Without setting foot outside the White House, US President Joe Biden arrived on the world stage Friday, not once but twice.
Biden joined virtual meetings in London and Munich, almost inconceivable before the pandemic, with the leaders of his biggest European allies, who also remained closeted in their capitals.
The President was bold. “America is back,” he announced at the annual Munich Security Conference (MSC). And he was generous at a G7 leaders’ meeting chaired by the UK, promising as much as $4 billion for the COVAX initiative, which aims to provide vaccines to low- and middle-income countries.
Yet even by the emerging standards of virtual summits there was a reassuring normality to it all. Last November, Biden’s predecessor President Donald Trump unceremoniously left the virtual G20 world leaders global summit in Riyadh, then next came into sight a short time later playing golf at one of his resorts.
There was none of that on Friday. Everyone was happy to have a virtual Biden in their room, and he bathed in the luxuriant affection.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the President’s host at his first virtual meeting, lathered on his particular brand of charm. “We also want to work together on building back better from the pandemic – a slogan that I think Joe [Biden] has used several times. I think he may have nicked it from us, but I certainly nicked it from somewhere else,” Johnson said, referencing the tagline Biden’s team has used for his economic agenda.
As virtual calls go it was relatively uneventful, with Johnson joking at German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s expense during a microphone faux-pas at the start of the meeting. “Can you hear us Angela? … I think you need to mute,” he quipped from behind an oversized green felted table.
But it worked, both the technology and the event. After all, other than the equipment, what is there to go wrong? In the days of old (early 2020), when reporters could hurl questions at arriving leaders, a misplaced word or two could change the tone of the day, but in the virtual world leaders can dodge close scrutiny.
As the MSC silently slipped in to cyber gear in Germany, the G7 organizers in London sent out a joint leaders’ statement. “We, the leaders of the Group of Seven, met today and resolved to work together to beat COVID-19 and build back better.”
They had agreed on a collective $7.5 billion for vaccines for poorer nations, to accelerate vaccine development, manufacturing and deployment, and improve information sharing about potentially more deadly new Covid-19 variants.
Biden knows the non-virtual MSC very well. He has trod the cramped and crowded corridors of its real-life venue, the 19th century five-star Bayerischer Hof Hotel, for many years and no doubt taken advantage of its myriad meeting rooms to advance American diplomacy.
The charm of the real-deal MSC is bumping in to all manner of movers and shakers. Last February Iran’s Foreign Minister Javid Zarif held court with a dozen or so journalists in what appeared to be one of the hotel’s old brick-vaulted wine cellars.
This year’s virtual event was likely boring by comparison, although if so it didn’t show in Biden’s early delivery, which was forthright, demanding and deserving of attention.
The US President told his allies what they knew already: he wants to work with them, using diplomacy first against the world’s emerging threats.
“We are at an inflection point,” Biden said, with democracy in one direction and autocracy in the other. Though at its core his message was very simple: I am not Donald Trump.
“Our partnerships have endured and grown through the years because they are rooted in the richness of our shared democratic values,” he told the MSC. “They’re not transactional, they’re not extractive. They’re built on a vision of a future where every voice matters. Where the rights of all are protected. And the rule of law is upheld.”
Merkel, Munich’s putative host, was as welcoming as Biden was diplomatically sure-footed. “Multilateralism has been strengthened by US President Biden being in office,” the German leader said just before the virtual event began.
But reading the room, a basic skill of any accomplished politician or diplomat, when you are not actually in it, must have been one of Biden’s biggest challenges during his global debut as US President.
And there were nuances to monitor. Merkel hinted at known differences with Biden over Russia, including how to respond to the arrest of the Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny. “It is very important that we develop a common transatlantic Russia agenda, which on the one hand makes cooperative offers, but on the other hand clearly identifies differences,” she said.
Biden wants the soon-to-open Nord Stream 2 pipeline bringing Russian gas into Europe to be shut down, Merkel does not.
These differences are nothing compared to the gulf between Merkel and Trump but nevertheless – even in this virtual meeting space – there were gaps.
Merkel wasn’t alone in signaling to Biden that the Europe he remembers is not the same one that was represented on Friday’s virtual calls.
French President Emmanuel Macron had an effusive yet cautionary welcome too. “We do have common challenges [with the US], in Africa, in the Middle East, but we have an agenda which can be, not totally different, but, I would say, perhaps not with the same level of priority,” he said.
On China, another area of difference between the US and Europe, Biden wants his allies at his side, telling them: “You know, we must prepare together for a long-term strategic competition with China.”
Had Biden been at a real podium on one of the Bayerischer Hof’s stages, he might have seen some audience shoulders slump at that point. As tired as people were with Trump, a sense of pre-fatigue for what’s to come in America – and not just now with Biden, but possibly more Trumpism – hangs over many Western governments.
Speaking a little after Merkel and Macron, Johnson gave Biden a characteristically ebullient welcome. “America is unreservedly back as the leader of the free world and that is a fantastic thing,” he said. But Johnson has taken the UK out of the EU and if his finger was ever on its pulse it has slipped now.
On the eve of Biden’s big return to the world stage, EU officials in Brussels foreshadowed some angst to come. “We believe that Europe should be able to have its own agreements … we believe that we should engage with China, and not just talk about China but talk to China,” one official said.
It is a small irony likely not lost on Biden that as America’s own democracy was under attack during the US Capitol siege in early January, the EU – the ally he most needs for his “strategic competition” with China – was finalizing a rushed trade deal with China, fed up with being caught in America’s turbulent wake.
As the EU official explained: “We see this as being part of the strategic autonomy of the Union, we have partners, we are defending our values and our interest.”
A hint of tiredness appeared to have crept into Biden’s cadence and timbre by the end of his MSC speech. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the challenges that lie ahead, or perhaps – like many of us – he simply tires of talking to a computer for too long.