Mr. Blinken Goes to Europe, Part Deux

In my recent post, What About Us?, I argued that, on his trip to Europe in June, it would behoove President Biden to meet individually with both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in their respective countries as he did with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson before the G-7 summit in Carbis Bay, England. These in-person meetings in France and Germany would have staved off any unnecessary strains in the relationships over issues spilling over from the Trump administration.

Instead, the next week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, after attending the summits alongside Mr. Biden, traveled back to Europe to meet bilaterally with the leaders and foreign ministers of Germany and France in Berlin and Paris highlight the importance of both relationships. In addition to meeting the German and French leaders, Secretary Blinken met with Italian leaders in Rome to “underscore the U.S.-Italy partnership’s important role in addressing key global priorities.” The purpose of Mr. Blinken’s post-Biden trip to Europe was to quell any strains in the relationship that Mr. Biden was unable to address during his time in Europe last month.

The question remains, did Secretary Blinken’s trip work?

Germany

Secretary Blinken’s first stop on his European trip was Berlin. During his time in Berlin, he met with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Chancellor Angela Merkel. He visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, noting that Germany and the United States were working together to counter antisemitism and Holocaust denial. While in Berlin, Mr. Blinken also attended a conference hosted by Germany and the United Nations focused on supporting Libya’s transition to a stable, permanent government.

Secretary Blinken’s visit to Berlin was not all work. He and Foreign Minister Maas grabbed a beer at a Berlin beer garden where Mr. Maas could hardly contain his excitement about his counterpart, noting how happy he was that the United States and Germany were on the same page again. “It’s more fun,” he added. Chancellor Merkel was equally complimentary and equally relieved, stating that “We are delighted that the American states, in order to quote the American President Joe Biden, are back again on the international, multilateral scene.” It was clear that Secretary Blinken was just as thrilled as the Germans to be in Berlin, observing that the United States has no better friend in the world than Germany. It is safe to say that, despite some lingering policy differences, Mr. Blinken’s top in Berlin was a success.

France

Secretary Blinken received a very friendly welcome in Paris where he met with Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian and President Emmanuel Macron where they discussed the tougher issues facing the U.S. and its European allies, including the Iranian nuclear deal, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and China. “My dear Tony, I’m really very happy to welcome you to Paris,” Foreign Minister Le Drian rejoiced.

Secretary Le Drian was not shy about celebrating the end of the turbulent years of the Trump administration, expressing his elation that the United States is back: “It is  excellent news for all of us that America is back. It is a comeback to the values that we share, it is a comeback to the multilateralism that we built together and it is our responsibility to continue with it intensively. This is what France and the Europeans had to fight for alone for four very long years.” Secretary Blinken returned the sentiment, affirming that the United States had no closer friend in the world than its oldest ally, similar to the statement he made while in Berlin about Germany. Much like his stop in Berlin, French officials were excited and relieved to welcome the American secretary of state, showing that the trip was certainly a success.

Italy

After his stops in Berlin and Paris, Secretary Blinken then traveled to Rome where he met with Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and where he was greeted in a similar manner as in Germany and France. He and Minister Di Maio co-chaired a meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, with the aim of discussing the maintenance of pressure on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Then, he attended another meeting focused on Syria, with a focus of bringing an end to the country’s decades-long civil war. Mr. Blinken also visited the Vatican where he met with Pope Francis.

While Secretary Blinken’s stop in Rome was packed full of events, it also went a long way to reaffirming the U.S.-Italian relationship. In fact, Minister Di Miao paid the United States the ultimate compliment, in the eyes of the Biden administration, stating that Italy’s relationship with the United States vastly outweighed the Italian relationship with China. The United States has expressed concern over Italy’s ties to China, specifically after Italy, under the previous government, signed up for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, which the U.S. views as problematic. “We are a strong trade partner with China, we have a historic relationship,” he admitted. “But it is absolutely not comparable, and it does not interfere with, the alliance of values we have with the United States.” In short, one could argue that Secretary Blinken’s stop in Italy reaped results that far outweighed what the Biden administration anticipated.

Conclusion

Secretary Blinken traveled to Europe in the wake of President Biden’s largely successful trip to Europe. During his visits to Berlin, Paris, and Rome to further Biden administration efforts to revitalize U.S. relations with its European allies, leaders in France, Germany, and Italy treated Secretary Blinken like a “rock star.” After the frustrating and destructive Trump years, European leaders received Mr. Blinken with relief and even joy, marking his recent trip as a rounding success.

What About Us?

My recent post, Backgrounder: Mr. Biden Goes to Europe, summarized President Joe Biden’s trip to Europe in June where he visited the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Switzerland to attend summits with the United States’ G-7, NATO, and EU allies. He also met individually the leaders of the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Russia.

