Several of the world’s most senior decision-makers came together on February 19th for a special edition of the Munich Security Conference, each sharing reflections on challenges and hope for a new transatlantic relationship. For the first time in its long history, a sitting U.S. president attended the virtual discussion as Joe Biden spoke passionately and optimistically about renewed United States leadership in the problems facing the West today, prompting relief from his European counterparts after four years of the Trump administration. The gathering, titled “Beyond Westlessness: Renewing Transatlantic Cooperation, Meeting Global Challenges,” was the special prelude to the 2021 iteration of the annual conference, which has been postponed to later this year because of the pandemic.
Despite the impressive roster of guests, it was President Biden who drew the most acclaim as he broke with recent tradition to speak at the event, delivering an address imbued with hope and ambition. “America is back… the transatlantic alliance is back,” he declared, reminding counterparts that his administration will seek to play a leading role once more in collective security and prosperity across the Atlantic and beyond. “The past few years have strained and tested our relationship, [but] the U.S. is determined to reengage with Europe,” citing renewed faith in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the values it underpins. The president alluded to the multitude of challenges facing the west and the world in 2021, from the Covid-19 pandemic to climate change, cyberattacks, and Russian aggression. “The global dynamics have shifted,” he warned, but the transatlantic alliance will remain the “cornerstone” of the 21st century.
After several years in which the United States antagonized its rivals and downplayed its commitments to long-serving allies, the conference was a welcome return to what many commentators refer to as reality. The ongoing pandemic has not only exposed the frailties of isolationism amidst allies but has reminded the world that the great challenges of today—and tomorrow—are best solved in unity. In his own address, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson noted that positivity about a transatlantic restart was welcome, although it did not detract from the harsh realities and challenges still facing peace and security today. Dealing with autocratic powers like Russia and China was big on the agenda, the message being that the drive for global cooperation had limits. Europe and North America must, according to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, “reinforce our unity, broaden our approach to security, and defend the international rules-based order” from those who seek to upset it.
Although frequently a flagship event in the international security realm, this year’s Munich Security Conference took on a special meaning, and not just because of the pandemic. Alongside President Biden was a wealth of decision-makers eager to provide insight on their visions for the future. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, U.S. Climate Envoy John F. Kerry, and Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates also participated, each delivering similar and passionate messages on a slate of critical issues. The event embodied the “effective multilateralism” that President Macron insisted was needed to tackle issues like climate change, global inequalities, and the Iranian nuclear issue.
In spite of the suffering caused by the ongoing pandemic, global leaders, particularly those in the West, have embraced the lessons that must be learned to seize the initiative on disasters-in-waiting. Even when Covid-19 subsides, the global community faces a variety of threats to peace and security. The global leaders who spoke virtually in Munich this week will be the ones to lead the charge and must do so united and determined to avoid the disasters of the past once again.
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