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Politics / Issues

Biden Takes His 'America Is Back' Message To The World In Munich Speech

President Biden speaks from the East Room of the White House to virtually address the Munich Security Conference in Germany on Friday.
President Biden speaks from the East Room of the White House to virtually address the Munich Security Conference in Germany on Friday.

President Biden sought to turn the page on the Trump administration's "America First" ethos in a speech to the Munich Security Conference where he tried to repair frayed ties with European allies.

Updated at 11:50 a.m. ET

President Biden on Friday gave his first speech since taking office aimed at an international audience.

Making the case for his plans to turn the page on former President Donald Trump's "America First" ethos, Biden declared: "America is back" to the virtual crowd at the Munich Security Conference — a who's who of global national security officials.

"The United States is determined — determined — to reengage with Europe," Biden said. He called the partnership between Europe and the United States "the cornerstone of all we hope to accomplish in the 21st century."

The president also vowed to the nation's traditional allies that the United States is ready to work with them on issues ranging from arms control, COVID-19, cyberhacking and climate change.

"We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future direction of our world. 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 said.

"Historians will examine and write about this moment. It's an inflection point. And I believe with every ounce of my being that democracy must prevail."

Earlier, he met with G-7 leaders about COVID-19. Both engagements are virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Friday address comes a day after his State Department said the United States would be willing to attend a meeting with European partners and Iran to "discuss a diplomatic way forward on Iran's nuclear program" — the first signs of movement toward talks about rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump had quit. It was not immediately clear whether Iran would agree to meet.

Biden did not lay out a specific timetable for Iran talks. But a senior administration official told reporters ahead of the speech that "we are keen to sit down and hear what the Iranians have to say," adding that with Thursday's invitation to talks, "I think we have a path forward to return to nuclear diplomacy in a way that could ultimately put us on a positive path."

In his speech, Biden sought tocast the past four years as an anomaly and said that he is laying the groundwork for investments at home and around the world that will outlast his time as president.

The president also called out Russia and ask allies to work together to counter its efforts to undermine democracies.

"It's so much easier for the Kremlin to bully and intimidate individual states," Biden said, calling for closer cooperation among friendly nations.

Biden also referenced plans for the United States to chip in $4 billion to COVAX, a fund run by Gavi, the global vaccine alliance, and the World Health Organization, which aims to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to 92 low- and middle-income countries.

In his 2009 address to the Munich conference, when he was vice president, Biden said he wanted to "set a new tone" for America's relations with the world.
Johannes Simon / Getty Images
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In his 2009 address to the Munich conference, when he was vice president, Biden said he wanted to "set a new tone" for America's relations with the world.

Reprising 2009 remarks

For Biden, the Munich Security Conference is a bit of a homecoming. The annual gathering normally sees the world's top national security and military leaders listen to speeches, hold side meetings, and float new ideas for agreements in the nooks and crannies of a plush German hotel.

Biden spent plenty of time over the decades on stage and talking to old friends in hallways when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As vice president, he led three U.S. delegations to the conference, making a pilgrimage there for the Obama administration's first foreign trip in 2009.

That year, he sought to soothe relations strained by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I come to Europe on behalf of a new administration, and an administration that's determined to set a new tone not only in Washington, but in America's relations around the world," Biden said.

On Friday's Biden's main job seemed to beto convince traditional allies in Europe that the United States is a team player after four years of Trump. Charles Kupchan, a former Obama official who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Biden faces a dramatically different environment as weary allies continue to grapple with the political changes in the United States as well as their own countries.

"What is new here is that Americans and Europeans are still in shock about the illiberalism and the populism and the nativism that have infected political life on both sides of the Atlantic," said Kupchan, author of Isolationism: A History of America's Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.

Despite that uncertainty, Biden touched on familiar themes. In 2009, he called on leaders to work with the United States on global challenges such as arms control, Afghanistan and climate change.

Heather Conley, who was a senior official for European issues in the Bush State Department, sees uncanny similarities between the priorities of 2009 and 2021.

"To know that we're going back to those same themes over and over again, it has that feeling, that — particularly during the pandemic of Groundhog Day, the movie — we're waking up and we're repeating those same sentences, those same challenges," she said.

In 2019, Biden returned to Munich as a private citizen when the rift between the United States and traditional allies was on full display. A Munich Security Conference report that year found that the Trump administration displayed an "irritating enthusiasm for strongmen across the globe" and "disdain for international institutions and agreements."

Biden again sought to sooth allies. He urged them to wait Trump out.

"And I promise you, I promise you, as my mother would say, this, too, shall pass. We will be back. We will be back. Don't have any doubt about that," he said, to applause.

NPR political reporter Alana Wise contributed to this report.

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