Specifically, before the G-7 summit, President Biden met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Carbis Bay, England in an effort to reaffirm the special relationship. During this meeting, Mr. Biden and Mr. Johnson signed an updated Atlantic Charter and Mr. Biden was not shy in raising his concerns about Brexit negotiations and the hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. 

What became evident, though, is that President Biden did not give two key Europeans the same attention he gave Mr. Johnson and the United Kingdom.  Germany and France are perhaps the most important U.S. allies in Europe, outside of the United Kingdom, and relations between the United States and these two countries were damaged during the Trump administration. In an effort to advance one of his central foreign policy objectives – repairing the United States’ relationships with its allies, particularly in Europe – Mr. Biden should have taken the time to meet with Chancellor Merkel and President Macron in their respective capitals during his European trip to symbolize the importance of these relationships.

Germany

An individual, in-person meeting with Chancellor Merkel in Berlin during the European trip would have gone far in simmering one particularly tense issue. At the center of the U.S. – German relationship is the disagreement surrounding Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline that will run from Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany. President Biden and his team have denounced the project. U.S. officials on both sides of the aisle fear the pipeline will give “Russia too much power over European gas supplies.” Fundamental to this concern is the worry that Russia will exploit Europe’s energy needs as a means of getting its way in other foreign policy matters. Similarly, the United States is concerned that Russia will shut off gas entirely to Ukraine and Poland, starving the two countries of their own energy needs.

Ultimately, after Chancellor Merkel visited the White House in mid-July, the United States is no longer threatening to block the pipeline, deciding it was not worth risking its key alliance with Germany over a pipeline that is mostly finished. In short, Mr. Biden decided the United States’ relationship with Germany was more important. However, much of the unnecessary tension between the United States and Germany over the Nordstream 2 pipeline could have been headed off in an individual, in-person meeting with Chancellor Merkel in Berlin during his trip to Europe.

France

Similarly, an individual, in-person meeting with President Macron in Paris would have helped relieve any strain in the U.S. – French relationship. America’s European allies, particularly France and Germany, are relieved that President Biden is now in office, even if they are still a bit wary, and repairing damage to the transatlantic alliance caused by the Trump administration. But the damage was done. Europe began to doubt the United States’ commitment to the transatlantic alliance, and the continent is now looking to become less dependent on the United States in what it calls strategic autonomy.

The most vocal proponent of this autonomy has been Mr. Macron. This is an uncomfortable component in the relationship between France and the United States and represents a broader trepidation among European leaders about the continent’s, relationship with the United States. Mr. Biden has a lot to prove to the United States’ European allies, including France, and is on his way to mending some relationships that took a beating during the last administration. France is one of the key countries that President Biden has focused on in his efforts to repair alliances, and an individual, in person meeting in Paris during his European trip could have staved off some of the strain on such an important relationship.

Conclusion

While U.S. relations with its key European allies remain close and positive, France and Germany were both shocked by the poor treatment they received from the Trump administration. Mr. Biden came into office with a promise to revitalize America’s relationships with its closest allies, particularly in Europe. Still, certain issues have spilled over from the Trump administration and are still causing tension even now that Mr. Biden is in office. In light of the frustrations and anxieties among two of America’s closest allies in Europe, a meeting between President Biden and the leaders of France and Germany could have smoothed over any doubts about the United States’ commitment to the transatlantic alliance that may still exist.

Backgrounder: Mr. Biden Goes to Europe

On June 9, President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. set off for a trip to Europe with stops in the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Switzerland. While in the United Kingdom, President Biden, an avowed Atlanticist, attended a Group of 7 (G-7) meeting on the first leg of the trip and also met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Then, he traveled to Brussels to meet with leaders from the other 29 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and then attended a summit with leaders from the European Union (EU), including the Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, and Ursula von der Leyen, who runs the European Commission. On the last day of the trip, President Biden met with his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, in Geneva.

Before boarding Air Force One, President Biden published an op ed in the New York Times, where he stated that “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.” In short, the purpose of his European trip was three-fold: show America’s European allies that the United States is back, get on the same page with the Europeans about China, and put guardrails on the U.S. relationship with Russia.  

The G-7 Meeting

President Biden’s meeting with the leaders of the G-7 countries in Cornwall, a small coastal town in the United Kingdom, was relatively fruitful. Number one on his agenda was getting the United States’ closest European allies (including the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Italy), Canada, and Japan to agree on the threat that a rising China poses, particularly through its Belt and Road Initiative. The G-7 meeting was the first attempt by leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations to counter the Belt and Road Initiative, through which China lends and invests money to countries across Africa, Latin America, and now Europe. As a result, the G-7 leaders began discussions on designing a similar program called Build Back Better for the World.

