Joe Biden has waited a lifetime for this trip. As his White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, joked, before Biden departed on his first European tour President–that will culminate at a face-to-face staredown with Vladimir Putin next Wednesday, in Geneva–“he’s been getting ready for fifty years.” The buildup suggested nothing less than the epochal event, but there is frequently a mismatch between the grand language of international summitry and the achievements that truly result. That is very likely to be the situation with Biden’s inaugural foray, as well. His national-security adviser, Jake Sullivan, stated that the use of the trip was less than”to rally the world’s democracies to tackle the great challenges of our time.” Biden himself, soon after landing in Britain, his first stop on the three-country, eight-day trip, said something similar. “The United States is back, and the democracies of the world are standing together to tackle the toughest challenges,” he informed U.S. troops stationed in England. “I believe we’re at an inflection point in world history.”
So much for reducing expectations. Before the excursion, Biden’s advisers said that the summits will focus on the”three’C’s”: COVID, climate, and China. Sure enough, one of the first initiatives they rolled out was a plan to purchase five hundred million COVID vaccines from Pfizer and distribute them internationally. Supporters immediately hailed this as a “vaccine Marshall Plan.” On Thursday, Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the host of the G-7 meeting, signed an expansively worded update of the famous Atlantic Charter, which was first executed by F.D.R. and Winston Churchill during the Second World War. This one vows to”commit to keep on constructing an inclusive, honest, climate-friendly, sustainable, rules-based global economy for the 21st century,” among other lofty aspirations. The forthcoming communiqué for the NATO summit next week, meanwhile, was said to focus extensively on how the transatlantic alliance could begin to reorient itself toward the security challenges posed by a more assertive China, which has been the primary foreign-policy goal articulated by Biden. The message from the new Administration is simple: Europe should unite with the United States in order to counter the increasingly global threat from authoritarian nations both near (Russia) and far (China).
Of course, Biden has set himself up here for endless quibbling about what it means to be united–an echo, perhaps, of the debate in Washington these days about what to make of Biden’s pledge of bipartisanship at a moment when bipartisan deals are exceedingly elusive. The Germans, after all, are building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia, despite objections from the U.S. and elsewhere in Europe. The French, wary after four years of”America First” from Donald Trump, are embracing”strategic liberty” from the United States. Biden, despite the conciliatory talk, has not yet lifted the steel-and-aluminum tariffs that Trump, citing “national security,” had imposed on Europe. And, as far as the supposed unifying threat from Beijing, the E.U. negotiated a major new trade deal with China before Biden’s Inauguration, although it is now on hold, pending objections in the European Parliament.
The main accomplishment of the Biden trip, however, will not come from the policy debates that inevitably occur between allies; the win here is that it is happening at all. The fact that Biden, and not Trump, is President virtually guarantees him a successful international début; all Biden has to do, in some sense, is show up. By standing with America’s allies and countering America’s adversaries, he will be doing what an American President is supposed to do, which is to say, the opposite of what Trump would do. There’s a reason that a new Pew Research Center report, released on Thursday, shows that roughly three-quarters of respondents have confidence that Biden will”do the ideal thing in world affairs,” up from the seventeen per cent who expressed such confidence in Trump a year ago.
A poll of the leaders whom Biden will meet this week would almost certainly be even more lopsided in Biden’s favor. This is a group, after all, that Trump maligned and confounded for four long years. Trump called the European Union a “foe.” He made his first foreign trip to the unfree Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where he danced a sword dance and promised not to lecture his hosts about tiresome human rights. He campaigned against NATO as”obsolete,” and in his first European trip he refused to endorse NATO‘s sacrosanct Article 5 principle of all-for-one-and-one-for-all collective defense. He ripped up a painstakingly negotiated group communiqué after one G-7 summit, because he was mad at something that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had said at a press conference.
A year ago, Trump was supposed to host the annual G-7 summit, which was scheduled to take place only a few months into the pandemic. He insisted on trying to do it in person anyway, and was furious when German Chancellor Angela Merkel refused to come, tanking hopes of a live gathering. Trump was so furious, in fact, that days after a call with Merkel he had his Administration announce the withdrawal of U.S. military forces stationed in Germany, which would have cost billions of dollars and taken years to carry out. Needless to say, the personal pique of a President is not the way major national-security decisions are supposed to be made. Biden has since halted the move. So, yes, the new President, it seems to me, wins this week merely by being there.
Biden, however, is not the only world leader selling a global clash of civilizations. In a triumphalist interview in advance of a G-20 summit two years ago, Vladimir Putin told the Financial Times that”the liberal thought has become obsolete,” and dunked on the West for the failure of its institutions. At an appearance at the World Economic Forum this January, the Russian leader was even more explicit. The Western model of liberal capitalism, he said, has failed because it”foments social, racial, and cultural intolerance, with tensions erupting in nations with appear