Politics and Government

Biden takes his 'America's back' message to the world in Munich speech

In 2019, Joe Biden sought to soothe strained U.S.-European relations at the Munich Security Conference. On Friday, as president, he'll try again.
When he became vice president, Joe Biden sought to soothe strained U.S.-European relations at the Munich Security Conference. On Friday, as president, he'll try again.
Christof Stache | AFP via Getty Images

President Joe Biden on Friday is set to give his first speech since taking office that is aimed at an international audience.

He will make his case for his plans to turn the page on former President Donald Trump's 'America First' ethos — and try to convince traditional allies that the United States is ready to work with them on issues ranging from arms control, COVID-19, cyber hacking and climate change.

The address will be a "broad-ranging, confident clarion call to have the transatlantic partnership and alliance stand up and stand together to try to generate progress against the significant challenges that we face collectively," a senior administration official told reporters.

Biden is set to address the Munich Security Conference at 10:15 a.m., a who's who of global national security officials. Earlier, he will meet with G-7 leaders about COVID-19. Both engagements are virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Watch Biden’s address at 10:15 a.m.

It 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.

In his speech, Biden "will not get into specifics about timetables" for Iran talks but will say "we look forward to engaging in diplomacy," a senior administration official told reporters ahead of the speech. "We are keen to sit down and hear what the Iranians have to say. We want to come up with a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear program, and let's get to work. And with the EU invitation from today, I think we have a path forward to return to nuclear diplomacy in a way that could ultimately put us on a positive path," the official said.

Biden will cast the past four years as an anomaly, and say that he is laying the groundwork for investments at home and around the world that will outlast his time as president. "Let me make clear that the focus of his speech tomorrow is not Donald Trump or what happened over the last four years," the official said.

He plans to call out Russia and ask allies to work together to counter its efforts to undermine democracies, the official said. "He will specifically talk to what he believes is a concerted effort by the Kremlin to carry out a strategy to discredit, undermine and destabilize democracies," the official said.

At the G-7, he will announce the United States will 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.
In his 2009 address to the Munich conference, when he was vice president, Joe Biden said he wanted to "set a new tone" for America's relations with the world.
Johannes Simon | Getty Images 2009

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 will be to 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 is expected to touch 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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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