ST. IVES, UK – The first time then-Vice President Joe Biden met Justin Trudeau, he told story after story of his encounters as a young senator in the 1970s with the Prime Minister’s father , also Canadian Prime Minister.
During one of his last meetings with Angela Merkel, Biden reminded the German Chancellor of one of her first visits to Berlin two decades earlier, taking her sons to Checkpoint Charlie.
In any world leader’s first high-level meetings with Chinese Xi Jinping in China a decade ago, Biden was accompanied by his granddaughter, an “budding Chinese,” joking that he was. “More appropriate to say that Naomi took me with her.”
As current President Biden now kicks off days of face-to-face meetings with world leaders on Thursday in Cornwall, he brings with him what administration officials see as a secret weapon for high-stakes talks: decades of working to build bridges with allies and adversaries. .
“In international relations, all politics are personal,” Biden said during a visit to South Korea in 2013. “Because everything is ultimately based on trust. And trust only comes from personal relationships – and not friendly – personal and candid with your counterpart, so you don’t have to wonder about intentions.
For so many new presidents on an inaugural trip abroad, the packed days of bilateral meetings and multilateral summits are often devoted to introductions and preparing for a new relationship. Former President Donald Trump’s first visit to Europe four years ago was particularly sensitive, as the allies cautiously took the step of a brash new US leader with little foreign policy record.
But when asked this week how Biden was preparing for his first trip abroad as president, White House press secretary Jen Psaki joked, “He’s been preparing for 50 years.”
During his tenure as a senator and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden’s office began cataloging his travels. A version of this document has survived to this day, passed from staff member to staff member and allowing them to refresh their memory, or that of Biden, of potential past encounters.
“I have traveled over 1.3 million miles for the president, meeting heads of state, most of whom I have experienced most of my career,” Biden said on his last trip to the foreigner as vice president in 2017, just 48 hours before Trump’s inauguration. .
Right after landing in the UK on Wednesday, Biden told RAF Mildenhall servicemen he had visited “well over 100 countries” as a senator and deputy chairman.
The depth of the relationship, especially with American adversaries, is particularly valuable at what Biden himself called an “inflection point” in world history, with democracies and autocracies fighting for influence. in the 21st century.
During his 2020 campaign, Biden punctuated many of his speeches by recounting his first conversations with Xi, in which his Chinese counterpart asked him to describe America in one word. Biden suggested: “Possibilities.”
“Personal relationships are the only vehicle through which you build trust,” Biden told Xi two years later, upon returning for further meetings in Beijing. “It doesn’t mean that you agree, but have confidence in knowing that the man or woman across the table is telling you precisely what they want to say, even if you don’t want it. hear.”
“Because our relationship is so complex, it won’t be easy to get it right and it will require direct candor with each other about our interests, concerns and, quite frankly, our expectations,” Biden added.
Ahead of his first face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week, advisers stressed the value of being able to speak frankly and directly without needing to measure up to his counterpart.
“Bottom line: he thinks you have to be clear, direct and direct in all aspects of the engagement with Vladimir Putin, and that’s what he intends to do,” the adviser said on Wednesday. to National Security Jake Sullivan.
There is however a risk of concentrating on the personnel to the detriment of the substance. But Biden has often told the story of his last face-to-face meeting with Putin, telling him bluntly that he “has no soul.”
“We understand each other,” Biden said, Putin replied.
Ted Kaufman, Biden’s longtime chief of staff and successor as senator from Delaware, said even the president was watching expectations on whether he would be able to move Putin on a major issue.
“But he knows how to get there. He knows how to put the ball into play, ”Kaufman told MSNBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin. “I think one of the things that really strikes you about his presidency is that he’s the first president in years and years to have real experience as president. … He has known Putin for 20, 30 years. He knows how to negotiate.
Another U.S. official said Biden’s strong personal relationships could prove to be even more valuable with allies who began to question the sustainability of their partnership with the United States after the Trump presidency.
“He has to credibly show that he is doing what he has to do and that this will not only bring the United States back economically, but it will somehow normalize our political dysfunction or remedy it,” said Matthew Goodman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s a difficult message, especially so early in the administration.”