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Biden, Macron, Scholz, Johnson: Allies abroad, struggling at home

Four leaders seeking to forge a powerful alliance against Russia face serious political weaknesses at home.

President Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron and other leaders at the G-7 summit. (Liesa Johannssen-Koppitz/Bloomberg)

MADRID — When leaders of the Group of Seven nations gathered one recent night in the Bavarian Alps to pose for a photo after a long day of meetings, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson enthused, “Ride for life, G-7!” — as if the three-day summit were a whimsical adventure for the transatlantic allies.

Johnson could be forgiven for wishing. Like his three major counterparts, who flew Tuesday from the G-7 gathering in Germany to their next summit, a NATO meeting in Madrid, Johnson is trying to forge a strong international alliance at a time when he is greatly weakened at home.

President Biden’s approval has plummeted, and he faces potentially big losses in the midterms. French President Emmanuel Macron prevailed in his recent reelection campaign but then promptly lost control of Parliament amid historic gains by the far right and a strong result for the left. German Chancellor Olaf, struggling to gain his footing after replacing the veteran Angela Merkel, is sharply criticized in his country as a dithering, impenetrable leader.

Then there’s Johnson. His poll ratings tanked after revelations that he and his staff broke covid lockdown rules with parties at his residence. He is the first serving British prime minister to be fined in office. In a no-confidence vote this month, 41 percent of his Conservative colleagues voted to oust him, and the party chair has quit.

For all their individual woes, the four leaders — who met privately Tuesday morning in Germany before heading to Madrid — face a broadly similar threat: rising populism against the backdrop of a shaky global economy, institutions under siege and a bloody war pressed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It may be hard, current and former diplomats say, to maintain purpose and unity amid such shaky domestic foundations. “Putin is watching this — it’s quite possible that he sees time as his friend,” said Richard Haass, a veteran diplomat and president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Putin probably figures he is better at weathering a long war than, say, a newly divided France. Or a polarized America. Or just simply given what’s going on in Germany.”

As Johnson’s “ride for life” comment suggests, along with earlier bantering by the leaders about going shirtless, foreign trips can give leaders a sense of welcome relief from the weight of their problems at home.

“Clearly his authority at home is shot,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said of Johnson. But support for Ukraine is widespread, he noted, giving Johnson, like the other leaders, a popular cause on the global stage: “Anything to do with Ukraine is to some extent ring-fenced from normal politics.”

Still, that may not last, and at some point the drawn-out war could become a political liability as it continues to drive high prices and fuel shortages. The leaders seemed well aware of that danger.

“Domestic politics get more difficult the higher the political and economic costs get, and that’s exactly what Putin is counting on.” said Heather A. Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund. “For all these leaders, it’s absolutely fine to visit Kyiv and express support. But it also has to be explained to each of their countries and win the popular support at home, and it can be challenging and politically difficult.”

When Macron arrived a few days ago for the G-7 summit at Elmau Castle, the news alerts lighting up phones back in France were not about his upcoming meetings with other heads of state. Rather, after Macron lost his absolute parliamentary majority this month by a wide margin, he has faced a treacherous governing landscape that his own prime minister described as “unprecedented” and a “risk for our country.”

Macron has said he wants to form a new majority by early July, but it’s not clear he can persuade enough opposition lawmakers to support him. “The domestic political situation is rather uncertain, tricky, and complicated,” said François Heisbourg, a political analyst who in the past advised Macron on national security issues.

Although Macron is increasingly being compared to a lame duck president back home, he did not appear humbled at the G-7 summit. On a crucial issue — price caps on Russian oil and gas exports — Macron deviated from the U.S. proposal of reaching a consensus among large oil importers, pushing instead for an agreement with oil-producing nations.

Britain, too, has faced a populist eruption of sorts, as a referendum forced the country’s withdrawal from the European Union in 2020. That upheaval thrust Johnson into the prime minister’s office, but he now faces a series of headwinds, from outspoken rebels in his own party to a looming battle with the E.U. over Northern Ireland to a slowing economy.

Inflation in the United Kingdom is more than 9 percent, the highest rate in 40 years. And just as the United States is bracing for a potential recession and France endured “yellow vest” protest over economic conditions, the United Kingdom could be heading for a wave of strikes this summer amid growing labor unrest.

“The cost-of-living crisis is putting pressure on households, for which they are seeking help. The government’s ability to help is dependent on how much money they have,” Bale said. “If they are spending millions or billions on helping Ukraine, that might be money it can’t spend on protecting people from inflation.”

Scholz, unlike his counterparts, has suffered domestically in part for his handling of the Ukraine crisis itself, with critics saying his policies are confusing and complaining that he has dragged his feet on delivering heavy weapons to the Ukrainians.

His path was always going to be challenging, since he replaced a legendary leader in Merkel, who was popular in foreign capitals and seen as the de facto leader of Europe. But Scholz’s first six months in office have prompted criticism that he is not up to the job.

As Scholz was hosting G-7 summit this week, the first heavy weapons delivered by Germany arrived in Ukraine. But the chancellor is facing calls to do more amid Ukrainian losses in the field, and political leaders in his country are loudly asking just what is holding him back.

Biden is in many ways being buffeted by the same forces as the others, as the Russian war drives inflation and political difficulties at home. Although many Americans strongly support helping Ukraine, polls also suggest they are deeply worried about the economy.

The president and his party suffered an additional setback last week when the Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade opinion upholding abortion rights. Biden urged voters to respond by electing more Democrats, but a growing number of people in his own party complain that the president is delivering a badly inadequate response to a national crisis.

Those political currents could add up to significant losses in the November elections, when operatives in both parties expect Democrats to lose control of the House and possibly the Senate.

There is a long history of American presidents turning their attention overseas amid political troubles at home. A few weeks after his current trip to Europe, Biden heads to Israel and Saudi Arabia for more diplomacy.

“In most of these countries, a leader has a lot more leeway when it comes to foreign policy than they do domestic,” Haass said. “So Macron or Boris Johnson or for that matter Joe Biden can pretty much keep their foreign policies on track.”

But Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama, warned that it would be a mistake for the leaders to ease up on Moscow to focus on getting inflation under control.

“Sometimes, some politicians think it’s a trade-off and we have to focus on inflation now and not win the war, and that underestimates the damage to President Biden and the Democratic Party if, rolling into November, it looks like this was a defeat in Ukraine,” McFaul said. “Because the Republican narrative will be ‘Defeated in Afghanistan, defeated in Ukraine, weak on China,’ and that is not a narrative they want to have.”

Noack reported from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, and Adam from London. Loveday Morris contributed to this report.

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