Beyond direct concerns about China, the G-7 leaders announced several other initiatives. For one, the leaders of the G-7 committed to donating more than 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries. The G-7 leaders also pledged to cutting their collective carbon emissions in half by 2030 and agreed to imposing a minimum 15 percent corporate tax.

The Special Relationship

While in the United Kingdom, President Biden met with Prime Minister Johnson for their first in person get-together. In a meeting designed to “affirm the special relationship” between the United States and United Kingdom, the two leaders introduced an updated Atlantic Charter based off the one signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in 1941.

The two leaders revised the 80-year-old charter, originally created to ensure the “final destruction of the Nazi tyranny,” to include present day threats like cyberattacks, election interference, pandemics, and climate change. Above all, the meeting between the two leaders was to “redefine the Western alliance” in the face of a global ideological struggle between democracies and autocracies, led by China and Russia.

President Biden took the time to raise concerns over Northern Ireland. He worries that Prime Minister Johnson will destabilize the Good Friday peace agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland in his Brexit dealings. President Biden publicly asserted during his campaign that it was imperative that the Good Friday Agreement not “become a casualty” of Brexit.

Mr. Johnson, who is eager to show off the United Kingdom’s newly branded post-Brexit plans called Global Britain, has not so subtly made his hopes known for a trade deal with the United States as a way to calm the nerves of his citizens in post-Brexit Britain. However, President Biden echoed his former boss when he declared that a trade deal between the two countries would hinge on the prevention of a hard border between Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, an independent country which is still part of the EU.

NATO Summit

After the G-7 meeting, President Biden and his team traveled to Brussels for summits with leaders of NATO and the EU. At a pivotal point in alliance history, President Biden made sure to alleviate his NATO pals’ anxiety after four turbulent years of American leadership under the Trump administration.

In this vein, President Biden met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and held meetings with leaders of the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania to hear concerns about Russia’s threat to NATO members in Eastern and Central Europe. NATO, during this summit, targeted Russia due to its aggressive military activity and wargames along NATO’s borders. Moreover, for the first time in alliance history, NATO mentioned China in its final communique, calling the communist nation a “constant security challenge” and recognized that China is trying to weaken the global order.  

Perhaps most importantly, President Biden recommitted to NATO’s Article 5, which states that an attack on any member is an attack on all. “Article 5 we take as a sacred obligation,” he affirmed. He also acknowledged the apprehension of America’s NATO allies: “I want NATO to know America is here.” His attendance and actions at the NATO summit were intended to reassure NATO allies that the United States is, in fact, back.

Let’s Talk Turkey

While in Brussels for the NATO summit, President Biden met individually with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At a time when Turkey’s relationships with the United States and Europe are quite tense, President Erdogan has considerable leverage over his Western allies. However, President Erdogan’s continued authoritarian tendencies have not helped the situation, and neither have his efforts to balance relations with Russia, NATO’s archenemy, particularly over Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system.

Through the first few months of his administration, President Biden has “given [President] Erdogan the diplomatic cold shoulder.” Biden called the Turkish president for the first time in April, only to state that he was officially recognizing the 1915 slaughter of Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire as genocide. This decision angered President Erdogan profoundly, calling the decision a “deep wound” in the relationship, and has reinforced his fear that the United States wants to replace him. However, besides publicly stating his frustration, President Erdogan did not retaliate, suggesting he wants to establish a good relationship with Mr. Biden and the United States.

As the two leaders met, the Biden administration is looking to sidestep the disagreements over the purchase of Russian S-400s, Turkey’s gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, and the animosity between Turkey and Greece and Cyprus, both NATO allies. As Politico points out, there is “little chance the relationship collapses even if tensions remain high”; it looks like tensions will likely remain high for the next few years.

US-EU Summit

On his next stop of his European trip, President Biden attended a summit with EU leaders. During the summit, President Biden noted the importance of the United States’ relationship with both NATO and the EU and stressed the importance of collaboration, stating that working together was “the best answer to deal with these changes.” President Biden and the EU agreed to remove tariffs on goods like EU wine and US tobacco and spirits, imposed in a row over mutual frustration over subsidies for Boeing, a U.S. company, and its European rival, Airbus, ending a dispute over the aircraft subsidies that last for 17 years.

There is one area of disagreement between the US and the EU on trade. In 2018, the Trump administration arbitrarily placed tariffs on EU steel and aluminum, citing national security grounds. During the summit, the EU lifted the retaliatory tariffs on US steel and aluminum for six months, with hopes that the United States would reciprocate. However, President Biden did not commit to lifting the punitive tariffs. Despite this sensitive topic, President Biden went into the summit with EU leaders “seeking European support to defend Western liberal democracies in the face of a more assertive Russia and China” at a time when the to adversaries are working to undermine the Transatlantic alliance.  

