Biden Takes His 'America Is Back' Message To The World In Munich Speech

Feb 19, 2021
Originally published on February 19, 2021 10:56 am

Updated at 12:45 p.m. ET

President Biden on Friday sought to turn the page on former President Donald Trump's "America First" ethos, declaring "America is back" and vowing to rebuild trust with European allies by working on challenges like arms control, COVID-19 and climate change.

It was Biden's first speech since taking office aimed at an international audience. He spoke from the White House to a virtual crowd at the Munich Security Conference — a who's who of global national security officials — who he has met with many times in person over his decades in public life.

"America is back, the transatlantic alliance is back, and we are not looking backward. We are looking forward together," Biden said. He called the partnership between Europe and the United States "the cornerstone of all we hope to accomplish in the 21st century."

Biden didn't mention Trump by name, but alluded to his fights with NATO allies, and pledged his support to that alliance. "I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship, but the United States is determined — determined — to re-engage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trust and leadership," he said.

Earlier, Biden met virtually with G-7 leaders about COVID-19. He said the United States would chip in $4 billion to COVAX, a fund run by Gavi, the global vaccine alliance, and the World Health Organization, which aims to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to 92 low- and middle-income countries.

Way forward on Iran

The Munich address comes a day after his State Department said the United States would be willing to attend a meeting with European partners and Iran to "discuss a diplomatic way forward on Iran's nuclear program" — the first signs of movement toward talks about rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump had quit. It was not immediately clear whether Iran would agree to meet.

"We're prepared to reengage in negotiations with the P5+1 on Iran's nuclear program," said Biden, referring to the five members of the UN Security Council and Germany, which have negotiated with Iran in the past.

"We must also address Iran's destabilizing activities across the Middle East, and we're going to work in close cooperation with our European and other partners as we proceed," he said, though he did not lay out a specific timetable for Iran talks.

In his 2009 address to the Munich conference, when he was vice president, Biden said he wanted to "set a new tone" for America's relations with the world.
Johannes Simon / Getty Images

Calling out China, Russia

Biden has made many trips to the Munich Security Conference over the decades as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As vice president, he led three U.S. delegations to the conference, making a pilgrimage there for the Obama administration's first foreign trip in 2009.

That year, he sought to soothe relations strained by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I come to Europe on behalf of a new administration, and an administration that's determined to set a new tone not only in Washington, but in America's relations around the world," Biden said.

But the difference this time is how shaken allies have been by Russian interference and a move toward nationalism, said Charles Kupchan, author of Isolationism: A History of America's Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.

"What is new here is that Americans and Europeans are still in shock about the illiberalism and the populism and the nativism that have infected political life on both sides of the Atlantic," said Kupchan, a former Obama official who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Biden told allies they needed to do more to compete with China by investing and working together on innovation, intellectual property, trade rules, and technology policy

"U.S. and European companies are required to publicly disclose corporate governance structures and abide by rules to deter corruption in monopolistic practices. Chinese companies should be held to the same standard," Biden said.

Biden also called out Russia as a "bully" and said allies needed to work together to counter Moscow's efforts to destabilize democracies.

"We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future direction of our world. Between those who argue that — given all of the challenges we face, from the fourth industrial revolution to a global pandemic — autocracy is the best way forward and those who understand that democracy is essential to meeting those challenges," Biden said.

"Historians will examine and write about this moment. It's an inflection point. And I believe with every ounce of my being that democracy must prevail."

NPR political reporter Alana Wise contributed to this report.

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Investigators are still trying to answer some key questions about the January 6 assault on the Capitol, like exactly who stormed the building that day? And what motivated them to be there? An NPR team has been analyzing the more than 200 cases the Justice Department has brought so far. The defendants include military men, extremists and hardcore Trump supporters. One thing they had in common - they were nearly all men. As Dina Temple-Raston of NPR's Investigations team explains, experts say gender likely played an outsized role in the way the day played out.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: When we look at the video of what happened that day, it's easy to focus on the violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIOT AMBIENCE)

TEMPLE-RASTON: The smashing of windows, the tear gas, the five people who lost their lives in the chaos. But Michael Kimmel, a distinguished professor emeritus at Stony Brook University, sees something a little different.

