There was an air of anticipation last week as Air Force One took off for Europe, carrying US President Joe Biden on his first foreign trip since his inauguration in January. In his first few months in office, Biden has approached his new role with the enthusiasm of someone first entering politics and the sense of purpose and urgency of someone living on borrowed time and who faces a series of particularly tough challenges. These include the consequences of the worst pandemic in living memory; an American society that is deeply divided; the number of undocumented migrants at the Mexican border hitting a record high; tensions with China and Russia; and a potential return to the Iran nuclear deal, all of which add up to a demanding and hazardous international agenda.
Considering the chaotic legacy that the previous administration left him, it might have been expected that Biden’s first move would be to steady the ship on all fronts, with the aim of reassuring the American people and the international community that rational and responsible behavior has been restored to the White House. But from the moment it became clear that he had won the presidential election, through his inauguration address and his nominations for key positions in the new government, Biden, beyond restoring an orderly and coherent decision-making process, immediately began to set very energetic and radical domestic and foreign affairs agendas.
One of the new president’s most significant moves was to send a clear message to allies and rivals alike that the US was back on the international stage and once more leading the democratic world. Hence, Biden’s three-legged trip to Europe stimulated much interest, especially as it symbolically comprised summits with allies, the G7 and NATO, and a much-anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country, together with China, has been earmarked by the US and its allies for containing and confronting.
Biden, the seasoned statesman with decades of experience, conducted this trip straight out of the diplomacy textbook. After rallying his allies and consolidating relations with them at the G7 summit in picturesque Cornwall’s Carbis Bay in the UK, followed by a NATO summit in Brussels, he could demonstrate to Moscow and Beijing that the democratic world is behind the US in terms of vision, resolve and security preparedness. In all these meetings, the shadow of probably the most consequential rivalry — that of Washington and Beijing — was present.
To ensure that his government’s intentions were plain to see, Biden had not only set himself clear objectives for his trip, but was also accompanied by top officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. This underlined that it was a serious business visit, in which ceremonies and formalities were of secondary importance.
And to leave no doubt about the aim of his visit to Europe, while rallying the American public behind it, he set out his vision in an op-ed for the Washington Post. In it, he declared that, “as the world still grapples with a once-in-a-century pandemic, this trip is about realizing America’s renewed commitment to our allies and partners, and demonstrating the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age.” Gone was the constant wrangling and bickering with allies on social media platforms, with the president instead concentrating on accelerating the global recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, constructively tackling the climate crisis, and “confronting the harmful activities of China and Russia,” while projecting leadership and assertiveness rather than hostility for its own sake or the avoidance of tough decisions.
After a prolonged period in which international summits were conducted virtually, it has been refreshing to witness these in-person gatherings, which have added a much-needed human touch to proceedings and provided a sense of returning to some sort of normality. Nevertheless, the G7 represents the world’s richest countries and, though some of them, including the US and hosts the UK, have been among the worst hit by the coronavirus, they have the resources to recover from it. This is thanks to their health systems, the economic support they can offer, and their crucial ability to efficiently roll out vaccination programs much faster than large parts of the world are able to. This exclusive club’s major challenge is to lead the way and help the rest of the world out of this catastrophe.
The dignity, integrity and respect with which Biden handles himself and treats others has been a welcome change after the four-year tenure of his predecessor, but there is substance as well as style in America’s reassertion of its relations with the world and its setting of a progressive and inclusive agenda, which is most impressive and welcome. It was encouraging to witness in the G7’s concluding communique the call for action to introduce a fairer global tax system to end the race to the bottom on corporate taxation, and to work harder for a job-creating transition to global clean energy. Similarly, an openly critical view of China’s abysmal human rights record and its non-market policies and practices in the world economy, and of Russia’s meddling in the affairs of other countries, might well lead to more friction in world affairs — but, if handled firmly and pragmatically, might also lead to an improvement in the international norms of behavior.
Biden has shown resolute support for collegiate cooperation with other democracies on the most acute challenges the world faces, while expressing America’s unwavering commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty in facing old threats as much as the new ones, such as cyberattacks. This and his readiness to face up to other major powers who play by different rules signifies the new administration’s march toward an America that once more leads and cooperates.
However, beyond the rhetoric and the gestures, to achieve this there must be concrete policies, even if they might lead to a backlash at home. As welcome as America’s return to the world stage is — with a newly restored coherence, not to mention sanity, in the way it engages with other powers — restoring trust will need sustained policies over time to prove that the US is a world leader and that its power also depends on empowering others.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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