The annual Munich Security Conference is a big event in the international relations calendar, and one particularly anticipated this month (even if it was, by necessity, virtual). After four years of aggressive talk from former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and incoherence from former president Donald Trump, how would the new US president, Joe Biden, lay out his vision for an America that would engage with the world in a more predictable and reassuring manner?
"America is back," Mr Biden said. "The transatlantic alliance is back. If we work together with our democratic partners, with strength and confidence, I know that we'll meet every challenge and outpace every challenger." There was much goodwill towards Mr Biden, and his speech was greeted with a metaphorical sigh of relief.
But at the same time it was almost as though his audience was embracing an old friend who had gone missing for a few years, and who hadn’t quite realised that the dynamics of the relationship had changed. During his absence, his old pals had socialised more with newer companions; they would never be as close, but they were a fixture now. And after the old friend’s abrupt departure four years ago, his pals worked out that they had better not be so dependent on him in the future if he returned.
The speech had “a 1990s feel” to it, tweeted Elbridge Colby, principal of the Marathon Initiative and a former senior US defence and intelligence staffer. Mr Colby characterised it as a “very liberal hawk” view that the globe’s democracies would align and “prevail”, as Mr Biden put it, over those who argue “that autocracy is the best way forward”. The new president was polite. He said the US was determined “to earn back our position of trusted leadership”. But he didn’t seem to be aware that that “leadership” may not be available in the way it once was, in a multipolar world whose reality Mr Biden did not even acknowledge.
The unanimity he wants – on defence, as well as on confronting China and Russia – is simply not there, as Mr Biden was reminded when France’s President Emmanuel Macron responded: “I listened to President Biden but we have an agenda that is unique.” He went on to outline his idea of a “sovereign Europe” that would deal with problems in its neighbourhood to the east and south much more independently, while Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel stated bluntly that “our interests will not always converge”.
The UK’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, appeared to be hewing closest to Mr Biden’s vision – he heaped praise on the US and a section of his speech was strongly critical of China. But only two days later a report came out that a week before, at a roundtable with Chinese businesses in London, Mr Johnson had declared himself “fervently Sinophile” and wanted better relations with Beijing “whatever the occasional political difficulties”.
Mr Biden asked for both "stiff competition" with China and, in essence, a battle on values. If he expects 100 per cent co-operation on both, he is likely to be disappointed twice. China became the EU's biggest trading partner in 2020, and the 15 countries that signed the biggest trade pact ever, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, last November, include not only the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations and China, but also South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand – the latter four ostensible allies in Mr Biden's association of democracies. There will be difficulties between all these trading partners – there already are. But there are billions and billions of reasons why countries around the world will shy from the kind of existential conflict, even in the realm of ideas, that Mr Biden came close to heralding last Friday.
The US President's emphasis on democracy – he mentioned the word four times – missed a trick. If he had wanted to be more inclusive and realistic, he could have made good governance more of a criterion to which countries should aspire. In various parts of Asia, for instance, there are states that do not fit the category of western liberal democracy but which are nonetheless considered to be models of efficient, citizen-centred, far-sighted and benevolent governance. In Myanmar, by contrast, a democratically elected government enabled ethnic cleansing on a horrific scale. Democracy alone is not the panacea Mr Biden believes it to be.
There was also only a passing reference to the Global South, and the fact that, as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said last week: “Just 10 countries have administered 75 per cent of all Covid-19 vaccines. Meanwhile, more than 130 countries have not received a single dose. Those affected by conflict and insecurity are at particular risk of being left behind." It would be unfair to fault Mr Biden for not addressing everything in one speech, but if he was, as he said, “sending a clear message to the world”, it would have been refreshing to be told he meant all of it, and not just the northern half.
“Historians are going to examine and write about this moment as an inflection point,” Mr Biden said. Maybe he is right. But maybe that inflection will be identified not as the time that leaders rallied to make a stark, binary choice between democracy and autocracy, but as the moment when the US decided it wanted, once again, to lead the “free world” into a contest for supremacy – and found that while many still had their swords, they were just as interested in their counting houses and the avoidance of strife.
Two great American artists with whom the US President may be familiar, the novelist Thomas Wolfe and the jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, titled works You Can't Go Home Again. It is meant figuratively, not literally – that the place to which you return will not be the one you knew before. Mr Biden, the "old friend" whom many were glad to see again, doesn't seem to have clocked that yet.
Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National