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'America Is Back': Biden Speaks At Munich Security Conference


America is back. Those were the words of President Joe Biden today, speaking by video link at the Munich Security Conference. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron also spoke. NPR's Rob Schmitz was watching from Berlin. Welcome, Rob.


CORNISH: President Biden emphasized today that he is reaffirming America's commitment to the transatlantic relationship. What else did he have to say?

SCHMITZ: He had a lot to say. First off, he really hit home that Europe is a cornerstone of America's approach to the rest of the world and that the transatlantic alliance is more important than ever. He pointed out that the West faces a new set of challenges. He mentioned the strategic threat of China, as well as Russia and, of course, the coronavirus pandemic.

But he said one of the biggest challenges the West faces now is that as we gradually come out of this pandemic, he said many people in the world are wondering if autocracy has emerged as a better system for governance. And he said the U.S. and Europe need to work together to show the world that democracy will prevail. Here's what he said.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Democracy doesn't happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it. We have to prove that our model isn't a relic of history. It's the single best way to revitalize the promise of our future.

CORNISH: And the response from Germany or France?

SCHMITZ: Well, you know, Merkel and Macron got right down to business. Both of them reacted with kind of a laundry list of items that have built up over the past four years that need to be done - multilateral approach to vaccinations for the developing world, reinvigorating the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord, Afghanistan, you name it. These are all issues that, from the European perspective, have suffered from neglect under the Trump administration and have been festering over the past four years.

I spoke to Sudha David-Wilp of the German Marshall Fund after the event, and she told me it's clear both Merkel and Macron are thrilled that Biden has reaffirmed the transatlantic alliance.

SUDHA DAVID-WILP: Europe needs a strong U.S. and Biden, I should say, because Merkel is now a lame duck. She's going to be inward-looking as she looks to preserve her legacy, which has taken some knocks lately because Germany has not done a great job dealing with the second phase of the pandemic. And Macron is going to be busy with an election in 2022.

SCHMITZ: But, Audie, French President Macron did say that the EU needs to be more involved with its own security going forward.

CORNISH: And we've been hearing that for the last couple of years. That was a complaint from former President Trump, that the EU needed to spend more on its own defense. Are they actually doing that?

SCHMITZ: They are. And as you mentioned, you know, former President Trump spent years badgering them about this. And in today's speeches, both Merkel and Macron pointed out they're spending more than ever on defense. And Macron even went so far to say that Europe should spend even more in the future because he said the U.S. is clearly focused on China and the Indo-Pacific region more than ever. And that means that Europe needs to step up its own defense to better manage threats in its own neighborhood.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from Berlin. Rob, thanks for your reporting.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.