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.

Credit: Flickr

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.

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