Biden Heads To Europe To Convince Allies The United States Has Their Backs

Jun 9, 2021
Originally published on June 9, 2021 5:07 am

President Biden sets off on his first international trip Wednesday, an ambitious, eight-day journey in Europe capped with what is likely to be a tense sit-down meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Biden's mission: rebuild relations with allies and reassert America's role as a leader on the world stage. But he'll have to convince some of his old friends in Europe who have grown wary after four years of a more insular approach from his predecessor, former President Donald Trump.

Biden's first stop will be in the United Kingdom for a G7 meeting. He will later travel to Brussels to meet NATO allies and European Union leaders. And then he heads to Geneva, where he'll meet Putin.

Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, told reporters that it's an opportunity to show like-minded nations what the United States can do on the world's most pressing problems and then rally them to join along.

"That is going to be the best way for people to say, 'Hang on, the United States can do this. They can deliver and we will stand up and stand behind them,'" Sullivan said.

Those issues include ending the pandemic, addressing climate change and confronting China. Sullivan hinted at a new plan in the works for allies to band together to help developing nations get financing for big projects — an alternative to what China has been doing with its Belt and Road initiative.

No more insults

It's the first time world leaders are getting together in the same room since COVID-19 stopped travel and face-to-face meetings — and the first time since the departure of Trump, who turned diplomatic summits into slugfests.

At a NATO summit in 2019, Trump called Justin Trudeau "two-faced" after the Canadian prime minister was caught on a hot mic, making fun of Trump to other leaders.

Then there was the iconic G7 photo that captured German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders looming over Trump, arguing with him.

European leaders didn't hide their concerns. Ahead of Trump's summit in Helsinki with Putin — a meeting that resulted in Trump siding with the Russian leader rather than U.S. intelligence agencies, that had established Moscow meddled in the 2016 election — Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, gave Trump a frank warning.

"Dear America, appreciate your allies. After all, you don't have that many," Tusk said.

'Rock star' reception

Biden worked on foreign policy for decades during his time in the Senate and as vice president, and has close relationships with many of the leaders he will see on the trip.

Charles Kupchan, who worked on European issues in the Obama White House, said he expects Biden will "be treated as a rock star and feted" at the upcoming summits.

"Europeans during the Trump era questioned the degree to which they could look to and rely on the United States as a trusted friend, as a country that would protect it when the chips are down," said Kupchan, who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of Isolationism: A History of America's Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.

The drama of Trump summits will be gone, said Heather Conley, who was a senior official for European issues in the George W. Bush State Department. "But you actually get to now focus on the work and not the theater. And trust me. There's so much work that these multilateral organizations need to do on the very difficult economic and political conditions and security conditions."

Biden has said he knows that he will still need to convince allies that things have changed, that the Trump years were an exception rather than a sign that America had shifted. He told Congress during his joint address that he had heard the concerns from many leaders.

"The comment that I hear most of all from them is they say, 'We see America is back, but for how long?'" he said.

Contrast with Helsinki

The biggest unscripted moments of Biden's trip could come during his meeting with Putin. There, Biden is expected to show that he is taking a different tack than Trump, as well.

Biden says he's going to make clear his concerns about a long list of issues, including human rights, election meddling, and the recent cyber attacks against U.S. companies.

But some critics have said the meeting could reward Putin by elevating him on the world stage, and said the Biden administration doesn't have clearly stated objectives.

The visit comes too early for the new administration, said Conley, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She said Biden is "clear-eyed" about Putin, but that the Russians may try to take advantage of what they believe is Biden's desire for a more stable and predictable relationship.

"It's absolutely unclear what tangible outcome can come from this conversation other than Mr. Putin getting that great photo op, continuing to do what he does, and his regime destabilize the U.S. and its allies. And that's where you have to be very careful," Conley said.

Sullivan defended the Geneva summit, arguing there is no substitute for meeting face to face, particularly for complex relationships like the one the United States has with Putin.

"He has a highly personalized style of decision-making and so it is important for President Biden to be able to sit down with him face-to-face, to be clear about where we are, to understand where he is, to try to manage our differences, and to identify those areas where we can work in America's interests to make progress," Sullivan said.

Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, sees an opportunity for NATO leaders to join together and speak out about Russia's malign activities. But Daalder said they can only go so far.

