was merely to “speak as a citizen,” vowed that better days would come.
“I promise you, as my mother would say: This too shall pass, we will be back, we will be back,” he said.
Now, seven hundred and thirty-three days and 2.4 million pandemic-induced deaths later, Mr Biden will return on Friday to the annual gathering of national security and military leaders as his country’s head of state, to deliver a report that was once a watchword of his defeated predecessor’s reelection campaign: Promise made, promise kept.
“He will get the opportunity as president of the United States, early in his term, to declare that America is back, the transatlantic alliance is back, and he will look forward to driving home the core proposition that the transatlantic alliance is a cornerstone for American engagement in the world in the 21st century,” said a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the president’s plans late Thursday.
Unlike the last time Mr Biden addressed the conference, he will not actually be in Munich.
With travel and large in-person gatherings curtailed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, now-President Biden will deliver remarks not to a room full of Europe’s foremost national security experts, but to a camera in the White House’s East Room which will beam his words to virtual participants all over the world.
His virtual appearance will be his second such event that day, and will take place shortly after he addresses his fellow Group of Seven heads of government and unveils a $2 billion aid package for the WHO-backed Covax coronavirus vaccine financing vehicle.
The unprecedented circumstances presented by the global pandemic are just one of the challenges he will address in his remarks.
According to the senior administration official, Mr Biden will tell attendees that “the debate over whether we need to focus on great power competition or transnational challenges misses the point”.
“We have got to be able to tackle both sets of challenges at the same time, and that is going to require the major democracies of the world — the major market economies of the world —working together in concert to both deal with great power competitors like China and Russia, and to deal with significant global challenges, from climate, to nuclear proliferation, to global health to cyber, among others,” he said.
Foremost among those challenges, the official said, is “an ongoing debate about whether autocracies or democracies are better positioned to deliver positive results for their people, and positive results for the world.”
The president, he said, will come down firmly on the side of the world’s democracies with “strong and competent case that democracy is the model that can best meet the challenges of our time, as long as we make the investments in our sources of strength, and renew those sources of strength for the future.”
But Mr Biden will have to reassure a European bloc that is shell-shocked after enduring four years of now-former President Donald Trump’s attacks on both the European Union and the Nato alliance.
Mr Trump, often bragged of having closer relationships with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other dictators, and frequently spoke of the North Atlantic Treaty as if it were the charter for a mafia-style protection racket.
He will also have to convince allies that America’s commitment to democracy remains firm in the wake of the 6 January attack on the US Capitol by pro-Trump insurrectionists, and that the United States is up to the task of confronting adversarial powers who seek to undermine the legitimacy of western-style democracy.
Yet the official said that Mr Biden is prepared to do exactly that. In particular, the official said he intends to call out Russia for “what he believes is a concerted effort by the Kremlin to carry out a strategy to discredit, undermine, and destabilize democracies,” and will also “call upon our democratic allies and partners to stand with the United States in both creating resilience within our own societies, and also in pushing back aggressively against malign actions by Russia” and other anti-democratic actors.
“The President will indicate his very strong view that the United States has a deep set of enduring strengths that transcend what we have seen over the course of the past four years, and that the kind of investments he’s talking about making — in our people, in our democracy, in a fair and balanced economy — will set the groundwork of not just American engagement in the world, but a more sustained effective cohesive American body politic,” he said.
And while the official said Mr Biden will acknowledge that “democratic institutions are under stress…in the United States, in parts of Europe, and other parts of the world,” he will use that acknowledgment as a “jumping-off point” for a call to “renew and strengthen our democratic institutions” both in America and the world over, with an aim toward proving that “democracy is the model that can ultimately deliver best for its’ citizens and for the progress of humanity.”
“He actually believes deeply that it is never a good bet to bet against the United States, and that many of the things we saw over the last four years do not reflect what this country is all about,” he said.
“And now with the right set of investments and the right spirit of leadership, we can put the United States on a sustainable path that will last over the course of many years to come.”
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