Joe Biden has waited a lifetime for this trip. As his White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, joked, before Biden departed on his first European tour as President—which will culminate in a face-to-face staredown with Vladimir Putin next Wednesday, in Geneva—“he’s been getting ready for fifty years.” The buildup suggested nothing less than an epochal event, but there is often a mismatch between the grand language of international summitry and the accomplishments that actually result. That is likely to be the case with Biden’s inaugural foray, as well. His national-security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said that the purpose of the trip was nothing less than “to rally the world’s democracies to tackle the great challenges of our time.” Biden himself, soon after landing in Britain, his first stop on the three-country, eight-day trip, said something similar. “The United States is back, and the democracies of the world are standing together to tackle the toughest challenges,” he told U.S. troops stationed in England. “I believe we’re at an inflection point in world history.”
So much for lowering expectations. Before the trip, Biden’s advisers said that the summits would focus on the “three ‘C’s”: COVID, climate, and China. Sure enough, one of the first initiatives they rolled out was a plan to purchase five hundred million COVID vaccines from Pfizer and distribute them internationally. Supporters immediately hailed this as a “vaccine Marshall Plan.” On Thursday, Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the host of the G-7 meeting, signed an expansively worded update of the famous Atlantic Charter, which was first executed by F.D.R. and Winston Churchill during the Second World War. This one vows to “commit to continue building an inclusive, fair, climate-friendly, sustainable, rules-based global economy for the 21st century,” among other lofty aspirations. The forthcoming communiqué for the NATO summit next week, meanwhile, was said to focus extensively on how the transatlantic alliance could begin to reorient itself toward the security challenges posed by a more assertive China, which has been the primary foreign-policy goal articulated by Biden. The message from the new Administration is simple: Europe should unite with the United States in order to counter the increasingly global threat from authoritarian nations both near (Russia) and far (China).
Of course, Biden has set himself up here for endless quibbling about what it means to be united—an echo, perhaps, of the debate in Washington these days about what to make of Biden’s pledge of bipartisanship at a moment when bipartisan deals are exceedingly elusive. The Germans, after all, are building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia, despite objections from the U.S. and elsewhere in Europe. The French, wary after four years of “America First” from Donald Trump, are embracing “strategic autonomy” from the United States. Biden, despite the conciliatory talk, has not yet lifted the steel-and-aluminum tariffs that Trump, citing “national security,” had imposed on Europe. And, as far as the supposed unifying threat from Beijing, the E.U. negotiated a major new trade deal with China before Biden’s Inauguration, although it is now on hold, pending objections in the European Parliament.
The main accomplishment of the Biden trip, however, will not come from the policy debates that inevitably occur between allies; the win here is that it is happening at all. The fact that Biden, and not Trump, is President virtually guarantees him a successful international début; all Biden has to do, in some sense, is show up. By standing with America’s allies and countering America’s adversaries, he will be doing what an American President is supposed to do, which is to say, the opposite of what Trump would do. There’s a reason that a new Pew Research Center report released on Thursday, shows that roughly three-quarters of respondents have confidence that Biden will “do the right thing in world affairs,” up from the seventeen per cent who expressed such confidence in Trump a year ago.
A poll of the leaders whom Biden will meet this week would almost certainly be even more lopsided in Biden’s favor. This is a group, after all, that Trump maligned and confounded for four long years. Trump called the European Union a “foe.” He made his first foreign trip to the unfree Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where he danced a sword dance and promised not to lecture his hosts about tiresome human rights. He campaigned against NATO as “obsolete,” and in his first European trip he refused to endorse NATO’s sacrosanct Article 5 principle of all-for-one-and-one-for-all collective defense. He ripped up a painstakingly negotiated group communiqué after one G-7 summit, because he was mad at something that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had said at a press conference.
A year ago, Trump was supposed to host the annual G-7 summit, which was scheduled to take place only a few months into the pandemic. He insisted on trying to do it in person anyway, and was furious when German Chancellor Angela Merkel refused to come, tanking hopes of a live gathering. Trump was so furious, in fact, that days after a call with Merkel he had his Administration announce the withdrawal of U.S. military forces stationed in Germany, which would have cost billions of dollars and taken years to carry out. Needless to say, the personal pique of a President is not the way major national-security decisions are supposed to be made. Biden has since halted the move. So, yes, the new President, it seems to me, wins this week merely by being there.
