WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden spent his first trip overseas highlighting a sharp break from his disruptive predecessor, selling that the United States was once more a reliable ally with a steady hand at the wheel. European allies welcomed the pitch — and even a longtime foe acknowledged it.
But while Biden returned Wednesday night to Washington after a week across the Atlantic that was a mix of messaging and deliverables, questions remained as to whether those allies would trust that Biden truly represents a long-lasting reset or whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would curb his nation’s misbehaviors.
Biden’s mantra, which he uttered in Geneva and Brussels and on the craggy coast of Cornwall, England, was that “America was back.” It was Putin, of all people, on the trip’s final moments, who may have best defined Biden’s initial voyage overseas.
“President Biden is an experienced statesman,” Putin told reporters. “He is very different from President Trump.”
But the summit with Putin in Geneva, which shadowed the entire trip and brought it to its close, also underscored the fragility of Biden’s declarations that the global order had returned.
Though both men declared the talks constructive, Putin’s rhetoric did not change, as he refused to accept any responsibility for his nation’s election interference, cyberhacking or crackdown on domestic political opponents. At the summit’s conclusion Biden acknowledged that he could not be confident that Putin would change his behavior even with newly threatened consequences.
Biden's multilateral summits with fellow democracies — the Group of Seven wealthy nations and NATO — were largely punctuated by sighs of relief from European leaders who had been rattled by President Donald Trump over four years. Yet there were still closed-door disagreement on just how the Western powers should deal with Russia or Biden’s declaration that an economic competition with China would define the 21st century.
“Everyone at the table understood and understands both the seriousness and the challenges that we’re up against, and the responsibility of our proud democracies to step up and deliver for the rest of the world,” Biden said Sunday in England.
As vice president and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden had trotted the globe for more than four decades before he stepped off Air Force One and onto foreign soil for the first time as commander in chief. His initial stop, after a speech to thank U.S. troops stationed in England, was for a gathering with the other G-7 leaders.
The leaders staked their claim to bringing the world out of the coronavirus pandemic and crisis, pledging more than 1 billion coronavirus vaccine doses to poorer nations, vowing to help developing countries grow while fighting climate change and backing a minimum tax on multinational firms.
At the group’s first face-to-face meeting in two years because of the pandemic, the leaders dangled promises of support for global health, green energy, infrastructure and education — all to demonstrate that international cooperation is back after the upheavals caused by the pandemic and Trump’s unpredictability. There were concerns, though, that not enough was done to combat climate change and that 1 billion doses were not nearly sufficient to meet the stated goal of ending the COVID-19 pandemic globally by the end of 2022.
The seven nations met in Cornwall and largely adhered to Biden’s hope that they rally together to declare they would be a better friend to poorer nations than authoritarian rivals such as China. A massive infrastructure plan for the developing world, meant to compete with Beijing’s efforts, was commissioned, and China was called out for human rights abuses, prompting an angry response from the Asian power.
But even then, there were strains, with Germany, Italy and the representatives for the European Union reluctant to call out China, a valuable trading partner, too harshly. And there a wariness in some European capitals that it was Biden, rather than Trump, who was the aberration to American foreign policy and that the United States could soon fall back into a transactional, largely inward-looking approach.
After Cornwall, the scene shifted to Brussels where many of the same faces met for a gathering at NATO. Biden used the moment to highlight the renewed U.S. commitment to the 30-country alliance that was formed as a bulwark to Moscow’s aggression but frequently maligned by his predecessor.
He also underscored the U.S. commitment to Article 5 of the alliance charter, which spells out that an attack — including, as of this summit, some cyberattacks — on any member is an assault on all and is to be met with a collective response. Trump had refused to commit to the pact and had threatened to pull the U.S. out of the alliance.
“Article 5 we take as a sacred obligation,” said Biden. “I want NATO to know America is there.”
When Air Force One touched back down in Washington, Biden again faced an uncertain future for his legislative agenda, the clock ticking on a deadline to land a bipartisan infrastructure deal as the president was confronted with growing intransigence from Republicans and mounting impatience from fellow Democrats. But Biden and his aides believe he accomplished what he set out to do in Europe.
The most tactile of politicians, Biden reveled in the face-to-face diplomacy, having grown frustrated with trying to negotiate with world leaders over Zoom. Even amid some disagreements, he was greeted warmly by most of his peers, other presidents and prime ministers eager to exchange awkward elbow bumps and adopt his “build back better" catchphrase.
At the end of each day, Biden would huddle with aides, including Secretary of State Tony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, eagerly going over a play-by-play of the day’s meetings and preparing for the next. Aides padded his schedule with some down time to pace the 78-year-old president, though there were still a few missteps, including some verbal flubs and when he simply neglected to announce a Boeing-Airbus deal in front of the European Council.
His summit with Putin, coming three years after Trump sided with the Russian leader over U.S. intelligence agencies when those two men met in Helsinki, loomed over the trip, with the cable networks giving it Super Bowl levels of hype. Aides wanted to confront Putin early in the presidency, with some hope of reining in Moscow and reaching some stability so the administration could more squarely focus on China.
There were no fireworks in their summit near the Swiss Alps, and the nations agreed to return ambassadors to each other’s capitals and took some small steps toward strategic stability.
But while Biden was able to deliver stern warnings to Putin behind closed doors, he also extracted few promises. In the Russian president’s post-summit remarks, he engaged in classic Putin misdirection and what-about-ism to undermine any of the United States’ moral high ground.
In his own Geneva news conference, Biden stood against a postcard-perfect backdrop of a tree-lined lake, taking off his suit jacket as the sun beat down from behind, so bright that reporters had trouble looking directly at the president.
Once more, Biden declared that America was back, but he also soberly made clear that it was impossible to immediately know if any progress with Russia had, in fact, been made.
“What will change their behavior is if the rest of world reacts to them and it diminishes their standing in the world,” Biden said. “I’m not confident of anything; I’m just stating a fact.”
Madhani reported from Geneva.