A Worth Adversary

On his final stop in Geneva, Biden met with Russian President Putin. Relations between the United States and Russia are at their worst since the end of the Cold War and have only worsened in the first few months of the Biden administration. Russia’s significant cyberthreat, continued interference in U.S. and allied governments’ elections, a massive build up of forces along the Ukrainian border, and the horrendous treatment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny have been the main sources of poor relations.

President Biden requested the meeting, which was a bit surprising after he called Mr. Putin “a killer” earlier this year. But, as the administration pointed out, President Biden has no intention of resetting the U.S. relationship with Russia. Instead, analysts agree the purpose of the meeting was to avoid tensions with Russia in order to be able to concentrate on his ever-growing domestic agenda to-do list. In the meeting, it looks like Biden wanted to put guardrails on the relationship and to find areas of compromise, which is increasingly becoming a theme in Biden’s foreign policy.

The summit was not all symbols and speculation. In separate press conferences, President Biden said he raised the issue of Russia violating Mr. Navalny’s human rights as well as Ukraine and Belarus. Both countries referred to the summit as “constructive” and “positive,” and voiced their hopes of a better relationship, agreeing to restore ambassadors back to Washington and Moscow and discussed areas of cooperation and mutual interest, including Afghanistan and the Arctic. The summit was not meant to reset relations between the two countries, but it did seem to fulfill Biden’s initial purpose: making known to the Russian leader that the United States will not back down.

It’s Time to End the Embargo

The United States and Cuba have been engaged in a diplomatic stalemate since 1960. Under President John F. Kennedy, the U.S. imposed an embargo on Cuba to encourage free markets and democratic governance. Over a half-century later, President Barack Obama normalized relations with the island nation. These were later rolled back by the Trump administration, including the imposition of sanctions and suspending most embassy services.

During the campaign, President Biden pledged to return to the Obama administration’s policy of engagement with Cuba. However, the Biden administration has done very little in the way of defining its Cuba policy. President Biden should follow in his former boss’s footsteps and seek improved relations with Cuba.

Working with Congress to lift the archaic and ineffective embargo would be an ideal first step, and would go a long way toward strengthening relations and helping the Cuban people, who recently have taken to the streets to protest Cuba’s six decade autocratic rule. It is imperative that the United States lift the embargo if there is any chance of normalizing relations with Cuba or improving conditions within that country.

The embargo is an outdated policy, coming into effect during the beginning stages of the Cold War when the United States was at the height of its fear of communism,  especially in the Western Hemisphere. A “product of the Cold War,” rooted in an antiquated preoccupation with the spread of communism, the policy does not belong in the twenty-first century.

Now, the United States must create policies and take actions, like lifting the embargo, that are relevant to the new century. The United States has been able to move beyond Cold War fears and establish normal ties with countries just as or more authoritarian than Cuba. If those relationships were able to move successfully into the twenty-first century, then it is time for America and Cuba to do the same.

Additionally, the embargo has blemished the United States’ image around the world and has been particularly damaging to its relations in the Western Hemisphere. This especially true at a time when the Biden administration is working to restore American leadership in the world and bring multilateralism back to the forefront of American foreign policy. Moreover, the United States’ strongest allies in the region criticize this ill-fated policy.

More broadly, outside the Western Hemisphere, nearly all of Washington’s allies disagree on this issue. One of President Biden’s overarching foreign policy objectives is restoring relationships with its closest allies. Repairing its relationship with Cuba  and working with Congress to remove the embargo would be the first step to improving its reputation, restoring its global leadership, and mending some of its most important relationships, both within the Western Hemisphere and around the world.

Further, the embargo is ineffective; it is actually counterproductive to the United States’ goals in Cuba. The United States maintains this obsolete policy, originally seeking to depose Fidel Castro, for fear that Cuba is incapable of any reforms. The embargo, however, failed to dislodge Castro. Instead, it has solidified empathy and support for Cuba abroad, served to justify its perpetual authoritarianism, and fostered Cuba’s close relationships with U.S. adversaries like Russia, China, and Venezuela. Fidel Castrol is no longer in power in Cuba, which is now run by Miguel Diaz-Canel, the first non-Castro to lead Cuba in the nation’s history. Yet, the embargo is still in place.

President Obama took the correct action with Cuba to open embassies and begin normalizing relations. This shifted under the Trump administration but can be corrected under the Biden administration. The time is right for President Biden to follow through on his campaign pledge to reengage with Cuba and take the necessary political steps toward building a normal relationship with its island neighbor.