Munich Security Conference (virtual) 2021: Debate on the Future of the Atlantic Alliance


By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

Due to the Corona pandemic this year’s 57th Munich Security Conference was held online in form of a three-hour long forum on February 19 2021. The speakers of the conference for the first time since the US presidential elections included US President Joe Biden. Other speakers were German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emanuel Macron, UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres, WHO Chairman Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, the US business magnate and investor Bill Gates, European Commission Chairwoman Ursula von der Leyen, European Council Chairman Charles Michel, NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg and British PM Boris Johnson. The conference was organized under the title “Beyond Westlessness: Renewing transatlantic cooperation, meeting global challenges.”

The event was moderated by Munich Security conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger and his assistant -journalist Natalie Amiri. Aside reassuring the solidity of “transatlantic alliance,” the central concern that was reflected in all speeches was the question, how the world is going to deal with the Covid- 19 pandemic. US President Biden announced in his speech that “America is back again” – and that under his presidency the US intends to “lead” the western alliance. In the lead editorial (FAZ February 21 2021), it was emphasized that President Biden gave the impression of “overdoing” it a bit.  The reality, as the commentator Frankenberger noted, is that Joe Biden carries a heavy burden: above all a “polarized domestic front,” accompanied by catastrophic Corona victims’ record numbers and a dramatic loss of respect world-wide, i.e. the credibility of the “American Model” and its authority is getting weaker, while China is becoming the domineering power of the 21rst century.

According to President Biden the world is at a crossroad between “Autocracy and Democracy.”  He urged the West not to “divide” but to stand together. Above all he warned of the “systemic competition with China which challenges the West geopolitically, geo-economically, technologically” and with “Russia, which under Putin tries to undermine the EU and the transatlantic alliance.”  Biden’s speech was characterized by several loyalty declarations versus the Europeans.

There was a lot of “rhetoric” in Biden’s speech based on the repetitive slogan that “America is back,” the “Transatlantic Alliance is back” and “Democracy” will win. “The United States is fully committed to our NATO Alliance,” Biden said and “I welcome Europe’s growing investment in the military capabilities that enable our shared defense… We will keep faith with NATO article 5,” which is a guarantee, whereby an “attack against one is an attack on all.”

Biden emphasized that we are at an “inflection point” between those who argue that, given all the challenges we face -from the fourth industrial revolution to a global pandemic-“autocracy” is the best way; while others understand that “democracy” is essential to meeting those challenges.” The biggest challenges for the West, according to Biden, is China and Russia. In respect to China he stated that we have to “prepare together for a long- term strategic competition with China (…) We have to push back against the Chinese government’s economic abuses and coercion that undercut the foundations of the international economic system. Everyone- everyone must play by the same rules.”

Similar his attack against Russia. Biden stated that “the Kremlin attacks our democracies” and tries to undermine our system of governance (…) Putin wants to undermine NATO and threatens individual states. That’s why addressing recklessness -Russian recklessness and hacking into computer networks, in the United State and across Europe and the world- has become critical to protecting our collective security. The challenges with Russia may be different than the ones with China, but they are just as real.” Biden concluded his speech by referring to the global Corona Pandemic, announcing that the US had pledged $ 2 billion for the COVAX Facility (global vaccination program).

German Chancellor Merkel defending a pragmatic line

In turn German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a strong plea in defense of “multilateralism.” She quoted – as she did already two years ago in Munich- from the famous German scientist and discoverer Alexander von Humboldt who had once said, that “Everything is interaction.”  Multilateral interaction, she emphasized, is today demonstrated by the fight against the pandemic. Unless all human beings around the globe are vaccinated quickly, the mutations will grow and there is no chance to defeat the virus, the Chancellor warned.  Therefore, the main task is to make available a “quick and equal supply of vaccines to all human beings.”  (At the G7 Conference, the same day February 19th, the heads of state agreed on a wider financial support in order to accelerate the global COVAX facility (with Germany giving 1,5 billion Euro).

The German Chancellor made the commitment that under President Biden Germany will “stick to the transatlantic partnership” and try to reach the aim to spend 2% of the GDP for defense. “Germany is committed to NATO as key pillar,” she stated.  Yet she also underlined that in terms of Europe’s interests there are things “which are of great importance to us, for example the engagement in Africa and Syria. We must see, all these countries are directly at the door steps of the EU. In the last years Germany engaged stronger in Africa, where France carries most of the burden.” She explicitly supported the French promoted Sahel 5 development initiative (G5S – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) and stated that the “relation with Africa is of such strategic importance, that it should also be a theme in the transatlantic discussion.” Another aspect is how the situation will develop in Libya. “We also must push for a constitutional process for Syria – through the UN, because also in Syria there will only be a peaceful solution, if many citizens who left the country, will get a political future in their homeland; we will work closely in the JCPOA and I hope that this agreement will get a new chance.”

