From Europe’s point of view, Joe Biden’s one-week visit could hardly have gone better. Having spent four years being pilloried by Donald Trump — for low Nato defence spending, trade surpluses, freeriding on US generosity and behaving like a “geopolitical foe” — Europe was craving Biden’s diplomatic balm.
The 46th US president did not disappoint. America’s friendship was “rock solid”, Biden said; Europe’s security was America’s “sacred obligation”. In addition to strategic reassurance, Biden also lifted punitive US tariffs on Europe and called off the long-running Boeing-Airbus subsidy dispute.
The relief among European officials was visible. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, referred to America’s president as “Dear Joe” — an endearment it would be hard to imagine being used for many of Biden’s predecessors, not just Trump. “Biden’s language and tone was everything Europeans wished for,” says Jeremy Shapiro, research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Long-running differences remain — not least over Europe’s low defence spending. But the larger purpose behind Biden’s trip, which began with the G7 gathering in an occasionally drizzly Cornwall and wrapped up with the Vladimir Putin summit in Geneva, had more to do with the Indo-Pacific than the Atlantic.
Prior to Biden’s first overseas presidential foray, there was speculation about where his strategic priority lay. Was it the contest between democracy and autocracy, managing the new era of great power competition, reasserting US-led multilateralism or forging coalitions to tackle the pandemic and global warming? The answer is “all of the above”.
But Biden’s trip conveyed what matters most. His overriding preoccupation is China. Biden’s much-hyped Summit of Democracy, which received rote citation from the G7, has been put off until next year. No venue was specified. By contrast, the China challenge appeared three times in the G7 communiqué and was for the first time cited by Nato — an alliance supposedly about defending the north Atlantic.
“Biden’s basic message to his European friends was: ‘Don’t worry guys, I’ve got your back. Now let me go and do my real business in the Indo-Pacific’,” says Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, the London-based think-tank. “The language on China was careful. But it threaded through everything.”
China also hovered unspoken over the US-Russia summit. The contrast between Biden’s meeting with Putin in Geneva and Trump’s infamous one-on-one 2018 parley with him in Helsinki was perhaps the most striking feature of Biden’s trip. Unlike Biden’s domestic critics, who accused him of giving Putin the undeserved gift of appearing on the same stage, most Europeans were happy to see them talking.
“Negotiating with your adversaries is what diplomacy is supposed to be about — as long as you have aides and note-takers present,” says Fiona Hill, who, as Trump’s Russia adviser, was not allowed into his private meeting with Putin. “Not talking makes no sense. Should Biden refuse to meet Xi Jinping because China has concentration camps?”
One surprising aspect to Biden’s approach was his businesslike treatment of Putin. He refrained from giving sermons about democracy, although he threatened Putin with “devastating” consequences should Alexei Navalny, leader of Russia’s banned opposition, die in jail. He also vowed to retaliate against future Russian cyber attacks following SolarWind’s deep penetration of US government systems last year. The two agreed to establish a nuclear working group and another on cyber security, which some see as today’s equivalent of cold war arms talks. The latter process is likely to be riddled with distrust — Russia, or groups the US believes to be connected to Russia, has visited great disruption on the US at very low cost. But the fact that the group now exists might make Putin think twice.
By contrast, Biden made only fleeting references to “values” and “freedom”. The only one of the two who referred in public to ideals — perhaps trollingly — was Putin, who praised Biden’s “moral values” and his willingness to speak about his family. Again, the contrast with Trump was striking.
“Trump was always seen as transactional and Biden as sentimental,” says Stephen Wertheim, co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “In practice Biden was pragmatic with Putin, while Trump was obsessed with status and prestige.”
The explicit goal was to make US-Russia relations less dangerous and unstable. The test of whether Biden has succeeded will be in the dogs that do not bark — the overseas poisonings of Russian dissidents and cyber attacks on the west that do not take place. That will take time to assess. It is hard to prove a negative. Biden’s implicit goal was to assuage Putin’s paranoia.
