It was by design that Joe Biden deployed the term “inflection point” three times in his most significant foreign policy speech thus far as president on Friday. He wanted to ensure the historic weight of his words was not missed.
Above all, he wanted his virtual audience at the Munich Security Conference to hear that global democracies faced a defining moment in their accelerating contest with authoritarianism and that they dare not underestimate the stakes. It is an argument I have made frequently in this column, itself called “Inflection Points” to reflect that conviction of a historic moment. Yet it had never been so clearly articulated by a US president.
“We are in the midst of a fundamental debate about the future and direction of our world,” Biden said to a receptive audience, though it was also an audience unsettled by the sudden, if welcome, shift from the cold shoulder of former President Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda to the global embrace led by his successor.
“We’re at an inflection point,” Biden said, “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—essential to meeting those challenges.”
Biden’s image, beamed to Munich from the White House, was symbolically framed on the large screens of the main stage beside German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. After each of their fifteen-minute speeches, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had just finished chairing a virtual meeting of G7 leaders, joined them for the kumbaya moment.
Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, had every reason for satisfaction as he convened this reunion of the four allies who did so much to repair Europe after the devastation of World War II. Working with partners, those four countries took the lead in creating the rules-based institutions that have been at the center of global governance for the past seventy-five years.
Yet what lurked beneath this powerful moment was a growing recognition among senior Biden administration officials and their European counterparts of just how hard it will be to slow China’s authoritarian momentum, particularly as the country emerges as the first major economy to escape COVID-19, to restore growth, to engage in vaccine diplomacy, and to offer an enticement to its some 1.4 billion consumers.
Thus, the Biden administration will need to develop a far more creative, intensive, and collaborative give-and-take approach to its Asian and European allies than perhaps ever before. Galvanizing international common cause has seldom been this important, but it also perhaps has never been this difficult.
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