President Joe Biden on Wednesday embarked on his first overseas trip since taking office, seeking to reaffirm the United States’ standing on the world stage with familiar allies, and portraying himself as the leader of the free world, including in his first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
After touching down in the United Kingdom, at Royal Air Force Base Mildenhall, Biden delivered a fiery speech to American service members stationed there, telling them he was going to Geneva “to meet with Mister Putin to let him know what I want him to know.”
“I’ll travel to Geneva to sit down with a man I’ve spent time with before, President Vladimir Putin,” Biden said to cheers from many of the 1,000 airmen, their spouses and children in the audience. “We are not seeking conflict with Russia. We want a stable, predictable relationship. Our two nations share incredible responsibilities and, among them, ensuring strategic stability and upholding arms control agreements.”
It was Biden’s first stop on his trip to Europe, and he laid out many of the large themes of his trip: America’s return to the world stage, reaffirming support for NATO, and celebrating multilateralism to address the world’s greatest challenges — from the pandemic to global warming, from Russia to China.
“At every point along the way,” Biden said, “we’re going to make it clear that the United States is back and democracies of the world are standing together to tackle the toughest challenges and the issues that matter most to our future, that we’re committed to leading with strength, defending our values, and delivering for our people.”
His serious tone was in contrast to a joking moment Biden had with reporters before boarding Air Force One in Maryland. “Watch out for cicadas,” Biden warned them, saying he had to brush one off his neck. “I just got one, it got me.”
(A White House press charter was delayed late Monday due to cicadas disabling the plane’s auxiliary power unit, a Delta spokesperson said.)
The White House previewed his trip Tuesday.
“He’s been getting ready for 50 years. He has been on the world stage. He’s known a number of these leaders for decades, including President Putin, and including a number of the leaders he’ll see at NATO and he’ll see at the G-7. Now, this is an important opportunity for him to see them in person, and there’s nothing like face-to-face engagement in diplomacy,” press secretary Jen Psaki said.
Leading into that summit, Biden hopes to shore up the backing of long-term U.S. allies at the G-7 summit in the United Kingdom and at a NATO summit in Brussels. Wary after the shock of the Trump era, European allies will be looking to Biden to assure them the political upheaval of the past four years was more a blip than a true sea change, and that there’s substance behind Biden’s “America is Back” catchphrase.
“This is a defining question of our time: Can democracies come together to deliver real results for our people in a rapidly changing world? Will the democratic alliances and institutions that shaped so much of the last century prove their capacity against modern-day threats and adversaries? I believe the answer is yes. And this week in Europe, we have the chance to prove it,” Biden wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post Sunday.
Along the way, Biden will try to frame it all in a way that appeals to Americans at home. He’ll address a gamut of issues with world leaders, from climate change to taxes, from defense to trade, and work to persuade Americans that it’s all in service of his “Build Back Better” agenda; the push to recover equitably from the economic downturn of the pandemic.
Here are key issues to track during Biden’s eight-day overseas trip.
A warning to Russia?
The most anticipated event of Biden’s first trip abroad will be his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where Biden intends to cover a range of issues with the man he previously said he didn’t think had a soul.
“In my phone calls with President Putin, I have been clear and direct. The United States does not seek conflict. We want a stable and predictable relationship where we can work with Russia on issues like strategic stability and arms control,” Biden wrote in his op-ed.
“At the same time, I have also imposed meaningful consequences for behaviors that violate U.S. sovereignty, including interference in our democratic elections. And President Putin knows that I will not hesitate to respond to future harmful activities. When we meet, I will again underscore the commitment of the United States, Europe and like-minded democracies to stand up for human rights and dignity,” he continued.
Psaki previewed the recent spree of cyberattacks and use of ransomware, believed to be perpetrated by entities in Russia, and the country’s aggressive actions in Ukraine would be some of the topics on the table during the meeting.
Ahead of the meeting, the White House said it was not going into the summit with specific “deliverables” in mind.
“We don’t think in terms of US-Russia summits as being about deliverables because if you’re going to wait for really significant deliverables, you could be waiting a long time, conceivably,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Monday.
Global pandemic aid
Looming over all of Biden’s trip will be the COVID-19 virus — altering both the subject matter and the proceedings of the events.
At the G-7, Biden, who has gotten used to updated U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance allowing fully vaccinated Americans to go maskless in most settings, will have to go back to strict requirements. In the U.K., fears of a third COVID-19 surge are swirling as the vaccine rollout has lagged.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was invited to attend the G-7, but declined due to the COVID-19 crisis in his country.
A real challenge for Biden will be meeting demands from allies and partners to share COVID-19 vaccines. The United States has committed to sharing 80 million doses around the globe by the end of June, and has already announced destinations for 25 million doses. The U.S. commitment to share 80 million doses is five times larger than any other country so far, but it’s not nearly enough to meet demand around the world.
During the last G-7 virtual meeting in April, leaders were unwilling to commit to sharing a specific number of doses, nor would they offer a timeline. On Monday, a group of think tanks and public health experts called for G-7 leaders to commit to sharing 1 billion to 2 billion doses by the end of 2021, in order to facilitate widespread global vaccination by the end of 2022.
“Everything, everything hangs on vaccine distribution and the success and the durable recovery of G-7 nations of developed countries, relies on the distribution to the developing world, where of course, we derive much of our supply chains,” said Julia Friedlander, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center.
Back to basics at NATO
Biden will make his first trip as president in the wake of four years of former President Donald Trump representing the U.S. on the world stage.
“In this moment of global uncertainty, as the world still grapples with a once-in-a-century pandemic, this trip is about realizing 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,” Biden wrote of the summit.
While Trump often disrupted the status quo during NATO gatherings during his administration, and at times criticized the group as “obsolete,” expect Biden to take a more traditional tact.
In his op-ed, Biden pledged to “affirm the United States’ unwavering commitment to Article 5 and to ensuring our alliance is strong in the face of every challenge, including threats like cyberattacks on our critical infrastructure.”
Biden’s time in Europe will also feature a focus on addressing the challenge of China, pledging that the “world’s major democracies will be offering a high-standard alternative to China for upgrading physical, digital and health infrastructure that is more resilient and supports global development.”
“As new technologies reshape our world in fundamental ways, exposing vulnerabilities like ransomware attacks and creating threats such as invasive AI-driven surveillance, the democracies of the world must together ensure that our values govern the use and development of these innovations — not the interests of autocrats,” he wrote.
Biden will also address China in his meetings with the president of the European Commission and the president of the European Council in Brussels.
“We will focus on ensuring that market democracies, not China or anyone else, write the 21st-century rules around trade and technology. And we will continue to pursue the goal of a Europe whole, free and at peace,” Biden previewed
The special relationship
With Cornwall the site the G-7 summit, the trip provides an opportunity for Biden to recenter the so-called “special relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K. Biden used the term in his Washington Post op-ed.
“The fact that he said those words reinforces that even when, as vice president, President Biden didn’t support the U.K. departing the European Union, certainly President Biden has noted that Prime Minister Johnson had very similar approaches to politics as did former President Trump, I think you’re really seeing where the White House is placing allies as the highest priority, even over some of the decisions and the behaviors that they’ve exhibited,” said Heather A. Conley, director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Biden will also become the 12th U.S. president to meet with Queen Elizabeth II. The meeting comes at a time of immense personal change for the Queen, after the death of Prince Philip and the birth of a granddaughter.