President Joe Biden completed a whirlwind international trip on Wednesday— his first as US president. Over the past week he met with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and attended the G7. He went to Brussels for the Nato summit and the US-EU summit. He travelled to Geneva and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. After focusing the first few months of his presidency on domestic policy, Biden, has now publicly debuted his foreign policy in meetings with both allies and an American adversary.
It was a big trip for Biden. But were the results as grand as the summits?
The G7 summit and the Nato summit were, by all accounts, successful. Biden reiterated that the US is once again ready to be a responsible actor on the world stage, which was warmly received by allies (though there may be lingering concerns among European leaders and citizens that they will have to revert to crisis mode after the next election). There were steps taken toward a minimum global corporate tax and Nato said that it would consider Chinese security threats to be under its remit in its communique, which fulfilled a US goal. The geopolitical pageants were pulled off.
The question, then, is whether there was anything to the pageantry. As our international editor Jeremy Cliffe wrote earlier this week, the G7 commitment to donate 870 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine next year is far too low; the language of free and fair trade is vague; and the G7 did not establish a timeframe for the move away from the use of coal. Although the Nato communique did reference China, the effort was undermined by French President Emmanuel Macron, who, after signing the communique, said “Nato is an organisation that concerns the North Atlantic, China has little to do with the North Atlantic. So, it’s very important that we don’t scatter ourselves and that we don’t bias our relationship with China.”
One central European official I spoke to at the GLOBSEC security conference in Bratislava said: “The form has changed. The agenda is the same.” The form — that is, that a US president does not berate his allies and security partners — can help, the official conceded. It is not insignificant that there can be summits where allies and partners come together to work toward shared aims without rebuking one another. It matters that Biden reaffirmed America’s commitment to Article V, the NATO principle that states that an attack on one member is an attack on all; if it didn’t, the alliance would not have been in crisis during the Trump years. It is easier to make meaningful change on substantive issues if the form or rhetoric is diplomatic and appropriate. But rhetoric is not a substitute for substance.
If, in other words, one accepts that values-based alliances are in the US interest, and that those alliances prove themselves more meaningful when they accomplish concrete and ambitious aims, then Biden’s trips were successes, but muted ones.
Arguably the highest profile meeting was between Biden and Putin in Geneva. Expectations were not high and were intentionally managed ahead of the summit. But here, too, there was modest success. The two men agreed that their countries would send their ambassadors back to their posts. And they agreed to set up discussions on arms control and cyber warfare.
There will be some — and indeed there already are some — who will say that Putin got exactly what he wanted at the summit; Russia was treated as a major world power and Putin got to give a press conference in which he railed against the US and conceded nothing. But in Geneva, Biden arguably got what he wanted, too: conditions were established to try to work together on particular issues.
[See also: Trapped in the Cold Web]