WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden will land in Europe on Wednesday to repair ties with America’s closest allies to counter growing threats from China and Russia in his first big moment on the world stage since taking office.
In many ways, it will be familiar to Biden. Few presidents have so much experience in foreign policy, from decades on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee to his time as Vice President. But the world has changed dramatically in the more than four years since Biden was last on the forefront of American foreign policy.
The global economy was turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic; China has become an even more dominant economic and military power; and the growing ability of Russian actors to carry out cyberattacks hit the Americans at home. Amid all these challenges, America’s oldest allies are skeptical that after four years of “America First” foreign policy by the Trump administration, they have a partner they can trust.
Senior government officials fully recognize the challenges they face and are pragmatic about what they believe they can accomplish on their way abroad. Biden has referred to the trip as a means rather than an end – his focus is more on restoring America’s place at the international negotiating table than on how he hopes that seat will help achieve U.S. goals.
“This trip is about realizing America’s renewed commitment to our allies and partners and demonstrating the ability of democracies to both meet the challenges and counter the threats of this new age,” said Biden in a Washington Post op-ed Saturday.
Biden will begin the travel meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, followed by a meeting of the leaders of the Group of Seven, which includes heads of state from Canada, Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Japan. He will then attend a North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting and have an audience with Queen Elizabeth II before attending what government officials say is a controversial meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Bridging the distance across the Atlantic
Biden is expected to receive an overwhelmingly warm welcome from allies who have tried for four years to administer the often undiplomatic style of diplomacy of then-President Donald Trump, national security officials from the Trump and Obama administrations said.
At Trump’s first G-7 summit, he argued with his counterparts over climate change and trade. The following year, he left the summit early to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and slammed Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on his way to the door on Twitter. When Trump last met the G-7 leaders in person in 2019, he threatened a trade war with France and urged Putin to join the group.
“They were mostly train wrecks and there was a lot of blood on the ground when Trump left these meetings,” said Charles Kupchan, who served as senior director for European affairs in the Obama administration and is currently a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the last G7 summit. “So there is tremendous relief from the appearance of normalcy in the White House.”
But Biden will face a skeptical audience of world leaders in attempting to restore America’s leadership role, fearing that any international deal they can make with the US over the next four years can only be reversed by the next president, since the Paris climate agreement and the nuclear deal with Iran were turned upside down by Trump.
“The Allies have lingering doubts about the forces that created Trump’s election in 2016, and wonder whether those forces have finally disappeared or whether the US can revert to a more controversial, transactional approach,” said Alexander Vershbow, former Deputy Secretary General the NATO and US ambassador to Russia in the Bush administration.
One advantage Biden will have is his well-established relationships with a number of executives he will meet this week. His presidency’s face-to-face meeting abroad will give him the opportunity to have informal conversations with his counterparts over dinner, drinks and walks, said Kupchan, who as vice president helped Biden prepare a number of overseas trips.
Putin is in the spotlight
It is no coincidence that before his summit in Geneva with Putin, Biden will be spending nearly a week meeting with America’s closest allies – National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the timing was intended for Biden to be “with the wind on the wind” can go back to the Putin meeting. “
The list of controversial issues Biden will address with Putin is long and includes ransomware attacks, human rights abuses, election interference and aggression against Ukraine. Administration officials have said they expect the one-on-one interview to be long and tense, and they don’t expect any results from the meeting.
Sullivan said Biden will outline what the US expects of Russia and how the US will react if certain activities continue. It is a message that he said Biden must deliver to Putin in person.
“Another president is not about trusting him, and the US-Russia relationship is not about trust,” Sullivan said. “It’s about a relationship of verification, it’s about a relationship in which we clarify our expectations and state that if certain types of harmful activity continue, there will be answers from the United States.”
Fighting the pandemic
While the Putin summit has put Russia in the spotlight, Biden and leaders are expected to pay most of the closed-door attention to major currents flowing through the world, including climate change, Covid-19 and China, government officials said .
In the short term, Biden will have to face a world that is still struggling with the Covid 19 pandemic from an economic and health perspective. To get the world back on track, it will be central to greatly expand the supply of vaccines to low and middle income countries, many of which have vaccinated only a small fraction of their populations.
“Everything depends on the distribution of vaccines, and the success and lasting recovery of the G-7, the developed countries, depends on the distribution to the developing countries, from which we of course derive much of our supply chains,” said Julia Friedlander, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and White House Director for the European Union, Southern Europe and Economic Affairs during the Trump administration.
The US has pledged to send 80 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine abroad by the end of June, with 25 million to be sent in the coming weeks. But the commitment – more than in any other county – is a tiny fraction of the 1.8 billion doses international aid agencies aim to bring to lower-income countries by early 2022.Until recently, U.S. companies have kept from selling vaccine raw materials and – Shipping supplies overseas and storing tens of millions of cans that have not been used.
Sullivan said Biden will outline broader plans for the G-7’s response to the pandemic during the trip, and government officials have signaled that the current international vaccine commitment is just the beginning of what the United States is planning to distribute.
We, not them
Beyond the pandemic, Biden and leaders are expected to work together to discuss steps to tackle climate change and the growing prevalence of cyberattacks. They also plan to discuss ways to counter China’s growing influence “so that democracies, and not anyone else, not China or other autocracies, write the rules of trade and technology for the 21st century,” Sullivan said.
But as much as the G-7 and NATO leaders will focus on addressing problems and challenges beyond their borders, such as the global pandemic, Russia and China, the domestic challenges they face are expected to be too need to be put more in the spotlight.
“What is new about this meeting is that the conversation has to be more about ‘us’ than about ‘them’,” said Kupchan. “The elephant in the room is the political turmoil and dysfunction that has fallen in the West. We have just gone through a shocking era in American politics, Britain has just left the EU, populism is alive across Europe. Part of the conversation needs to be about us and what we can do to ensure that liberal democracy is rock solid. “