Biden renews defense pledge to Europe but warns of democratic ‘inflection point’

President: Democracies must demonstrate that they can still deliver

President Joe Biden delivers remarks at a virtual event hosted by the Munich Security Conference in the East Room of the White House on Friday. (Getty Images)
President Joe Biden delivers remarks at a virtual event hosted by the Munich Security Conference in the East Room of the White House on Friday. (Getty Images)
Posted February 19, 2021 at 6:06pm

In his first major address to European allies, President Joe Biden on Friday sought to reassure them of the U.S. commitment to mutual defense while also acknowledging the long-term challenges to democracies throughout Europe and America, which he said were facing “an inflection point.”

“I speak to you today as president of the United States at the very start of my administration, and I’m sending a clear message to the world,” Biden said in remarks from the White House. “America is back. The Trans-Atlantic alliance is back. And we are not looking backward. We are looking forward together.”

The president reaffirmed U.S. commitment to the bedrock principle of mutual defense that undergirds the NATO alliance, which former President Donald Trump repeatedly called into question.

“We’ll keep faith with Article 5, it’s a guarantee. An attack on one is an attack on all. That is our unshakeable vow,” Biden said.

He listed several ways in which his administration — less than a month old — has broken decisively with Trump’s “America First” foreign policies. They included lifting a cap imposed by the previous administration on the number of U.S. troops that can be based in Germany while halting Trump’s ordered withdrawal of forces from the country; extending the New START arms control treaty with Russia for the maximum allowable five years; and rejoining the Paris Climate agreement.

[U.S. will pay $200 million in overdue and current dues to WHO]

Biden also used the event to announce the United States was pledging a total of $4 billion, including an initial $2 billion commitment, to the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative, which seeks to collectively finance and distribute coronavirus vaccines around the world, particularly in developing countries.

The U.S. Agency for International Development said the funding was going through Gavi, a multilateral public-private immunization campaign that has received U.S. taxpayer support for years. Congress appropriated the $4 billion in emergency funding for Gavi in its fiscal 2021 omnibus spending law, which was passed in December. In one of his last acts as president, Trump tried to cancel that funding, but that action was quickly reversed by Biden.

“This contribution will support the purchase and delivery of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines for the world’s most vulnerable and at-risk populations, including frontline health care workers,” said acting USAID Administrator Gloria Steele in a Friday statement. “This support is critical to controlling the pandemic and slowing the emergence of new variants as well as helping restart the global economy, all of which will ultimately benefit the American people.”

Steele said the U.S. government would provide additional funding through 2022 and would work to persuade other donors to also make contributions to COVAX, which is facing a multibillion-dollar shortfall in its fundraising goals.

Fragile democracies

In another break from Trump, who frequently cheered on autocratic rulers in Turkey, the Philippines, Egypt and elsewhere, Biden spoke passionately about the vulnerabilities facing democracies around the world.

“We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world. We’re at an inflection point 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,” he said. “I believe that — every ounce of my being — that democracy will and must prevail. We must demonstrate that democracies can still deliver for our people in this changed world. That, in my view, is our galvanizing mission.”

Biden did not dwell in his remarks on issues in which Washington is divided from European partners, such as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would transport Russian natural gas to Germany and other European countries. Congress is especially hostile to the project and has passed laws that require the sanctioning of foreign businesses that assist in the construction of the 1,200 kilometer underwater pipeline.

But Germany, which would see its annual imports of Russian natural gas doubled once Nord Stream 2 is operating, has been skeptical of Washington’s warnings that the pipeline would make it too vulnerable to potential energy blackmail by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some German officials see an ulterior business motive in Washington’s opposition to the pipeline, stemming from the surge in recent years of exports of American liquefied natural gas to European countries.

Biden didn’t mention any of those dynamics, though he did compliment German Chancellor Angela Merkel, calling her a “good friend” and "outstanding leader.”

Just prior to delivering his speech, Biden participated in a video call with Merkel and the other leaders of the Group of 7 leading industrialized nations.

State Department spokesman Ned Price on Friday declined to detail whether Biden broached the Nord Stream 2 issue with Merkel.

“I wouldn’t want to characterize private discussions but I am happy to reiterate where we are on this: Our allies know this … we’ve been clear for some time that Nord Stream 2 is a bad deal and that companies risk sanctions if they are involved,” he told reporters.

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