Biden hasn’t so much as spoken to them on the phone.
They are among a host of strongmen and nationalists who cozied up to Trump, benefiting from his “America First” foreign policy at the expense of traditional U.S. allies, only to see their fortunes fall with the Oval Office under new management.
The cold shoulder is part of a strategy in keeping with Biden’s promise as a candidate that he would not coddle dictators or mistreat U.S. allies. More than three months into his term, leaders on both sides of that divide are still adjusting.
Biden kept Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waiting for weeks before they spoke on the phone in February, a symbolic comeuppance for a democratic leader who had bragged about his access to Trump. Trump visited Israel and Saudi Arabia on his first overseas trip as president; Biden will visit Britain and Belgium next month.
Biden has held 29 known calls with leaders thus far. None of them were with the leaders of Hungary, Egypt and the Philippines, whom Trump had praised.
The administration’s strategy prizes the rebuilding of bedrock alliances such as those with South Korea and Japan, both menaced by North Korea. The second step of that strategy is locking arms with allies to confront what Biden has identified as larger threats from China and Russia, administration officials said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping were the first adversarial leaders Biden called. He has spoken with Putin twice.
In his address to Congress on April 28, one day shy of his 100th in office, Biden framed the competition as a race to “win the 21st century” and a chance to show that democracy is a better system than any of the top-down alternatives.
Xi wants to make China “the most significant, consequential nation in the world,” Biden said.
“He and others — autocrats — think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies because it takes too long to get consensus.”
Biden has gotten little consensus in Congress for his expensive domestic agenda, but Republican critics have been muted when it comes to Biden’s approach to alliances and adversaries.
The big exception is the religious autocracy in Iran, where Biden’s envoys are offering to drop some sanctions if Iran again reins in its nuclear program and complies with the 2015 international nuclear compact.
Republicans are also skeptical about Biden’s approach to Cuba and Venezuela, whose leftist autocratic leaders were rare examples of dictators Trump froze out. The Biden administration has said little about either nation, although it still recognizes opposition figure Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela.
Trump’s affinity for Putin unnerved traditional Republicans, and his personal outreach to Kim upended decades of Republican orthodoxy.
“This has to start with an understanding of how good Trump was for these dictators,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
“Putin’s strategy is always to divide us from our allies” and shake faith in democratic institutions, Malinowski said. “And for four years they had a guy in the White House who trashed our allies, said journalists were the ‘enemy of the people,’ and that our own elections were rigged,” he said. “Now the free ride is over.”
Biden has depersonalized relationships with adversarial leaders, downgrading them and relying on aides to do most of the work. Authoritarians who forged ties with Trump are accustomed to calling the shots directly, and liked his inclination to do the same.
Trump’s impulse to align with any leader whose nationalist politics matched his own elevated figures such as Bolsonaro and Duda, who in turn sought to profit politically from Trump’s regard. It is not clear how they will respond to Biden’s indifference, although Bolsonaro, who had styled himself as the “Trump of the tropics,” appears to be making an effort to regain good graces. He pledged help at Biden’s climate summit, although his environmental record in office is poor.
Biden’s first calls and virtual visits were all with allies and North American neighbors, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga became Biden’s first in-person foreign visitor last month. South Korean President Moon Jae-in will be the second, later this month.
Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, gave Biden good marks for his early approach to North Korea and for reconstituting a four-way Asia-Pacific democratic alliance called the Quad as a counter to China.
But Cheng said senior Biden foreign policy aides miscalculated by arranging to meet Chinese counterparts in Alaska in March. The lead Chinese diplomat arrived with a lengthy prepared statement taking the Biden administration to task, which he read publicly.
“The first sign of strain is Anchorage,” especially since the Chinese chose to harshly lecture the Americans on their own soil, Cheng said.
“That was not a good day for the United States. This did not make us look strong. It made us look like we allowed the Chinese to grab the microphone and run the meeting,” Cheng said.
The meeting was part of Biden’s attempt to cooperate and communicate with China and Russia where possible. Leaders of both nations attended the climate summit.
So did Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who got bad news from Biden a few days later. Biden called the increasingly authoritarian leader to say he would override Turkish objections and label mass killings of Armenians in 1915 as a genocide.
Biden has also proposed an early summer summit with Putin, which national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday would air the lengthy list of U.S. complaints while trying to also map areas of cooperation.
Biden said Tuesday that the meeting would probably be attached to his first scheduled foreign trip, to Britain and Belgium, in June.
Trump’s deference to the Russian leader during a 2018 summit in Helsinki became an animating criticism for Biden as he was running for president; the thing he said he should be elected to prevent.
“He’s Putin’s puppy,” Biden said of Trump during a debate in September.
As president, Biden has called Putin a killer, applied further punitive sanctions and defended Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. His administration pulled back, however, on an assertion Biden made as a candidate that Russia had put bounties on the heads of American troops serving in Afghanistan and that Trump had refused to confront Putin over it.
U.S. intelligence agencies did not have sufficient evidence of Russian bounties to justify sanctions, administration officials said when the latest round of penalties was announced in April.
Putin appears especially sensitive to Biden’s criticism, recalling his U.S. ambassador after the “killer” remark, for example, said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, director of the transatlantic security program at the Center for a New American Security. But Putin is most worried that Biden will succeed in rebuilding U.S.-European alliances and box him in, she said.
Putin’s responses to Biden have been a mix of signals to Washington, to Europe and to U.S. ally Ukraine, whose leader Volodymyr Zelensky was at the center of Trump’s first impeachment, she said. Biden called Zelensky last month.
“He is concerned that a more unified West could embolden Zelensky and provide a more consequential challenge to what he’s been doing over the past few years,” Kendall-Taylor said.
“Since Biden has come to power, I think we’ve seen Putin take a much more confrontational approach with Europe, in particular,” she said. “In large part he’s concerned what Biden is doing to rebuild the transatlantic alliance.”
The recent buildup of Russian forces along the border with Ukraine was also a message to Biden that he does not get to define the U.S.-Russia relationship or try to limit it to areas of common concern such as Iran’s nuclear program, said Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“This last flare-up over Ukraine, I think, was intended to send a very clear signal to Washington: If you think you’re just going to deal with us on Iran, you’re in for a surprise,” he said.
Russia has announced that the mobilization will wind down.