Biden attracted derision at home for describing Russia as a “great power” and Putin as a “worthy adversary”. He was likewise criticised last month for declining to impose sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. Biden also gave short shrift in Geneva to rumours that Ukraine would be admitted to Nato. The word “appeasement” has begun to creep back into Washington vocabulary.
Yet there was a purpose to Biden’s flattery. Some call it a “reverse Henry Kissinger”, after Richard Nixon’s renowned national security adviser, who took cloak-and-dagger trips to Beijing in the early 1970s to capitalise on the Sino-Soviet split. China eventually broke away from the Soviet bloc. Beijing is the senior partner today. The longer-term hope is to drive a wedge between Russia and China.
“The more Biden treats Russia with respect as a great power, which is what Putin craves, the easier it will be for him to loosen Russia from China’s embrace,” says Hill.
Such an approach means downplaying Biden’s “democracy versus autocracy” framing. America would instead play on autocratic Russia’s anxiety about being treated as a little brother by China. Some of America’s partners, including France, Japan and India, are also trying to forge closer relations with Russia with a view to weakening its China ties.
“At this point it would be geopolitical malpractice for America not to attempt a “reverse Kissinger”, says Shapiro. “At the very least, America should stop driving Russia into China’s arms. But it will take more than one presidential term to pull off.”
Biden’s game of geopolitical chess is fraught with obstacles. Chief among these is Europe’s reluctance to view China with the same existential concern as America does. The continent does more trade with China than the US. Biden did get references to the China threat into the various summit communiqués. But joint statements are not the same thing as concrete action.
For example, Europe is a long way from following America’s lead to impose a continent-wide ban on sensitive Chinese technology, such as the Huawei 5G network.
Biden is also limited by Europe’s scepticism about whether he will be re-elected in 2024 — the once-bitten-twice-shy legacy of Trump. Europeans listened politely to Biden’s focus on democracy versus autocracy. But their greater concern is over the future of US democracy. Will Biden’s “America is back” mantra outlast his term in office?
“Europeans are as obsessed with America’s internal divisions as they are with the future of global democracy,” says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress, a liberal think-tank. “One European official told me he thinks about America in the way an amputee feels that a missing limb is still there. Will it grow back?”
The relief with which Biden was greeted in Europe suggests that he has convinced allies that America is at least temporarily back in action. There was also appreciation for the way in which Biden conveyed that message. Instead of talking about the US returning to the head of the table, Biden said America was “back at the table”. Rather than America leading, it was “America leading with allies”. Such modulations sound trivial. But they showed a sensitivity that has recently been lacking. Europeans also noted that Biden had spent hours prepping for each of his summits.
“It was almost a shock to see professional diplomats in action again,” says Niblett. “Biden’s team is experienced and understands the game.”
Yet there was little disguising the fact that the Atlantic is no longer the world’s most important geopolitical theatre in America’s eyes. That distinction belongs to the Indo-Pacific. Though this was Biden’s first presidential trip, his first summit was a virtual one in March with the leaders of the Quad — the US, Japan, India and Australia. The Quad is not a formal alliance. But it plays a bigger role in Biden’s plans than the future of Nato.
“During the Obama years if you mentioned the Quad, people thought of America, Britain, France and Germany,” says Hill. “Now it can only mean the Indo-Pacific.”
For the time being, transatlantic relations are moving into a phase of better repair. The coming months will reveal whether Biden’s more flinty approach to Russia will pay off. At Putin’s press conference on Wednesday, he was asked whether there was now trust between him and the US president. “There is no happiness in life,” Putin replied. “There is only a mirage on the horizon.”
Minus the Russian gloom, Putin could have been giving a lecture on the limits to end-of-history thinking. Biden’s destination is clear — a stable global order with America as first among equals. That horizon is always likely to be just beyond reach.