Biden, however, is not the only world leader selling a global clash of civilizations. In a triumphalist interview in advance of a G-20 summit two years ago, Vladimir Putin told the Financial Times that “the liberal idea has become obsolete,” and dunked on the West for the failure of its institutions. At an appearance at the World Economic Forum this January, the Russian leader was even more explicit. The Western model of liberal capitalism, he said, has failed because it “foments social, racial, and ethnic intolerance, with tensions erupting even in countries with seemingly long-established civil and democratic institutions.” The speech took place just a few weeks after the January 6th storming of the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. If there is one thing that two decades of Putin-watching have convinced me of, it is that Russia’s President will find a way to tweak Biden about this at their upcoming meeting.
Biden is Putin’s fifth American President, and Putin at various points has stymied, lied to, or gaslighted every one of them. In recent months, he has been outright provocative toward Biden, from unleashing a wave of cyberattacks during the election that have not yet ceased to sending more than a hundred thousand troops to the Ukraine border, practically baiting the new American President into a strong response. After Russia’s neighbor Belarus forced down a European civilian jetliner last month and dragged an opposition journalist off the plane, this act of state-sponsored hijacking was openly cheered by Putin, who promptly hosted Belarus’s President, Aleksander Lukashenka for a congratulatory meeting in Sochi. Even as Biden was departing for his trip this week, the Russian government was banning the largest opposition group in the country, as its leader, Alexey Navalny, languishes in prison. Putin’s actions frame the central drama of the summit: Can Biden out-tough the tough Russian autocrat who has not hesitated to invade neighboring countries and imprison and assassinate regime opponents?
Here, too, being the un-Trump should help. “It’s important to go head to head with Putin and to raise these concerns—something we didn’t hear for four years under Donald Trump,” Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat of New Hampshire who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Europe, told me. Shaheen led a bipartisan delegation last week to several post-Soviet countries where anxiety levels about Putin run high. She spoke favorably of several measures—such as sectoral sanctions on state-run companies in Belarus and banning Putin-connected oligarchs and their families from Western banking and travel—that have not yet been embraced by the Biden Administration. I asked Shaheen what she thought Biden would do when Putin inevitably tries to provoke him in Geneva. “I can tell you it will not be the response we saw in Helsinki,” the senator said, referring to the near-infamous meeting between Trump and Putin in 2018, when the American President took the Russian’s word over that of his own intelligence agencies and even agreed to consider handing over American citizens, including the former U.S. Ambassador Mike McFaul, to the Russian courts. “It’s important for Putin to see that we’re not going to roll over,” Shaheen said.
As Trump’s senior adviser on Russia until the summer of 2019, Fiona Hill was in the room in Helsinki. She remembers the Finnish summit with a sort of P.T.S.D. “They’ll always try to pull a fast one,” she said of the Russians, who so adeptly played Trump at that meeting. Hill, whom Biden’s foreign-policy advisers have consulted in the run-up to the summit, offered one of the best descriptions I’ve heard for what it’s like to negotiate with Putin and his aides at meetings. “It’s like, ‘I want to be in the clubhouse,’ ” Hill said, “but they’re also willing to burn the place up and kick down the door.” Hill said that she came to think of the Russians like nasty schoolboys in a lunchroom, tormenting the girls whom they had insisted on sitting with. “That’s kind of like what it will be like—they are going to try to kick you and try to make you bleed under the table.”
Biden knows something about how to deal with a bully after campaigning against Trump. But will he kick back in public or walk away with his shins stinging and his mouth shut? Biden’s advisers have put out the word that their hope is not for a reinvented Putin but merely for a more “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia. Biden himself vows to look Putin in the eye and set him straight. The problem, left unsaid, is that Putin’s brand is unpredictability, which is exactly what has made him such a challenging counterpart for American Presidents going back to Bill Clinton. Welcome to the world stage, President Biden.