US President Joe Biden embarks on his first overseas trip on Wednesday where he will meet European partners and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
"In this moment of global uncertainty, as the world still grapples with a once-in-a-century pandemic," Biden wrote in a Washington Post op-ed previewing his diplomatic efforts, "this trip is about realising America’s renewed commitment to our allies and partners, and demonstrating the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age."
The president first travels to Britain for a summit of the Group of Seven leaders and then Brussels for a NATO summit and a meeting with the heads of the European Union. It comes at a moment when Europeans have diminished expectations for what they can expect of U.S. leadership on the foreign stage.
Central and Eastern Europeans are desperately hoping to bind the U.S. more tightly to their security. Germany is looking to see the U.S. troop presence maintained there so it doesn’t need to build up its own. France, meanwhile, has taken the tack that the U.S. can’t be trusted as it once was and that the European Union must pursue greater strategic autonomy going forward.
“I think the concern is real that the Trumpian tendencies in the U.S. could return full bore in the midterms or in the next presidential election,” said Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. diplomat and once deputy secretary general of NATO.
The sequencing of the trip is deliberate: Biden consulting with Western European allies for much of a week as a show of unity before his summit with Putin in Geneva.
Biden is also scheduled to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan while in Brussels, a face-to-face meeting between two leaders who have had many fraught moments in their relationship over the years.
The trip will be far more about messaging than specific actions or deals. And the paramount priority for Biden, who leaves Wednesday for his first stop in the United Kingdom, is to convince the world that his administration is not just a fleeting deviation in the trajectory of an American foreign policy that many allies fear irrevocably drifted toward a more transactional outlook under former President Donald Trump.
In their face-to-face sit-down in Geneva, Biden wants to privately pressure Putin to end myriad provocations, including cybersecurity attacks on American businesses by Russian-based hackers, the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and repeated overt and covert efforts by the Kremlin to interfere in U.S. elections.
Biden is also looking to rally allies on their COVID-19 response and to urge them to coalesce around a strategy to check emerging economic and national security competitor China even as the U.S. expresses concern about Europe's economic links to Moscow. Biden also wants to nudge outlying allies, including Australia, to make more aggressive commitments to the worldwide effort to curb global warming.
There are several potential areas of tension. On climate change, the U.S. is aiming to regain its credibility after Trump pulled the country back from the fight against global warming. Biden could also feel pressure on trade, an issue to which he's yet to give much attention. And with the United States well supplied with COVID-19 vaccines yet struggling to persuade some of its own citizens to use it, leaders whose inoculation campaigns have been slower will surely pressure Biden to share more surplus around the globe.
Another central focus will be China. Biden and the other G-7 leaders will announce an infrastructure financing program for developing countries that is meant to compete directly with Beijing’s Belt-and-Road Initiative. But not every European power has viewed China in as harsh a light as Biden, who has painted the rivalry with the techno-security state as the defining competition for the 21st century.
The European Union has avoided taking as strong a stance on Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy movement or treatment of Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in the western Xinjiang province as the Biden administration may like. But there are signs that Europe is willing to put greater scrutiny on Beijing.
The EU in March announced sanctions targeting four Chinese officials involved with human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Beijing, in turn, responded by imposing sanctions on several members of the European Parliament and other Europeans critical of the Chinese Communist Party.