Is the Transatlantic Partnership Back on Track? Lessons from the Munich Security Conference

Every year, the Munich Security Conference is the must-attend event for the transatlantic community and beyond. This year, the conference had to deal with the current health constraints, organizing a special virtual edition focused on the transatlantic partnership, which included the participation of President Joe Biden and his French, German, and British (E3) counterparts. Entitled “Beyond Westlessness: Renewing Transatlantic Cooperation, Meeting Global Challenges,” this timely event provided an opportunity to take the temperature of the transatlantic relationship at the outset of the new U.S. administration.

Q1: What was the main message imparted by President Biden and European Leaders?

A1: President Biden's first and main message was to reassure Europeans that “the United States is back.” Specifically, he articulated the United States' unwavering commitment to NATO and its collective defense commitment and to multilateralism. His words in this regard could not have been stronger: “The transatlantic alliance is the strong foundation on which our collective security and our shared prosperity are built. The partnership between Europe and the United States is, and must remain, the cornerstone of all that we hope to accomplish in the 21st century.”

All European speakers welcomed this stated reengagement, with UK prime minister Boris Johnson enthusiastically declaring that “America is unreservedly back as leader of the free world and that is a fantastic thing.” They unanimously stressed that Biden's election opened a unique window of opportunity to rebuild a transatlantic partnership based on common values and committed to multilateralism. Thanks to Biden’s election win, “prospects for multilateralism are much better this year,” outlined Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The European speakers also underlined their desire for a rebalanced transatlantic partnership in which Europe would take greater responsibility for its security. President Emmanuel Macron explained that Europeans had to “provide the evidence to the U.S. that [they] are reliable and responsible partners” before adding that “having an EU much more invested in defense” would “make NATO even stronger.” The German, French, and British leaders all cited their successful efforts to increase defense spending as an illustration of this rebalancing. Prime Minister Johnson widened the aperture by calling for a “coalition of innovation and openness” that includes not only North America and Europe, but also likeminded partners in the Indo-Pacific region, such as India, South Korea, and Australia.

Q2: In what areas were transatlantic priorities most aligned?

A2: The speakers were most aligned in their shared belief in the importance of a strong transatlantic relationship and multilateralism for successfully meeting current and future challenges. They agreed on the importance of a strong NATO and European Union, with President Biden indicating that “the United States will work closely with our European Union partners . . . to meet the range of shared challenges we face.” Chancellor Merkel observed that the United States had quickly backed its words with actions by rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, World Health Organization, and UN Human Rights Council and renewing the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) treaty. Transatlantic dialogue has already been incredibly packed in recent days with the NATO Defense Ministerial; Secretary of State Blinken's meeting with his E3 counterparts; and Secretary Blinken’s participation in the EU Foreign Affairs Council and the G7 Summit.

All speakers stressed the need for a coordinated transatlantic response to Covid-19 and climate change, two pressing global challenges that were at the top of agenda of the G7 meeting. President Biden and his European counterparts announced major contributions to the COVAX initiative designed to facilitate the distribution of vaccines to emerging countries. President Macron underlined that this initiative would need to provide quick results, notably to the 6.5 million health workers in Africa. On climate, all speakers underscored the urgency of action. President Biden announced his intent to hold a summit on Earth Day and encourage joint investment on climate-related innovation. Prime Minister Johnson mentioned that the United Kingdom as host of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, will use the gathering to rally more countries around the “net zero by 2050” goal.

Major regional crises were also mentioned, starting with Afghanistan, where the U.S. administration must decide in the coming weeks on the future of its military presence. President Biden reiterated that the United States would consult closely with its NATO allies and ensure that Afghanistan does not become a “base for terrorist attacks” again. Chancellor Merkel specified that Germany was “prepared to stay longer if it is in the interest of the success of the mission.” On Iraq, President Biden praised the decision taken last week by defense ministers to expand NATO’s training mission, which he called “vital to the ongoing fight against Daesh,” using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. The German chancellor spoke at length about stability and terrorism in the Sahel, Libya, and Syria, where transatlantic coordination and UN support will be essential to successfully combat these challenges. Finally, all speakers alluded to the revived negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, an issue discussed extensively between Secretary Blinken and his E3 counterparts on February 18.

Q3: Were there any differences in the U.S. and European approaches?

A3: President Biden and his European counterparts all called for the creation of a "joint agenda" on Russia and China. As the details of these agenda are worked out, differences in the U.S. and European approaches could emerge.

President Biden presented competition with Moscow and Beijing as a struggle for democratic values. On Russia, he denounced the “weaponization” of corruption by the Kremlin as well as “Russian reckless hacking into [our] computer networks.” Chancellor Merkel also called out Russia’s hybrid activities, and Prime Minister Johnson referred to Russia’s “attempted murder” of Alexei Navalny. In contrast, President Macron did not call out any specific aspects of Russia’s malign behavior in his statement.

On China, Biden warned that “competition is going to be stiff” and pleaded for transatlantic cooperation to “establish norms,” push back against Chinese “economic abuses and coercion,” and ensure the “same standards for all.” The British prime minister took a much stronger line. He stressed that London had “consistently spoken out against China’s repression of the Uighur people” and recalled that the United Kingdom was “the first European country to sanction senior figures in Belarus.”

At the same time, President Biden tempered his strong remarks on Russian and Chinese behavior with the assertion that “competition must not crowd out cooperation on issues of mutual concern” such as climate, global health, and nonproliferation. The German chancellor and French president shared this perspective, and even went a step further by highlighting the need to preserve some form of dialogue with both China and Russia. Chancellor Merkel stressed that engaging China was inevitable in order to “settle global problems” such as climate change and biodiversity, and Macron stated that dialogue with Russia was necessary to build a “security agenda” in Europe, particularly on arms control issues.

On the whole, it remains to be seen whether the balance of a hardline approach and dialogue with regard to Moscow and Beijing will be consistent between the United States and Europe, or even across Europe itself. To avoid any strategic divergence between the two sides of the Atlantic, rich and meaningful conversations will be indispensable in the coming months to define this shared approach.

Q4: What is the bottom line?

A4: Going forward, the United States, Europe, and their like-minded partners will need to demonstrate, both at home and abroad, that democracy can achieve results or, as President Macron put it, deliver “effective multilateralism.” While there will inevitably be differences of opinion and approach from time to time, the current transatlantic consensus on the value of multilateralism and importance of the transatlantic relationship, combined with broad alignment on the most pressing global and regional security challenges, bodes well for the years ahead.

Pierre Morcos is a visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Rachel Ellehuus is deputy director and senior fellow with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Rachel Ellehuus

Pierre Morcos