Five things to watch on Biden’s first foreign trip

President Biden meets with U.S. Air Force personnel and their families stationed at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, Suffolk, England
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President Biden’s first international trip is intended to shore up alliances amid rising challenges to the United States from Russia and China. 

It comes after divisions emerged with traditional U.S. allies during the Trump administration, and as the world seeks to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are five things to watch.

Putin summit is apex of Biden’s trip

The biggest event on Biden’s agenda is his face-to-face in Geneva with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but the administration is setting low expectations.

It says it wants a frank conversation that would help establish a “stable” and “predictable” relationship with a country blamed for interfering in U.S. elections and serving as a base for hackers who have attacked key U.S. infrastructures.

Team Biden this week sought to ward off any sense the summit was a gift to Putin.

“We do not regard a meeting with the Russian president as a reward. We regard it as a vital part of defending America’s interests and America’s values,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday. “There is simply a lot we have to work through.”

While the differences between the old Cold War rivals are long and include the SolarWinds hack; interference in the 2020 election, and the poisoning and jailing of Alexei Navalny, Biden is also seeking cooperation with Russia on nuclear nonproliferation, global health security and tackling climate change.

The meeting itself is sure to be the most-watched event of the Biden trip, and people will be watching closely to see how Biden sends a different message from former President Trump’s.

Biden tries shift from “America First”

When Biden meets with Group of Seven (G-7) leaders before the summit with Putin, his biggest test could be convincing U.S. allies that America is a reliable partner on the world stage once again.

Trump’s trips to the G-7 were marked by attacks on world leaders and in one case, a refusal to endorse a joint communique. The former president went to NATO summits and demanded increased payments from other members while reportedly considering leaving the alliance.

Biden will be seeking to convince allies that “America First” is a thing of the past, even as his administration retains certain Trump-era policies on tariffs and “Buy American” provisions. He will also face the tall task of persuading other countries that U.S. democracy is stable and that it won’t backslide after Biden’s time in office is over.

“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?” Biden wrote in The Washington Post ahead of his trip. “I believe the answer is yes. And this week in Europe, we have the chance to prove it.”

COVID-19, climate change top agenda

United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is hosting the G7 summit, is expected to push for a commitment from other countries to vaccinate the world by the end of 2022.

Other leaders haven’t gone out that far. Sullivan said this week the G7 leaders would present a plan to end the coronavirus pandemic “with further specific commitments towards that end.”

The White House last week announced a global vaccine strategy that will involve distributing 80 million doses to other countries by the end of June, but Biden has been under pressure to do more. At the same time, Biden is unlikely to meet his goal of having 70 percent of the U.S. vaccinated by July 4.

G-7 members are also expected to make new commitments to combat climate change, a primary focus of Biden’s domestic and foreign policy agenda. But the president is limited in what he can push for given the uphill battle he faces in trying to pass his own domestic climate plans in a gridlocked Washington.

Bidens ‘charm offensive’ weighed down by domestic gridlock

Biden will have one eye back on the United States while he travels abroad.

On the eve of his departure, the White House announced it was ending infrastructure negotiations with GOP senators, led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), in favor of seeking out a deal with a bipartisan group of senators. Biden is expected to work with those lawmakers while abroad.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has been at the center of the holdup for Biden’s key priorities. The red-state Democrat has been adamant an infrastructure deal should be bipartisan as others in the party grow tired of waiting for GOP support; he nixed the potential for passing an expansive voting rights bill Biden supports; and Manchin has repeatedly made clear he opposes altering the filibuster, imperiling other priorities that won’t get at least 10 Republican votes in the Senate.

White House aides said Biden will be engaged on his domestic agenda over the next week while he’s in Europe, and several members of his Cabinet will also be focused on infrastructure talks.

The dual focus may be necessary if Biden wants progress on key parts of his agenda before July Fourth, as both chambers of Congress are only in session for a few weeks before recess.

Absent China looms large in European capitals

China is expected to be a focus across Biden’s meetings as he tries to unite allies behind a common approach to dealing with the world’s second largest economy and rising power. 

Biden sees countering China’s aggression as a major long-term national security challenge and he has framed his economic agenda as a necessary attempt to outcompete Beijing. 

The G-7 is expected to announce an initiative to finance infrastructure in the developing world that can serve as a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Biden and European Union leaders will discuss trade and technology with an eye toward pushing back on China’s unfair practices.

NATO members are also likely to discuss how to curb China’s maritime aggression in the Indo-Pacific. 

Experts say there is opportunity for leaders to find common ground on China, particularly when it comes to strengthening supply chains and ending reliance on Chinese goods and pushing back on China’s human rights abuses and unfair trade practices. 

“It will be important for Biden to rally support from these nations around a comprehensive approach to collectively deter aggressive Chinese behavior,” said Lisa Curtis, who was senior director for South and Central Asia on former President Trump’s National Security Council.

At the same time, Biden will need to assuage European concerns about the reliability of the U.S. in order to get other partners on board with an approach to confront the complex challenge posed by China. European nations like Germany are also more reliant on China for goods and may be less comfortable with a confrontational approach to Beijing. 


Tags China Climate change Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Joe Manchin NATO Russia Shelley Moore Capito United Kingdom Vladimir Putin
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