When President Joe Biden addressed a virtual audience of the Munich Security Conference on Friday, he spoke of reaching an "inflection point" between democracy and autocracy.
"I believe with every ounce of my being that democracy will and must prevail," he said. It would be hard to imagine most loyal Americans rejecting that sentiment.
"I know the past few years have strained and tested our trans-Atlantic relationship," Biden continued, "but the United States is determined — determined — to reengage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trust and leadership."
Biden thus showed, again, he has ditched Donald Trump's cosseting of foreign autocrats and prickliness toward European allies. But it is hard to see what authentic changes Trump's foreign policy really produced, and therefore hard to say what concrete impact Biden's reversals will have.
Regardless of Trump's many complaints about NATO, the essential U.S. posture toward the defense league remained status quo. That may be why Biden's tweak of "America first" becomes "America is back." The message is that the United States hadn't led in another direction for four years so much as checked out and drifted.
Biden as expected slammed Russia's president, Vladimir Putin. "Putin seeks to weaken the European project and our NATO alliance," the president said. "He wants to undermine the trans-Atlantic unity and its resolve because it’s so much easier for the Kremlin to bully and threaten individual states than it is to negotiate with a strong and closely-aligned trans-Atlantic community."
The passivity Trump showed Putin and his regime raised suspicion in the United States, but it never transformed relations between Russia and the American government. The United States never withdrew from NATO, nor did Russia gain visible clout in the west.
Putin's foes in Ukraine received armaments through the Pentagon. Sanctions were imposed with the support of Congress. Russia remains a player in the Mideast and still supports the regimes that run Venezuela and Iran.
While tweaking Russia on Friday, Biden said: "We cannot and must not return to the reflective opposition and rigid blocks of the Cold War. Competition must not lock out cooperation on issues that affect us all." As expected, he cited climate change and the coronavirus as requiring collective action.
Perhaps the most tangible change from his predecessor was that Biden said nothing impulsive or confusing while in the spotlight.
"We're prepared to reengage in negotiations with the P5 plus one on Iran's nuclear program," Biden said, alluding to the five UN Security Council members and Germany, which negotiated with Iran before. "We must also address Iran's destabilizing activities across the Middle East, and we're going to work in close cooperation with our European and other partners as we proceed."
Taking a stance in favor of democracy and against autocracy ordinarily would seem easy and expected for a U.S. president. But Trump never really did that, so Biden will pick up short-term credit for a restoration of tone and direction.