President Obama used his first overseas trip -- to Europe -- as stop one on an extended apology tour across several continents.
President Trump headed straight to Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem before getting around to meeting with our European allies on his no-apologies first foreign trip, throwing out tradition and diplomacy to openly spar with America’s longtime partners, threaten to withdraw from NATO and cement his America-first agenda.
Over the past week, President Biden has done all he can to make his first overseas foray an apology-for-Trump tour, reassuring G-7 and NATO allies that he once again has their back and will partner up with them when it comes to climate issues, the pandemic recovery, trade and defense, instead of putting America first.
Earlier this week, Biden called the U.S. commitment to NATO “rock-solid and unshakable” as well as “sacred.” There was no talk of continuing to force NATO allies to pay their fair share in defense costs. It was the inverse of Trump.
But that was the easy part. Even without Trump in office, fissures with European allies remain, especially when it comes to America’s biggest adversaries and their growing influence in the region and the world. While rekindling old friendships, Biden knew he needed to project strength against recent aggression from Russia and China. Both have been testing the new administration to see just how far they can push, where the new lines of demarcation lie.
In Biden’s first remarks after touching down in Britain last week, he used some form of the word “strength” eight times as he tried to lay out a choice to the European nations and the world between democracy and autocracy. It was meant as a warning about the dangers of continuing to develop closer economic and strategic ties to China and Russia despite the long-term security threat both pose.
Biden was not so subtly calling out our European allies, particularly Germany, which wants to finalize the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to deliver gas from Russia and whose big automakers want to expand access to the Chinese market.
Europeans in recent years have found themselves caught in a tug of war between the superpowers – and the pandemic only exacerbated the split economic loyalties as China’s GDP is set to outpace America’s after COVID. It hasn’t helped that Biden has sent mixed messages in recent weeks by lifting sanctions on Nord Stream 2, angering defense hawks in Congress responsible for them.
“We are in a contest not with China per se, but a contest with autocratic governments around the world and whether democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century,” Biden told reporters Sunday. “… How we act and whether we pull together as democracies will determine whether our grandchildren look back 15 years’ time and say, ‘Did they step up?’”
On that thornier goal, Biden scored some significant diplomatic paper victories but could not gain unanimous support on more punitive actions against Beijing and Moscow. To counter China’s massive “Belt and Road” initiative, Biden and other leaders at the G-7 meeting announced a greener global infrastructure plan, which they dubbed Build Back Better World, or B3W, a nod to both Biden’s and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s campaign slogans.
Belt and Road, or BRI, is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy endeavor. Launched in 2013, it provides funding in other countries for building roads, power plants, ports, railways and, through Huawei, communications systems using 5G networks over which it could exercise significant control. The U.S. and some other Western countries view BRI as China’s biggest economic threat, feeding a growing sense in developing and second-world countries that China is on the rise and the power of the United States and its partners is fading.
While Biden and the G-7 deserve credit for tackling the issue, serious concerns remain that it’s too little, too late and won’t have the funds it needs to compete with Beijing.
“The Belt and Road moniker has been attached to hundreds of projects around the world,” write Jennifer Hillman and David Sacks, two senior fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations who co-direct the group’s independent task force report on China’s BRI. “Xi attracts dozens of heads of state for Belt and Road forums in Beijing, and the Chinese government has inserted language into the World Health Organization and other U.N. bodies, all of which furthers its narrative power.”
After their meeting, G-7 leaders’ produced a communique criticizing China for undermining the global economy and for abusing human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Biden at a press conference Sunday said there was no mention of China in the final communique the last time the G-7 met, and this time there was “plenty of action” on China, so he was satisfied. Biden didn’t mention that the final language was not as strong as the U.S. had wanted.
Beijing immediately dismissed this shot across its bow.
“The day when global decisions were dictated by a small group of countries is long gone,” its embassy in London boasted in statement.
NATO took an even stronger tack toward Beijing after its meeting, saying China’s military buildup and the expansion of its nuclear arsenal threatened “rules-based international order.” On the other hand, NATO said it “maintains a constructive dialogue with China where possible” and “we welcome opportunities to engage with China on areas of relevance to the Alliance and on common challenges such as climate change. … Reciprocal transparency and understanding would benefit both NATO and China.”
It wasn’t nuanced enough for Beijing, which quickly pushed back, accusing NATO of exaggerating the “China threat theory” and claiming its military buildup is defensive in nature.
"Our pursuit of defense and military modernization is justified, reasonable, open and transparent," China's mission to the European Union said in a statement.
The statement also stressed that NATO should view China's development in a "rational manner" and "stop taking China's legitimate interests and rights as an excuse to manipulate bloc politics, create confrontation and fuel geopolitical competition."
But then China undermined its own defense. Beijing’s rebuttal came on the same day it flew 28 air force jets into Taiwan's air defense zone, the fifth incursion this month and the largest to date.