MICHAEL KIMMEL: A lot of the guys that I watched on January 6 and subsequently in all of the videos that have surfaced is these guys look familiar to me.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Kimmel wrote a book about angry white men and what drives them to embrace extremism. And he thinks traditional gender roles - the notions of being a man - played a part in the violence at the Capitol.

KIMMEL: They grew up believing that if they worked hard, paid their taxes, were good guys, that they would be able to live the lives that their grandfathers lived.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Kimmel said that when that doesn't happen, a kind of aggrieved entitlement takes hold. And that's the kind of dissatisfaction that drew people to former President Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore. And that's what this is all about.

JESSICA STERN: We often see this notion of a band of brothers. We often see people getting drawn into joining extremist groups at moments when they're feeling confused about their identity or they've experienced a status loss.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Jessica Stern, a professor at Boston University. She's been studying extremist groups for decades. And she said that people who were there on January 6 were familiar to her, too. Consider Barton Wade Shively, a burly ex-Marine who was charged with striking police officers as he rushed the Capitol that day. He spoke with CNN outside the day of the protest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARTON WADE SHIVELY: Tried to push them back a little bit until finally, they started getting rough with us. So we kind of pushed them back. So that's what we did. We pushed them back.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Shively seemed angry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHIVELY: That's what we're doing - fighting back.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And what's the point? What's the endgame?

SHIVELY: What's the point?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Yeah.

SHIVELY: We're losing our freedoms. What do you mean what's the point?

TEMPLE-RASTON: According to court records, Shively allegedly surrendered to authorities and said he got caught up in the moment. His lawyer did not respond to NPR requests for comment.

Shively wasn't alone in thinking that a greater purpose had brought him to the Capitol. Felipe Marquez of Florida saw himself in much the same way.

FELIPE MARQUEZ: I went to - on the 6 in D.C. to protest against communism and prostitution. This is, like, a Rosa Parks, like, Martin Luther King moment for me.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Marquez, according to court documents, is accused of not only storming the Capitol, but also breaking into the office of an Oregon senator. NPR has examined the affidavits in each case related to the Capitol riot so far. And the words of Shively and Marquez were echoed in dozens and dozens of them.

Diana Mutz is a professor of political science at University of Pennsylvania, and she's studied Trump supporters. And one of the things that animates them, she said, is the desire to return to a simpler time.

DIANA MUTZ: I think it's important to realize that, yes, they're experiencing change and that this is threatening. The advantages that these groups enjoyed aren't there to the same extent.

TEMPLE-RASTON: They have jobs. They have families. But they don't have a sense they're doing really well. To be sure, a group this large defies generalization. There was someone in a Camp Auschwitz T-shirt, and there was a rabbi from Florida. There were far-right militia members and a two-time Olympic gold medalist. Still, an NPR analysis of the records collected on the more than 200 people charged provided some common threads. For example, almost 15% of the people charged so far are either current or former military. About 17% of those charged have an avowed connection to an extremist group. And nearly 11% of the Justice Department's cases included someone who spoke specifically about being inspired to storm the Capitol by former President Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Treason. Treason. Treason. Treason.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's from a New Yorker video inside the Capitol that captures a sense of the crowd's purpose - that they were there for a bigger reason than themselves. Now, more than a month after the siege, people are starting to ask the next obvious question - where do we go from here? Mutz says one remedy may be just a return to the kind of politics that doesn't require our full, undivided attention.

MUTZ: The fact is when we live and breathe politics 24/7 and it's the first thing you see when you turn on the TV and so forth, it elevates the salience of politics in people's lives in a way that may not actually be healthy for the nation as a whole.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In this case, she said, boring may be a good thing.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.