Biden’s international meetings begin Thursday with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who heads one of America’s closest allies, and end six days later with Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of its toughest adversaries.
“Along the way, we’re going to make it clear that the United States is back,” Biden told American forces stationed at RAF Mildenhall, a British air base, shortly after landing in the United Kingdom on Wednesday. “And democracies of the world are standing together to tackle the toughest challenges and the issues that matter most to our future.”
Not since George H.W. Bush has a president taken office with such long experience in foreign affairs. Biden came to the Senate in 1973, chaired the Foreign Relations Committee and acted as point man on various global issues when he was Barack Obama’s vice president.
At every stop in the coming week — from scenic Carbis Bay in Britain’s coastal Cornwall district to Brussels to Geneva — Biden will seek to leverage his personal familiarity with fellow leaders in an effort to reestablish American engagement abroad.
“He has been getting ready for 50 years,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said as Biden prepared for meetings of the Group of Seven, NATO and the European Union. “He has been on the world stage. He’s known a number of these leaders for decades . . . and there’s nothing like face-to-face engagement in diplomacy.”
But Biden may also find himself confronting the limits of personal diplomacy. The world has tilted in a sharply populist direction since he left the vice presidency, and several influential leaders — including Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron — have taken office since Biden’s last stint in power.
Beyond that, diplomats disagree on how much personal appeals by an American president can sway other leaders. Biden’s long, if testy, relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not mean the Israeli leader took heed when Biden quietly pressured him to back off an assault on Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. Biden then switched tactics and went public with what amounted to an American deadline for a cease-fire.
Most of the leaders Biden will see in Europe are likely to be grateful for a return to a more predictable American foreign policy agenda after Trump’s transactional populism. The big exception is Putin, a canny political survivor whose tenure in positions of power approaches Biden’s own.
As Biden spoke to the troops at Mildenhall on Wednesday, news broke that Russia had banned the political movement led by jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny. The action appeared to be a message to Biden that Putin will not bend to foreign pressure.
During the four-day trip to the U.K. that started Wednesday, Biden, in addition to attending sessions of the G-7, will meet separately with Johnson and visit Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle. He is expected to confer with other allies, including Macron and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, on the sidelines of larger meetings and has a potentially contentious discussion Monday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But it is the June 16 meeting with Putin in Switzerland that many diplomats consider the main event. Biden is expected to challenge the Russian leader on his country’s practice of cyberattacks, its human rights violations and its invasion of Ukraine, among other subjects, while seeking more cooperation in arms control and other areas.
“He will do so, of course, after having had nearly a week of intensive consultations with allies and democratic partners from both Europe and the Indo-Pacific,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said this week. “So he will go into this meeting with the wind at his back.”
The underlying goal is to demonstrate a sharp pivot from Trump’s public deference to Putin, which was on display when the two met in Helsinki in 2018. Biden’s aides were at pains this week to assert that even though Biden initiated the meeting, it did not amount to a reward for Putin’s misbehavior, as some Republicans have suggested.
“Joe Biden is not meeting with Vladimir Putin despite our countries’ differences; he’s meeting with him because of our countries’ differences,” Sullivan said. “We believe that hearing directly from President Putin is the most effective way to understand what Russia intends and plans.”
The contrast between the meetings with allies and the adversarial session with Putin is meant to underscore the divide between democracies and autocracies, a top theme for Biden over the next week. The trip also offers Biden, a traditional glad-handing pol, his first chance to road-test his tagline “America is Back” in person.
The president has already rejoined the Paris climate accord and launched talks to revive the international nuclear deal with Iran. Such efforts are appreciated by European leaders, but they also feel alarm over the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol and anxiety that American politics could again swing toward nationalism, diplomats and analysts said.
Given America’s political landscape, some diplomats said they recognize that Biden’s outreach may be restrained.
“He knows the issues, and he knows the people, and he’s very passionate,” said a senior European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe discussions with the administration. “But on the other end, he has internal priorities. He’s the president of the United States, he has the 6th of January, and it’s clear he has to perform on his internal agenda. The midterms are already in one year, there is a big pressure, we understand that.”
The G-7 meeting will focus on economic recovery and the growing pressure on wealthy nations like the United States and Britain to provide coronavirus vaccine doses to poorer ones. The United States will announce it is buying 500 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine to donate to other countries, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.
Because of the pandemic, the G-7 gathering with Britain, Canada, France, Japan, Germany and Italy will offer Biden his first chance to see leaders of many of the closest U.S. allies face to face. It is also the first major in-person world gathering since Britain left the European Union.
Biden goes into the meeting of rich market democracies after the countries’ finance ministers agreed this month to endorse a global minimum tax rate of 15 percent for corporations. The figure is lower than Biden wanted, but it’s an important marker toward his goal of discouraging companies from headquartering wherever their taxes will be lowest.
During his tenure, Trump disrupted two G-7 meetings, in Canada and France, over his “America First” trade agenda and his hostility to even the notion of collective international decision-making.
This session, on the other hand, is expected to be calm and even boring, with the goal of reestablishing the cooperative mood and predictable approach that is a main goal of Biden’s diplomacy.
“The last four years have not been easy,” said one European official, adding that in contrast, his government currently “couldn’t find any issue on which we disagree” with the United States, something that was not the case even under the Obama administration. For the G7 and NATO, the official said, “it is a rare moment.”
While some uneasiness remains over issues such as taxes, tariffs and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the official said, “there is a sense we have now that we can really again build a solid platform” for cooperation on economic, technological and climate issues, as well as a unified approach to China.
Trump also made clear his disdain for NATO, saying the alliance’s members took advantage of the United States and failed to do their part when it came to defense spending. At one NATO meeting in 2018, Trump threatened to pull out of the alliance if members did not cough up more money for defense on the spot.
NATO leaders are now hoping for a sharp change in tone.
“It matters that President Biden has a strong personal commitment to NATO, something I really feel,” Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance’s secretary general, said in an interview. “He’s been to NATO headquarters many, many times. . . . His personal knowledge of NATO and Europe of course matters.”
Biden and Stoltenberg met Monday in Washington, and the secretary general said the president conveyed a “very strong message” of support.
Still, Biden will need to salve bruised feelings among NATO partners who felt blindsided by his rapid decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. NATO troops fought alongside Americans in what remains the alliance’s largest ever military undertaking.
“European allies were caught on the wrong foot by the Biden administration’s withdrawal announcement,” said Constanze Stelzenmuller, a scholar at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “They agree in substance, with misgivings about the outcome, but they felt that they had not been consulted on the timeline.”
Biden will also meet in Brussels with leaders of the E.U., the bloc of 27 nations whose very mission Trump found objectionable.
Stavros Lambrinidis, the E.U. ambassador to the United States, said at a recent event organized by the German Marshall Fund that the summit will have two audiences.
“One audience is domestic, it is our people, Europeans and Americans,” he said. “And for that audience, it is extremely important for us to be able to show that the transatlantic alliance delivers for our citizens’ security and prosperity in a way that going it alone never could.”
The second audience, Lambrinidis said, is would-be dictators: “If your hope is to spread authoritarianism around the world, well then you should stand up and notice as well, because this alliance will do everything it can to stop this from happening.”
Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.