Biden joined virtual meetings in London and Munich, almost inconceivable before the pandemic, with the leaders of his biggest European allies, who also remained locked in their capitals.
The president was brave. “America is back,” he announced at the annual Munich Security Conference (MSC). And he was generous at a meeting of UK-led G7 leaders, pledging up to $ 4 billion for the COVAX initiative, which aims to provide vaccines in low- and middle-income countries.
There were none of those on Friday. Everyone was happy to have a virtual Biden in their room, and he bathed in a lush love.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the President’s host at his first virtual meeting, chose his own particular brand of charm. “We also want to work together to better recover from the pandemic – a slogan I think Joe [Biden] has used several times. “I think he may have accepted it from us, but I certainly sucked it from somewhere else,” Johnson said, referring to Biden’s main team he has used for his economic agenda.
As the virtual calls went, it was relatively vague, with Johnson joking at the expense of German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a faux-behind microphone at the start of the meeting. “Can you hear us Angela? … I think you should be silent,” he replied from behind a large green table.
But it worked, both the technology and the event. After all, apart from the equipment, what is wrong? In the old days (early 2020), when reporters could ask questions of incoming executives, one or two wrong words could change the tone of the day, but in the virtual world leaders could avoid close observation.
As the MSC slipped silently into cyber gear in Germany, G7 organizers in London sent a statement to the joint leaders. “We, the leaders of Group Seven, met today and decided to work together to beat COVID-19 and build better.”
They had agreed on a $ 7.5 billion collection of vaccines for poor countries, to accelerate the development, production and placement of vaccines, and to improve the sharing of information about potentially more deadly new Covid-19 variants.
Biden knows non-virtual MSC very well. He has traversed the narrow and crowded corridors of his country in real life, the five-star 19th-century Bayerischer Hof hotel, for many years and has undoubtedly benefited from its countless meeting rooms for advance American diplomacy.
The charm of MSC with real deal is colliding with all sorts of movers and oscillators. Last February Iranian Foreign Minister Javid Zarif held a trial with a dozen or more journalists in what appeared to be one of the old brick arched wine cellars.
This year’s virtual event is likely to be boring by comparison, though if so, it was not shown in Biden’s early submission, which was straightforward, demanding and deserving of attention.
The American president told his allies what they already knew: he wants to work with them, using diplomacy first against the evolving threats of the world.
“We are at a turning point,” Biden said, with democracy in one direction and autocracy in the other. Though basically his message was very simple: I am not Donald Trump.
“Our partnerships have endured and grown over the years because they are rooted in the richness of our shared democratic values,” he told MSC. “They are not transactional, they are not extractive. They are built on a vision of a future where every voice matters. Where everyone’s rights are protected. And the rule of law is upheld.”
Merkel, the alleged host of Munich, was just as hospitable as Biden was a confident diplomat. “Multilateralism has been strengthened by US President Biden in office,” the German leader said shortly 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 President of the United States.
And there were nuances to monitor. Merkel hinted at known differences with Biden over Russia, including the way she responded to the arrest of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny. “It is very important for us to develop a common transatlantic Russia agenda, which on the one hand makes cooperative offers, but on the other hand clearly identifies the changes,” she said.
Biden wants the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which soon opens Russian gas to Europe, to be shut down, but Merkel does not.
These changes are nothing compared to the gap between Merkel and Trump, but nevertheless – even in this virtual meeting space – there were gaps.
Merkel was not alone in signaling to Biden that the Europe she remembers is not the same one that was represented in Friday’s virtual calls.
French President Emmanuel Macron also had an expectant but also warning reception. “We have common challenges [with the US], in Africa, in the Middle East, but we have an agenda which may be, not entirely different, but, I would say, perhaps not with the same level of priority, “he said.
Regarding China, another area of difference between the US and Europe, Biden wants his allies to be close to him, telling them: “You know, we need to prepare together for a long-term strategic competition with China.”
Had Biden been on a real podium in one of the Bayerischer Hof scenes, he could have seen some of the audience shrugging at that point. No matter how tired people were with Trump, a sense of pre-fatigue about what would come to America – and not just now with Biden, but perhaps even more Trumpism – depends on many Western governments.
Speaking shortly after Merkel and Macron, Johnson gave Biden a characteristically vague welcome. “America has unreservedly returned as the leader of the free world and that is a fantastic thing,” he said. But Johnson has pulled the UK out of the EU and if his finger has ever been on its pulse, it has slipped now.
On the eve of Biden’s big comeback on the world stage, EU officials in Brussels warned of future anger. “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,” an official said.
It’s a small irony that he probably has not lost on Biden that while America’s own democracy was under attack during the siege of the US Capitol in early January, the EU – the ally most in need of “its competition strategic “with China – was hastily finalizing a trade deal with China, tired of being busy on America’s troubled threshold.
As the EU official explained: “We see this as part of the Union’s strategic autonomy, we have partners, we are defending our values and interests.”
A hint of fatigue seemed to have penetrated Biden’s rhythm and timbre by the end of his MSC speech. Maybe this is a metaphor for the challenges ahead, or maybe – like many of us – he just gets tired of talking to a computer for a long time.
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