Opinion - Politics

Op-Ed: Biden sought to rally U.S. allies in Munich, but unity will prove difficult as China's influence grows

Key Points
  • Biden wanted his virtual audience at the Munich Security Conference to hear that global democracies faced a defining moment in their contest with authoritarianism
  • What lurked beneath this moment was a recognition among U.S. and European officials of just how hard it will be to slow China's authoritarian momentum.
  • Biden will need to develop a far more creative, intensive and collaborative approach to its Asian and European allies.
President Joe Biden arrives to deliver remarks as he takes part in a Munich Security Conference virtual event from the East Room at the White House in Washington, February 19, 2021.
Kevin Lemarque | Reuters

It was by design that Joe Biden deployed the term "inflection point" three times in his most significant foreign policy speech as president on Friday. He wanted to ensure the historic weight of his words was not missed.

Above all, he wanted his virtual audience at the Munich Security Conference to hear that global democracies faced a defining moment in their accelerating contest with authoritarianism, and that they dare not underestimate the stakes. It is an argument I have made frequently in this space, but one that had not yet been so clearly articulated by a U.S. president.

"We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world," Biden said to a receptive audience, though it was also an audience unsettled by the sudden, if welcome, shift from the cold shower of President Trump's America First to the global embrace of his successor.

"We are at an inflection point," Biden said, "between those who argue that, given all the challenges we face, from the fourth industrial revolution to a global pandemic, that autocracy is the best way forward … and those who understand that democracy is essential, essential to meeting those challenges."

Biden's image, beamed to Munich from the White House, was symbolically framed on the large screens of the main stage beside German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. After each of their three 15-minute speeches, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had just finished chairing a virtual meeting of G-7 leaders, joined them for the Kumbaya moment.

Wolfgang Ischinger, chair of the Munich Security Conference, had every reason for satisfaction as he convened this reunion of the four allies who had done so much to repair Europe after World War II's devastation. Working with partners, those four countries took the lead in creating the rules-based institutions that have been at the center of global governance for the past 75 years.

Yet what lurked beneath this powerful moment was a growing recognition among senior Biden administration officials and their European counterparts of just how hard it will be to slow China's authoritarian momentum, particularly as it emerges as the first major economy to escape Covid-19, to restore growth, to engage in vaccine diplomacy and to offer the enticement of its some 1.4 billion consumers.

Thus, the Biden administration will need to develop a far more creative, far more intensive, and far more collaborative, give-and-take approach to its Asian and European allies than perhaps ever before. Galvanizing international common cause has seldom been this important, but it also perhaps has never been this difficult.

There are several reasons for that.

First, any U.S. policy must factor in China's role as the leading trading partner for most of America's key partners, including dethroning the United States in 2020 for the first time ever as the European Union's leading trade partner.

That will make most European countries, and in particular Germany, unwilling to consider any thoughts of decoupling from the Chinese economy or entering a new Cold War. The United States must be careful to consider the political and economic needs of its partners—and recognize they are unlikely to adopt a common, coordinated position on China without a cold-hearted calculation of their own national interests.

President Biden usefully factored that into his speech. "We cannot and must not return to the reflexive opposition and rigid blocs of the Cold War," he said. "Competition must not lock our cooperation on issues that affect us all. For example, we must cooperate if we're going to defeat Covid-19 everywhere."

Second, European doubts will persist for some time about the reliability of the American partnership, particularly given former President Trump's continued popularity, the political attraction of his "America First" policies, and his enduring role in Republican politics following his Senate acquittal.

That may result in many European officials hedging their bets.

 A new survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations showed that although 57% of respondents saw Biden's victory as beneficial for the European Union, some 60% believe China will become more powerful than the U.S. over the next decade and 32% feel the U.S. can no longer be trusted.

Third, the Biden administration and its European partners must work to solve or head off strains across unsolved issues so that they don't sour the chance of a fresh start. These range from continued Trump administration tariffs and sanctions to Airbus-Boeing trade disputes to German-U.S. fights over the completion of the North Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Western Europe.

Work on completing the pipeline from Russia stopped last year, though $10 billion has been invested and the project is 94% complete, due to U.S. secondary sanctions.

In particular, the Biden administration must work proactively with EU leaders to head off looming fights over how best to manage and regulate the influence of America's technology giants, including questions of competition policy, of data management, of privacy and of digital taxation.   

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told CNBC that President Biden would be an "ally" in fighting disinformation online and stepping up the rules on how tech firms operate. However, growing EU talk about "digital sovereignty" underscores the potential for digital conflict across the Atlantic.

Finally, the Biden administration's reluctance to engage in new trade negotiations—and a lack of a sufficient Democratic or Republican constituency for such deals—will leave the United States competing with Beijing with a hand tied behind its back.

In the meantime, China has been reaching out to Asian partners through the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and a new EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI).  

The thing about historic inflection points is they can turn in positive or negative directions with generational consequences. President Biden has usefully alerted us to our defining moment. So, there can be no excuse now if the U.S. and its global partners fail to engage in the hard work required in rising to this epochal challenge.   

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States' most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper's European edition. His latest book – "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week's top stories and trends.

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