President Biden sets off on his first international trip Wednesday, an ambitious, eight-day journey in Europe capped with what is likely to be a tense sit-down meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Biden’s mission: rebuild relations with allies and reassert America’s role as a leader on the world stage. But he’ll have to convince some of his old friends in Europe who have grown wary after four years of a more insular approach from his predecessor, former President Donald Trump.
Biden’s first stop will be in the United Kingdom for a G7 meeting. He will later travel to Brussels to meet NATO allies and European Union leaders. And then he heads to Geneva, where he’ll meet Putin.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters that it’s an opportunity to show like-minded nations what the United States can do on the world’s most pressing problems and then rally them to join along.
“That is going to be the best way for people to say, ‘Hang on, the United States can do this. They can deliver and we will stand up and stand behind them,'” Sullivan said.
Those issues include ending the pandemic, addressing climate change and confronting China. Sullivan hinted at a new plan in the works for allies to band together to help developing nations get financing for big projects — an alternative to what China has been doing with its Belt and Road initiative.
No more insults
It’s the first time world leaders are getting together in the same room since COVID-19 stopped travel and face-to-face meetings — and the first time since the departure of Trump, who turned diplomatic summits into slugfests.
At a NATO summit in 2019, Trump called Justin Trudeau “two-faced” after the Canadian prime minister was caught on a hot mic, making fun of Trump to other leaders.
Then there was the iconic G7 photo that captured German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders looming over Trump, arguing with him.
European leaders didn’t hide their concerns. Ahead of Trump’s summit in Helsinki with Putin — a meeting that resulted in Trump siding with the Russian leader rather than U.S. intelligence agencies, that had established Moscow meddled in the 2016 election — Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, gave Trump a frank warning.
“Dear America, appreciate your allies. After all, you don’t have that many,” Tusk said.
‘Rock star’ reception
Biden worked on foreign policy for decades during his time in the Senate and as vice president, and has close relationships with many of the leaders he will see on the trip.
Charles Kupchan, who worked on European issues in the Obama White House, said he expects Biden will “be treated as a rock star and feted” at the upcoming summits.
“Europeans during the Trump era questioned the degree to which they could look to and rely on the United States as a trusted friend, as a country that would protect it when the chips are down,” said Kupchan, who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.
The drama of Trump summits will be gone, said Heather Conley, who was a senior official for European issues in the George W. Bush State Department. “But you actually get to now focus on the work and not the theater. And trust me. There’s so much work that these multilateral organizations need to do on the very difficult economic and political conditions and security conditions.”
Biden has said he knows that he will still need to convince allies that things have changed, that the Trump years were an exception rather than a sign that America had shifted. He told Congress during his joint address that he had heard the concerns from many leaders.
“The comment that I hear most of all from them is they say, ‘We see America is back, but for how long?'” he said.
Contrast with Helsinki
The biggest unscripted moments of Biden’s trip could come during his meeting with Putin. There, Biden is expected to show that he is taking a different tack than Trump, as well.
Biden says he’s going to make clear his concerns about a long list of issues, including human rights, election meddling, and the recent cyber attacks against U.S. companies.
But some critics have said the meeting could reward Putin by elevating him on the world stage, and said the Biden administration doesn’t have clearly stated objectives.
The visit comes too early for the new administration, said Conley, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She said Biden is “clear-eyed” about Putin, but that the Russians may try to take advantage of what they believe is Biden’s desire for a more stable and predictable relationship.
“It’s absolutely unclear what tangible outcome can come from this conversation other than Mr. Putin getting that great photo op, continuing to do what he does, and his regime destabilize the U.S. and its allies. And that’s where you have to be very careful,” Conley said.
Sullivan defended the Geneva summit, arguing there is no substitute for meeting face to face, particularly for complex relationships like the one the United States has with Putin.
“He has a highly personalized style of decision-making and so it is important for President Biden to be able to sit down with him face-to-face, to be clear about where we are, to understand where he is, to try to manage our differences, and to identify those areas where we can work in America’s interests to make progress,” Sullivan said.
Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, sees an opportunity for NATO leaders to join together and speak out about Russia’s malign activities. But Daalder said they can only go so far.
“If NATO comes out and only says, ‘Russia is terrible, we can’t work with that. They represent a threat. We have to be absolutely opposed to them’ … then Putin would have no incentive at the Geneva meeting to come in and say, ‘Let’s find ways to work together,'” Daalder said.