US President Joe Biden’s first international tour felt like a breath of fresh air. From the G7 summit in Cornwall to a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Biden carried out his duties with statesmanship and composure – a stark contrast from the mayhem and mendacity that characterized Donald Trump’s foreign visits. Biden’s trip sent a clear message: the United States is once again in good hands, which will be held out first and foremost to its traditional allies.
But Biden’s goals extend further: by rallying the world’s democracies to counter China and other autocracies, he hopes to engineer a kind of global democratic renaissance. His ability to realize this vision is far from clear. Yet he has wasted no time in getting down to business.
The last US president who chose Europe for his maiden foreign trip was Jimmy Carter, back in 1977. Carter’s tour started off in the United Kingdom, where he attended a G7 summit, and later took him to Switzerland, where he met Syrian President Hafez al-Assad (a Soviet ally). The parallels with Biden’s trip are unmistakable – and, given his longstanding admiration for Carter, perhaps not entirely coincidental.
But the world has also undergone profound changes since 1977. Consider the UK. When Carter visited the country, it had recently joined the European Communities (which preceded today’s European Union) – a move later endorsed overwhelmingly by British voters. Today, the UK has recently abandoned the EU and is mired in political turmoil.
For Biden, this demanded a reaffirmation of America’s “special relationship” with the UK, including signing a new Atlantic Charter. But it also required a blunt reminder to Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the UK should uphold its commitment to maintain an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (an EU member), thereby protecting the Good Friday Agreement. All in all, if forced to choose between the UK and the EU, there is little doubt that Biden would favor the latter.
The G7 has also changed considerably since Carter’s time. When the G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US) first met in the 1970s, they comprised nearly 70% of the world’s GDP in nominal terms – a share they maintained until the turn of the century. But in the last two decades, this share has plunged to about 45%.
Biden’s laudable commitment to strengthening cooperation with the other G7 countries has delivered mixed results. On one hand, the world’s wealthiest countries continue to come up short in delivering COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries. On the other hand, their recent agreement to establish a global minimum corporate-tax rate of 15% is, as Harvard’s Dani Rodrik put it, “historic.”
Given the G7 countries’ diminishing international weight, however, the agreement’s principles will have to be adopted more widely to have the intended impact. And securing broad buy-in will not be easy. The next hurdle to clear will be the G20, where significant pushback can be expected, particularly from China, whose human-rights record and trade practices were harshly denounced in the G7 communiqué.
After the G7 meeting, Biden attended a NATO summit in Brussels, which also produced a noteworthy communiqué that singled out China, along with Russia. Yet again, this represents a significant shift from the 1970s, when NATO served as the West’s bulwark against the Soviet Union.
The symbolism of NATO placing such strong emphasis on China is not lost on anyone – least of all the Chinese. To be sure, many of China’s conventional and non-conventional military actions must be countered. But NATO often is not the best vehicle for that, and it should avoid overreaching.
Biden’s summit with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel was the least politically charged yet most consequential event of his European tour. The meetings produced a truce in the two sides’ 17-year dispute over subsidies to aircraft companies Airbus and Boeing. All retaliatory tariffs have been suspended for five years.
The US and the EU also committed to resolve differences over trade in steel and aluminum by the end of this year. While US protectionism will not fizzle out, and the bilateral trade relationship remains beset by tensions, Biden clearly understands that he has to pick his battles and that the EU – the world’s largest trading power – has much leverage to wield.
The final item on Biden’s agenda – his meeting with Putin in Geneva – also reflected a major shift from 1977. Of course, the US and Russia remain adversaries on many fronts, and Biden made it abundantly clear to Putin that, unlike Trump, he would not shrug off the Kremlin’s transgressions against the US (such as cyberattacks) and violations of international norms.
But it would make little strategic sense to approach Russia only as an adversary. Biden is thus attempting a tough balancing act. While the US is portraying Russia and China as the main spearheads of an autocratic bloc, much in line with the NATO communiqué, Biden is exploring the possibility of reaching some basic understandings with Russia, and perhaps even driving a wedge between it and China.
Overall, Biden’s first foreign tour deserves high marks for both planning and execution. Biden succeeded in drawing a clear line under the previous administration, reassuring America’s European allies, and presenting the US as a “responsible stakeholder” within the multilateral system – precisely what it has long urged China to become.
But disagreements among democratic countries will not vanish overnight, nor will the West recover its former global standing any time soon. America is back, and there is cause to celebrate. But, like it or not, the US-led unipolar world is gone for good.
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