James Carafano, the vice president for national security and foreign policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation, characterized Biden’s overseas trip as “finger-waving and rhetoric.”
“What’s missing is what the Russians and Chinese really pay attention to, which is the component of hard power that would actually force them to do things differently,” he said. “Tell me one thing from the G-7 that, if you were China and Russia and you were sitting there reading the communique, you’d say, ‘How are we going to deal with this?’ And the answer is nothing.”
NATO also called for a Phase 2 study from the World Health Organization into the origins of the pandemic in China. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that China must cooperate with the probe now that the world is “insisting” that Beijing do so.
Giving the WHO a second chance to hold China accountable when its first investigation was roundly criticized for undue Chinese influence drew derision from the right.
“Didn’t Einstein once say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?” Fox News anchor John Roberts mocked.
Actually, it wasn’t Einstein, but Roberts’ point was echoed by others. Sen. Tom Cotton, a top China hawk in Congress, blasted NATO for downplaying the China threat while focusing too closely on the menace Russia poses.
“Russia is a threat, [but] China is the threat to the United States and the free world,” Cotton told Fox News. The NATO communique mentions Russia 61 times but China only 10 times.
“All these European leaders want Chinese money to continue to come flooding into their countries, all at the risk of our shared common security,” Cotton continued, “and Joe Biden simply did not push hard enough for our European allies to recognize China as the leading threat that we face and that the free world faces.”
Others, however, have given Biden far more credit. Adm. James Stavridis, the retired former supreme allied commander of NATO during the Obama years, praised NATO allies for signing up their naval ships to check Chinese aggression over a disputed and strategic set of islands in the South China Sea. He noted that the British carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth is on its way there along with six NATO escort vessels.
“The Germans are coming, the French are coming. The Italians are discussing it,” he said. “Bottom line, I think the alliance … is in the B-plus range on cyber, China and climate.”
Ahead of Biden’s big meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, Stavridis also had some advice for holding Putin accountable for ransomware attacks and other cybercrimes while going after the criminals themselves and clawing back some of the stolen billions.
“Increase the sanctions on Russia and tighten the noose around Vladimir Putin, around his inner circle, their assets abroad,” he said.
At the onset of the trip last week, Biden boasted that he would tell Putin “what I want him to know” regarding the recent ransomware attacks emanating from Russia, and warned that he U.S. would respond in a “robust and meaningful way.”
Nearly a week later, he toned down the rhetoric ahead of sit-down with Putin.
Biden did accuse Russia and China of trying to drive a wedge into the transatlantic alliance and that, while he was not seeking conflict with Russia, NATO would respond if Moscow “continued its harmful activities.”
But the president is avoiding the politically perilous optics of standing next to Putin at a press conference where he would undoubtedly be asked again whether he considered the Russian president a “killer,” knowing that responding honestly would stoke more international tensions than it would resolve. When Trump held a joint press conference with Putin in 2018, he made headlines for essentially agreeing with Putin that Russia didn’t interfere in the 2016 presidential election, siding with the ruthless autocrat over his own U.S. intelligence community.
On Tuesday Biden met with NATO leaders, and one topic of discussion was “Russia’s aggressive acts” that “pose a threat to NATO and our national security.”
“I shared with our allies what I’ll convey to Putin: that I’m not looking for conflict with Russia,” Biden said, “but that we will respond if Russia continues its harmful activities. And we will not fail to defend NATO or stand up for democratic values.”
A particularly awkward moment came during the press conference when the president was asked whether he still stands behind his remarks as a candidate that Putin is a “killer.” Putin had been pressed about that comment in a recent TV interview; the Russian leader laughed at the question and said it was not “something I worry about in the least.”
When a reporter asked Biden about the “killer” remark and referenced Putin laughing at the suggestion, the U.S. president also began his answer by chuckling.
“I’m laughing too,” he said. “Actually I – well, look, he has made clear that uh, uh ...”
There was then a pause lasting seven seconds as Biden awkwardly considered his response.
“The answer is, I believe he has in the past essentially acknowledged that there were certain things he would do, or did do,” he said.
“But look. When I was [first] asked that question on air, I answered it honestly, but I don’t think it matters a whole lot in terms of this next meeting we’re about to have.”
That’s where Biden is wrong. Of course it matters whether Putin murders his political opponents and enemies. There’s no way to brush it aside for a one-on-one meeting.
The fact that Putin was building up forces outside Ukraine and failing to stop ransomware attacks while Chinese President Xi Jinping continues to enter Taiwanese airspace shows both leaders sense weakness from Biden and believe they can push the U.S. and its allies around.
Unfortunately, the lukewarm rhetoric coming out of Biden’s first G-7 and NATO summits won’t stop them in their tracks.
Biden’s first venture overseas has hardly been a tour de force but has provided some diplomatic steps – albeit small ones – in the right direction. Now the question is whether those words will be translated into action.