Jeanne Shaheen has had a busy start to her summer. A few weeks before US president Joe Biden took off on his European tour in mid-June, the senator headed to Europe. She was not foreshadowing the president’s trip to Cornwall, Brussels and Geneva, however. Rather, she went east.
Along with senators Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Rob Portman of Ohio, Shaheen – the only woman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chair of its subcommittee on Europe and regional security cooperation – visited Lithuania, Ukraine, and Georgia.
Originally, the plan had been to visit only Ukraine and Georgia, she told me in a phone interview last week. But “after the hijacking of the Ryanair jet, we wanted to go to Lithuania to meet with the opposition leader from Belarus”. They did meet Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, as well as the Lithuania foreign minister.
“Our message was really the importance of what was happening in Belarus,” she said, adding that they wanted to express not only support for Tsikhanouskaya and the opposition, but also interest in seeing action taken against Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko, long called the last dictator of Europe, cracked down further on dissent after protests that followed his supposed electoral victory last year. It is thought that Belarus effectively forced down a Ryanair flight in May to arrest a Belarusian journalist who was on board.
In Ukraine, the senators reiterated the US Congress’s bipartisan support, though they added it’s important for the country to continue on a path in favour of rule of law and against corruption. They shared a similar message with Georgia, which had its own democratic hardships earlier this year, with the opposition boycotting parliament for months. The United States supports Georgia, Shaheen said, but they need to continue implementing reforms.
“I think it was really important for us to be there at the time we were,” Shaheen said, referring to their arrival in Eastern Europe being ahead of Biden’s trip, which included the Nato summit and the meeting between Biden and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
Shaheen, 74, who has served as a Democratic senator from New Hampshire since 2009 and who also sits on the Senate Committee on Armed Services, has long used her position to champion democracy, rule of law, and the transatlantic relationship. Along with Republican senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, she led the effort, for example, to get American pastor Andrew Brunson out of prison and house arrest in Turkey. And along with Thom Tillis, a Republican senator from North Carolina, she revived the Senate Nato Observer group, which, in the Trump years, as the president lashed out against the alliance, gave European diplomats in Washington something to look to as proof of the United States’ commitment to Nato. (Nor has the observer group dissembled after Trump; she and Tillis are still trying to use it to ensure senators understand what’s happening at the intergovernmental military alliance.)
But the Trump years have tested all of the concepts – democracy, rule of law, America’s alliances – that Shaheen tries to bolster and protect. And there is a fear felt by some, both in the US and abroad, that as quickly as Biden has recommitted to all of the above, a new president in 2024 could rush to swing the pendulum back. Does that, I asked, come up in her conversations with allies and partners? And what does she say in response?
“It’s like us asking, ‘What is it going to mean when Germany elects a new leader this fall?’,” she said. “In a democracy, you can’t control who the leaders are. You have to rely on the good sense of the people in each country.”
“I’ve only heard that from the media,” she added, on whether partners raise concerns like the one I just had. In the meetings that she’s had with various European interlocutors, she’s been told that Biden’s trip was a strong start to restoring relationships. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on everything. I think everybody understands that. But it does mean that we share the same values and recognise how important our bond is as we look at the future challenges we face. In the US and in Europe.”
Of Biden’s meeting with Putin, Shaheen said, Biden came in “from a position of strength, with all of that support from our allies. And Putin was there really by himself.”
Of the US president’s visit to the UK specifically, she was impressed that Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed a new Atlantic Charter, providing a renewed statement of American and British goals (the first having been signed by former prime minister Winston Churchill and former president Franklin D Roosevelt). “I thought that was a statement …[that] even though the UK is no longer a member of the EU, the relationship – special relationship, really – that the US and the UK have is very important. I think that announcement was designed to point that out and make that clear.”
And what about those, on right and the left, who think that Nato is an outdated alliance?
“That’s just wrong,” she said. “So many of us said when Donald Trump was president: the United States is stronger when we are working with our allies. We’ve heard that from virtually every general who’s come before the Armed Services Committee.”
“It’s particularly important because our major adversaries don’t have a lot of allies. As I said, Putin came into the meeting with President Biden all by himself, without support from other countries. The same is true of China. […] The difference is the United States and the EU and our Nato partners: we don’t just share security interests, we also share values.”
I had one last question; one that wasn’t about Nato or the EU or the transatlantic alliance, but that was, in a way, about how we practise our values.
“You are, still, the only woman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” I said. “Are there issues you think that brings particular attention to?”
“It’s disappointing,” she said, “that I’m still the only woman on the Foreign Relations Committee. Because half of the world’s population are women. I think there are issues that I raise – for example, a couple of weeks ago, I raised the challenge that women and girls are facing in Afghanistan.” Shaheen had highlighted the need for a resolution on the matter in committee, though it took time to get through, “for various bureaucratic reasons” (it did eventually clear).
“Another [such issue] is the global gag rule, and why that is detrimental to women and children across the world,” she said. The global gag rule, also known as the Mexico City policy, requires foreign NGOs that receive health assistance from the United States to certify that they will not provide abortions, counsel patients on abortions, or advocate for abortion legislation.
And with that, she had to sign off and continue her busy summer. She was done speaking to me – but not to representatives from Nato countries; or Europeans looking to the United States; or for women and girls around the world.