LONDON – Joe Biden’s first presidency overseas trip will be more than a few smiling photoshoots and polished statements.
Many see his attendance at the Group of Seven summit and then at the NATO summit next week as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: not only to help restore relations with battered Washington allies, but also to reaffirm the faltering state influence. United and the West. himself.
The visit will also be clouded by questions as to whether Biden, for all his transatlantic experience, is actually more focused on the rising competitor in Beijing than on former Cold War allies across the pond.
“After four tumultuous years of Trump, Europeans now have the American leadership they have always dreamed of,” said Fabrice Pothier, former NATO political planning chief. “Except now the story has moved on.”
From Friday to Sunday, Biden and his team will attend the G-7 summit of major industrial nations, an international spectacle packed into the small Cornish seaside resort of Carbis Bay in the southwest corner of England.
On Monday, he will travel to Brussels for a brief NATO summit before flying to Geneva for a face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.
The meeting with Putin is likely to involve strong words. But the G-7 is where the decisions that will shape the international relations of the United States and the world will or will not be made.
The G-7 is a club of post-war industrialized allies – the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and Japan – that have come together to the first time in 1975. Russia joined in 1997, making it the G-8, before it was expelled. in 2014 for invading the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula.
This year there are four invited countries: India, Australia, South Korea and South Africa.
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On the agenda are the global response to the coronavirus, climate change, trade and technology. But Biden has made it clear that he sees the trip more broadly as an opportunity to rally allies to the cause of liberal democracy in what he sees as a fight against Chinese President Xi Jinping’s authoritarianism, a characterization that Beijing holds. rejects.
The White House says the most immediate way to achieve this is the global response to the coronavirus – to provide “a high-level, climate-friendly, transparent and rules-based alternative to what China is proposing,” as the National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a briefing Monday.
The past year has hardly been a publicity for the West, as the United States and others have failed to stop mass deaths from Covid-19 and then distributed vaccines only nationally. before agreeing to give them to the poorest countries.
Meanwhile, China has controlled the virus within its borders, its economy is booming this year, and it has sought to improve its image abroad by donating or selling tens of millions of doses. vaccines.
While this is indeed an inflection point for the West, it comes soon after many experts questioned whether the G-7 had become obsolete. Then-President Donald Trump was not alone last year when he called it “a very outdated group of countries”; critics have said it was a relic of the Cold War ill-suited to deal with the complex problems of the modern world.
“The world is waiting to see if the G-7 can lead the world out of this crisis in a productive way,” said Leslie Vinjamuri, program director for the United States and the Americas at Chatham House, a London think tank.
“Will the West stand up and lead and, quite frankly, pull into the arms of all those people across the rest of the world who are in desperate need of it?” she asked. “If they don’t get it from the United States and Europe, they’re going to go to China and they’re going to go to Russia.”
Global opinion about the United States plunged in most countries during Trump’s presidency – especially among traditional Washington allies – according to regular surveys by the Pew Research Center, a Washington think tank.
Since Biden was elected, there has been “a dramatic shift in America’s international image,” Pew said Thursday, with public opinion of Biden and the United States rebounding in a dozen key countries since. taking office.
Most of Europe’s leaders are no doubt relieved to see Trump’s back and his caustic approach, and they have praised Biden’s enthusiastic multilateralism. But they will always be suspicious. One big reason is that the European powers seem more reluctant than Biden to take a hard line on China.
The European Union has suspended a massive investment deal with Beijing in response to allegations of human rights violations in western Xinjiang province, which China denies. But many see the confrontational “all together against China” approach as “counterproductive,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a February speech.
Even though the investment deal has been suspended, the economic ties run deep. China, for example, remains Germany’s leading export market.
Some European officials are also cautious about putting their weight behind Biden when they fear he will be easily replaced by Trump, or someone like him, in 2024.
Others question whether Biden’s Democratic call to arms is a friendly invitation or rather a directive with conditions.
Europe’s economic weight has faded in recent years as the G-7’s share in the global economy has risen from 80% when it was created to 40% today. Many experts here say that Europe is increasingly becoming the junior partner in the transatlantic relationship.
Some saw evidence of this imbalance when, with little warning, Biden backed the waiver of intellectual property rights for vaccines this year. It was embarrassing when German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke out against the decision.
European experts know that “the strategic focus of the United States is not at all on Europe – it is on the larger and much more complicated game that is unfolding with China,” said Pothier, who is now a senior consulting researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London think tank.
The Covid-19 occupies an important place
“I think it’s no exaggeration to say that Friday’s G-7 is about life and death,” former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown said this week at an event hosted by Chatham House. “His decision will determine who is vaccinated and safe and who remains unvaccinated and is at risk of dying.”
After vaccinating a large chunk of their own population, Biden and some of his allies have vowed to start donating millions of doses overseas.
Brown is among those who fear that while the G-7 is likely to make progress on vaccine donations, it won’t go far enough, allowing China and Russia to vigorously promote their vaccine diplomacy policies. .
“After a year of miserably failing international cooperation, we are at a crossroads – where history may or may not turn,” Brown said.