MUNICH — Amid the gloom of a security conference focused on the breakdown in transatlantic relations under President Trump, Joe Biden offered beleaguered Europeans a ray of hope this weekend.
“This too shall pass,” the former vice president promised. “We will be back.”
The comment earned Biden, a possible candidate for president in 2020, sustained applause from a crowd that clearly wanted to believe the United States will return to a more familiar role as trusted friend after two years of Trump turning on allies and cozying up to adversaries.
But Europeans are not convinced that Biden, or anyone, can deliver.
Even if Democrats beat Trump when he vies for reelection next year, U.S. allies say the damage will be difficult to reverse. They point to long-term trends in the United States — especially a growing skepticism toward global engagement — that suggest key elements of Trumpism will live on, regardless of how long he serves or who succeeds him.
“We fool ourselves if we think Trump is just an aberration,” said a senior German official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “Trump is a symptom more than a cause.”
That belief helped explain the deep unease that pervaded this year’s Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of global leaders, military commanders, diplomats and foreign affairs analysts that has long helped set the geopolitical agenda and that concluded here Sunday.
For many attendees, the collapse of the liberal world order as built and sustained by the United States for the past seven decades was taken as a given. The only question is, as the title of the conference’s flagship report framed it, “Who will pick up the pieces?”
There was widespread conviction that it will not be the Trump administration.
Last year, allied leaders held their fire and largely refrained from directly criticizing the United States. Some expressed hope that damage to the transatlantic relationship would be manageable. American officials, for their part, urged allies to ignore Trump’s tweets and focus on his administration’s actions, which they described as being in line with those of his predecessors.
No one made that case this year, with U.S. officials and Europeans doing little to disguise their mutual contempt.
Vice President Pence, as leader of the American delegation, gave a speech assailing Europe for continuing to do business with Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions. Many of his intended applause lines were greeted with an awkward silence.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a rousing speech in which she defended multilateralism and rebutted Trump administration talking points on trade, defense spending, the Iran nuclear deal and other issues that have driven the United States and Europe apart. The freewheeling approach from the normally cautious Merkel earned her an extended standing ovation.
Biden, too, was greeted warmly. His expressions of robust support for NATO and the European Union — anodyne American boilerplate at any other time before Trump — echoed through the gilded conference hall as a dramatic and welcome break from a time in which both institutions are targets of attack by Trump.
“Those comments were so welcomed,” said Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament.
But Schaake, who is the European Parliament’s vice chair for relations with the United States, was careful to restrain her enthusiasm for Biden’s vision of a healed transatlantic rift.
“It doesn't mean that that’s likely to be the future,” she said. “The U.S. has made decisions that are difficult to reverse.”
Long before Trump took office, Europeans say, the United States was pulling back. And long after he is gone, an era of warm transatlantic ties and aggressive American global leadership won’t be so easy to restore.
Among Democrats and Republicans, there is evidence of fatigue with what it takes to be the world’s lone superpower. Americans have taken a turn inward under Trump, with global trade measuring at the bottom of their policy priorities as measured by the Pew Research Center last month. The president — who speaks scathingly of the idea that America should be “the world’s policeman” — has nearly half the country behind him on his unilateral withdrawal from Syria.
“What I see is a coming together of the left and the right and uniting on getting out of long wars in the Middle East,” Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) told conference participants during a Saturday night panel discussion. “You saw the president tweeted out that we were leaving Syria, and there were lots of Democrats who said, ‘Good, let’s leave Syria.’”
Slotkin, 42, served as a CIA analyst and worked on foreign policy issues in the Bush and Obama administrations. But her observation from the campaign trail was that many people younger than herself had little interest in the United States playing an assertive global role.
“A lot of young people don’t remember 9/11,” she said. “They’ve only known the United States in what they believe to be a long, expensive war in blood and treasure. They don’t have a memory, even through their grandparents, of World War II and the post-World War II order, and they don’t believe we do good things in the world.”
Slotkin was among a delegation of more than 50 members of Congress who descended on Munich over the weekend.
The group — the largest in the 56-year history of the conference — was brought together as a message that the United States still backs its allies, even when the president’s support is in doubt.
But Schaake said her perception is that many new lawmakers in Congress “have been quite inward.”
“When we go abroad and work on transatlantic affairs, my constituents want that,” she said. American lawmakers “have to justify every minute spent away from their constituents.”
Tellingly, the congressional delegation in Munich did not include any of the growing roster of Democrats who are vying for the 2020 nomination.
Some of the declared candidates, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have been highly critical of trade agreements and of U.S. military interventions overseas. Others are facing populist pressure on the left to move in that direction. Attendance at Munich — dominated by a transatlantic foreign policy establishment that views free trade and robust militaries as articles of faith — would be of little help.
Of the likely candidates, the only two who showed up at the conference were Biden and John Hickenlooper, the former two-term governor of Colorado.
Like Biden, Hickenlooper is positioning himself as a pragmatic problem-solver, rather than an ideologically pure progressive. Although the former mayor and brewery owner played a lower key role here in recent days than the former vice president, Hickenlooper was active behind the scenes, meeting with allied diplomats and other officials.
In an interview, the 67-year-old said that, if he runs, he will campaign on open markets, even if it’s not especially popular with the Democratic base.
“Fair trade is something that is at the heart of who we are as a country and always have been,” he said.
Also core to U.S. identity, he said, was a steadfast commitment to allies — especially the very democracies that are so “bewildered” by the course that U.S. ties had taken under Trump.
“I've always viewed it as we have certain allies that are our friends forever,” Hickenlooper said. “But that has been thrown into doubt in the last couple years.”