U.S. President Joe Biden has declared since coming to office in January that “America is back” and ready to once again take a leading role in global affairs. This week, he finally has a chance to demonstrate what that means, as he belatedly begins his first foreign trip.
Mr. Biden says he plans to put democracy, and shoring up alliances, at the centre of an eight-day European excursion that began Wednesday when he arrived in Britain ahead of this weekend’s G7 summit. And while issues stemming from the pandemic – particularly global vaccine access and the need to stimulate economic recovery – will dominate the meeting, even those can be tied to the question Mr. Biden asked in an opinion piece published Saturday in The Washington Post: Will it be the world’s democracies – rather than rivals like China and Russia – that pull the world out of this crisis?
“I believe the answer is yes,” Mr. Biden wrote in his essay. Mr. Biden said his trip – which will include meetings with NATO and European Union leaders on Monday and Tuesday in Brussels, followed by what is sure to be a charged one-on-one summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva – is aimed at making sure that it will be “the democratic alliances and institutions that shaped so much of the last century” that also shape the postpandemic world. Speaking Wednesday before boarding Air Force One, Mr. Biden promised that he would announce “a vaccine plan for the world” while in Europe.
“I think the G7 needs to make very specific commitments to vaccinating the rest of the world. That could be commitments in terms of financing, or commitments in terms of vaccines themselves. In the absence of leadership on these things, China and Russia have filled the vacuum – and that has geopolitical implications,” said Roland Paris, a professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa and a former foreign-policy adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Prof. Paris said that although China has provided COVID-19 vaccines to several Latin American countries, it has not done so for countries such as Honduras and Guatemala that recognize the independence of Taiwan, as a way of pressuring those countries to change their policy. Russia has also been accused of using “vaccine diplomacy” to gain clout in the Balkans.
The first step to rallying the world’s democracies is getting institutions such as the G7 and NATO functioning normally again, under U.S. leadership, after four years during which Mr. Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, regularly questioned the value of both groupings.
Because of the pandemic, the G7 meeting that opens Friday in England’s Cornwall region is the first face-to-face leaders’ meeting in two years – and the two G7 gatherings before that were marred by Mr. Trump’s disagreements with other leaders. A 2019 summit in Biarritz, France, concluded without a joint statement as the leaders failed to bridge deep divisions over trade caused by Mr. Trump’s “America First” policies. The 2018 meeting in Charlevoix, Que., ended in disarray after Mr. Trump disavowed the joint communiqué in a series of post-summit tweets that also contained personal attacks on Mr. Trudeau.
Trump-era NATO meetings, meanwhile, were made tense by the former president’s close relationship with Mr. Putin, and his refusal to confirm that the U.S. would follow through on its alliance commitment to defend any NATO member from attack. The last NATO summit, held in London in 2019, saw Mr. Trump depart early and in anger after a video emerged that showed other leaders, including Mr. Trudeau, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron, appearing to joke about Mr. Trump while he was not present.
Jana Puglierin, the head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said freeing the G7 and NATO from drama would be an accomplishment in itself. “It’s really about getting the trains running and saying the right words. For Europeans, it’s a healing experience – a President at a NATO summit, saying the right words again.”
There will, of course, be areas of disagreement, Ms. Puglierin said, particularly over how to deal with China. Mr. Biden is expected to push the G7 to announce an infrastructure-building plan that could rival Beijing’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, which has seen China finance projects across the developing world. “Biden’s looking for support, but many Europeans – and the German government under Merkel for sure – don’t want to provoke China,” Ms. Puglierin said.
Similarly, plans to expand the G7 summit into a wider grouping of democracies have been downgraded over European concerns about aggravating Beijing. The leaders of Australia, South Korea and South Africa will still attend the Cornwall meeting, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose country is still in the grip of a deadly third wave of the pandemic, will join virtually. But talk of founding a new “D-10” or “D-11” (with the “D” standing for “democracy”) has noticeably quieted.
Mr. Biden’s one-on-one conversations will likely prove to be the thorniest parts of his trip. Both he and Mr. Johnson are expected to emphasize the common ground between them when they hold a bilateral meeting on Thursday ahead of the opening of the G7, but Mr. Biden – who is proud of his Irish ancestry – is expected to be blunt with his British host about concerns that Mr. Johnson is risking stability in Northern Ireland by seeking to renegotiate the post-Brexit border arrangements that have the British region following European Union, rather than British, trading rules.
Mr. Biden has another difficult conversation waiting for him in Brussels, where he is due to speak with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the NATO summit. Relations between the U.S. and Turkey have become strained in recent years over Mr. Erdogan’s decision to purchase Russian-made anti-aircraft systems, as well as Mr. Biden’s recognition of the 1917 genocide of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Empire forces.
But the most challenging meeting will almost certainly be the Geneva summit with Mr. Putin, which is scheduled for Wednesday. Again, Mr. Biden will seek to distance himself from the Trump era by talking tough with Mr. Putin about a range of disagreements, including the presence of Russian troops in and around Ukraine, Mr. Putin’s support for Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, and the Kremlin’s alleged involvement in cyberattacks and election meddling. But Mr. Biden, who has sought to maintain practical co-operation with Moscow on issues like arms control, also needs to establish a working relationship with Mr. Putin.
“He’s got to look strong. He’s got to send a message, not just to Americans, but to the Europeans [who are] asking, ‘Will you protect us?’” said Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the U.S. and the Americas program at Chatham House, a London-based international affairs think tank. “The optics are going to be tough. This will be in many ways the single most interesting meeting to watch.”
Pierre Vimont, a retired French diplomat who is now a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, said the entire trip was designed in a way that would allow Mr. Biden to first put an end to the divisions of the Trump era, and then arrive in Geneva for his meeting with Mr. Putin looking as though America’s allies were united behind whatever message he chose to deliver to the Russian leader.
“Biden’s trip is about giving a new tone to the relationship,” Mr. Vimont said. “It’s about sending the right messages to the other side – namely to China and Russia and other actors – in order to show them that Western democracies are united and working together again.”
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