"If NATO comes out and only says, 'Russia is terrible, we can't work with that. They represent a threat. We have to be absolutely opposed to them' ... then Putin would have no incentive at the Geneva meeting to come in and say, 'Let's find ways to work together,'" Daalder said.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden heads to Europe today. It is his first international trip since taking office - his mission, rebuilding relationships with allies. Some of his old friends in Europe are uncertain after the last four years of former President Trump. The eight-day journey will finish off with a face-to-face meeting with Russia's president, Vladimir Putin.

NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is on the trip.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: President Biden worked the halls of European capitols for decades during his long political career. So his first trip is all about showing leaders that, in his words...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: America is back. The transatlantic alliance is back. And we are not looking backward.

ORDOÑEZ: But the leaders he's going to see at the G-7 and in Brussels are having a hard time not looking back. They haven't forgotten how Donald Trump turned summits into slugfests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Well, he's two-faced.

ORDOÑEZ: That's, of course, Trump attacking Justin Trudeau at the 2019 NATO summit. The Canadian prime minister was caught on a hot mic making fun of Trump to other leaders.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I find him to be a very nice guy. But, you know, the truth is that I called him out on the fact that he's not paying 2%, and I guess he's not very happy about it.

ORDOÑEZ: Then there was that famous photo taken at a G-7. Angela Merkel and other leaders were looming over Trump, arguing with him. It became a kind of meme of how Europeans felt about Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TUSK: I would like to address President Trump directly.

ORDOÑEZ: That was Donald Tusk. He was the president of the European Council at the time. He was warning Trump ahead of that famous Helsinki meeting with Putin not to get his friends and foes mixed up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUSK: First of all, the America, appreciate your allies. After all, you don't have that many.

ORDOÑEZ: Charles Kupchan says Biden will get a much different reception.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: He will be treated as a rock star and feted rather than mocked as Trump was.

ORDOÑEZ: Kupchan worked on European issues in the Obama White House. He says a warm welcome will speak volumes.

KUPCHAN: Europeans during the Trump era questioned the degree to which they could look to and rely on the United States as a trusted friend, as a country that would protect it when the chips are down.

ORDOÑEZ: Biden says he wants to erase any lingering doubt about this. But he knows he has a lot of convincing to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: In my conversations with world leaders - and I've spoken to over 38, 40 of them now - I've made it known. I've made it known that America's back. And know what they say, the comment that I hear most of all from them? They say, we see America's back, but for how long?

ORDOÑEZ: Biden says he wants to work with his old friends on the big new challenges facing the world, like the strategic challenge posed by China. The White House hinted there's a new plan in the works for allies to band together and help get financing for big projects, an alternative to what China has been doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DALEEP SINGH: And of course, no challenge requires action more so than the pandemic.

ORDOÑEZ: That's Daleep Singh, a top adviser at the White House for security and economic matters, speaking in Washington last week. He says the United States will work with G-7 partners to boost vaccine production around the world and share more doses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SINGH: And so now that we have enough vaccine supply for all Americans, we're in a position to help, and so we will. It's the right thing to do, and it will save lives.

ORDOÑEZ: Biden says Democratic allies must show their model is better than the ones offered by autocratic leaders in Beijing and Moscow, which is why some people are surprised that he's meeting with Putin at the end of his trip, especially after all the hacking, the election meddling and the aggression to Ukraine. But Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, says it's necessary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAKE SULLIVAN: There is never any substitute for leader-to-leader engagement, particularly for complex relationships, but with Putin, this is exponentially the case.

ORDOÑEZ: Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, says it's important for NATO leaders to speak out about Russia's malign activities. But Daalder says they can only go so far.

IVO DAALDER: If NATO comes out and only says, Russia's terrible; we can't work with it; they represent a threat; we have to be absolutely opposed to them, then Putin will - would have no incentive at the Geneva meeting to come in and say, let's find ways to work together.

ORDOÑEZ: The Putin meeting is the hardest part of Biden's trip for the White House to script out. But when Biden is with the Europeans, there's little fear of a Trump-like insult or the president walking out of a meeting.

HEATHER CONLEY: Now, you lose the drama.

ORDOÑEZ: Heather Conley worked on European issues in the Bush State Department.

CONLEY: But you actually get to now focus on the work and not the theater. And trust me - there is so much work that these multilateral organizations need to do.

ORDOÑEZ: Biden begins this work tonight with a speech to U.S. troops stationed in the U.K, a tangible sign of what he says is an enduring U.S. commitment to allies.

Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.