Speaking about the “transatlantic partnership” Merkel outlined 1. The need for a common strategy in respect to Russia and China; she regretted that the Minsk peace process for settling the Ukraine conflict, is at present not progressing and complained that Russia again and again has involved members of the EU into hybrid conflicts. She urged the need for a “Russia agenda” as well as the need to develop a common “agenda towards China,” which on the one side is a “systemic competitor,” on the other side China is needed for the solution of global problems.  “China has gained weight in the last years and we must set something against this as transatlantic alliance and democracies of the world.” Hence the delivery of vaccines to developing countries is important, so that not only vaccines are delivered from Russia and China (to developing countries), but also “we must ask ourselves – how can we use COVAX and the multilateral G7 to push ahead vaccination for the developing countries and for Africa?”  There is a certain contradiction in the Chancellor’s statement. Only a few weeks ago the chancellor – as was noted by well- informed Russia observers- Merkel had discussed on the phone with President Putin about the Russian vaccine Sputnik V. This was followed by a broad press coverage that included statement from German Health Minister Spahn and from Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder who spoke in favor of possibly using the Russian Sputnik V. This vaccine which in August last year was announced by President Putin and at the time ridiculed by many European commentaries in the press, at the beginning of this year was qualified by the British Scientific Journal “Lancet” as an excellent vaccine. According to “Russland -Analysen” and the Russian website “”, this vaccine has been registered by now in almost 30 countries. The question remains, whether there are “geostrategic reasons” why the West (respectively Germany) declares that the doors can’t be opened for the “vaccine diplomacy” of Russia and China?

A call for more “EU strategic autonomy”

French President Emanuel Macron (whose speech was not made available in written form from the MSC) was more pronounced in respect to the differences which the “transatlantic partnership” under Biden will have to face. Speaking about the historical challenges which the West is facing, he stated, like Chancellor Merkel: 1. That there is the need to “construct an effective multilateralism which is useful in respect to climate, protection of democracy, freedom of speech, regulations against hatred in the Internet,” work on Africa and work against inequality. “Effective multilateralism is a challenge for Europe and the US, so that vaccines can be given to all countries around the globe, a topic -as he said-, that had been discussed and acted upon at the G7 meeting the same day, which concluded with a commitment by the G7 to increase the financing for the ACT Accelerator initiative. Macron stressed that the 6,5 million people who work in Africa’s health system should immediately be supplied with 13 Mio vaccine doses, “otherwise they will turn to Russia and China for obtaining vaccine.”

The second pillar of transatlantic partnership, according to Macron, is a common definition in order to “construct a common security agenda. We must rebuild a completely new security agenda for NATO,” Macron said. “This concept means that we need the dialogue with Russia,” so that Europe can live in peace. Macron was the only state leader in Munich, who in the context of a hysterical hype coming from the EU in respect to Russia, including renewed sanctions, addressed the issue of “dialogue with Russia.”3. He further underlined that Europe needs to deal more with its “neighborhood” such as Africa and the Mideast, while stressing that the US and Europe do not necessarily have “the same priorities.” Macron noted that the US is “Pacific oriented,” while in former times the US was oriented towards the defense of Europe. He therefore demanded that “Europe must take over more burden sharing and be less dependent on the US.  That way we would be a reliable partner. This common and new Security Agenda is important to solve regional conflicts such as Syria, the crisis in the Sahel Zone or Nagorny -Karabakh in a coordinated way, and this way can contribute to the solution of regional problems.”

Macron was asked by Munich Security Conference Chairman Dr. Wolfgang Ischinger, what he meant with the concept of “strategic autonomy,” which on the side of the US has aroused the fear that Europe could move away from the US. Macron’s response, which some UK newspaper commentators did not like, was to say: in terms of “NATO burden sharing” the biggest part is carried by the US and that Chancellor Merkel had said that more must be done to increase the burden sharing: “This way we can have a balance in the transatlantic relation and show the Americans that we are a reliable partner, by reducing the net contribution from the US. “I do believe in NATO but we need more political clarification of NATOs concept.  There must be a security architecture based on trust and this means we must speak with Russia and China… NATO needs a new political momentum and the best possible development for NATO is if Europe is in charge of its “own strategic security” and takes more “responsibility for strategic autonomy.”

UN General Secretary: the need for a global ceasefire

UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres aside WHO chairman Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was the only one in Munich who adamantly warned against “geostrategic rivalry” when it comes to the issue of making anti- Covid 19 vaccines available for “all” human beings. He strongly emphasized 1. The need for a global vaccine, which can be in reach in every place of the world. 2. The need for spending at least 6,8 billion Dollar and getting technological licenses for producing the vaccine. Above all he underlined that the G20 (now chaired by Italy e.h.), scientific expertise and the entire UN machine should get engaged in this effort.  3. Aside the need to reduce global Co2 emissions and to reach the UN goal of net zero Co2 emissions by 2050 he above all urged that “geopolitical tensions” should be dismantled. “It’s not possible that two great powers – USA and China – divide up the capacities and the world. I am in favor of a ‘global ceasefire’, since otherwise we all will lose.” 4. The global financing of the world economy should be redefined. “This means Multilateralism must be strengthened.” During the discussion Guterres emphasized the need to bring together all countries, as well as business, in order to fulfill what he called a “global vaccination duty.” The best way to ensure this is to have a G- 20 taskforce.  Aside Antonio Guterres, also the chairman of the WHO Tedros Ghebreyesus made a strong call to engage for what he called “Vaccination Justice,” urging more global “solidarity” and true cooperation among nations, so as not to “politicize the virus”, which is the common enemy of mankind.


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