Jet-setting Biden’s focus to remain on domestic issues
Joe Biden on Thursday completed his first overseas trip as president of the US. No president since Dwight Eisenhower, in the early 1960s, waited so long in his first term before traveling overseas. This is probably a reflection of the Biden administration’s priority being its domestic agenda, rather than foreign policy.
During Biden’s first trip overseas, he attended the G7 summit, the NATO summit, the US-EU summit and held a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Switzerland. Of course, much of the action was kept behind closed doors. However, as the details of each meeting start to trickle out, there are four observations that can be made about Biden’s first international trip.
Firstly, the G7 summit was a missed opportunity for Biden to rally his colleagues against China’s malign influence. While his rhetoric on China might have sounded tough, many European countries were not buying it. For example, French President Emmanuel Macron said: “I will be very clear: The G7 is not a club hostile to China.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel added: “China is our rival in many questions but also our partner in many aspects.”
When there was agreement between the US and its G7 partners regarding China, it was on the issue of climate change. All members of the G7 agree that China’s carbon emissions — the largest in the world — need to be reduced. Sadly, all G7 members are equally naive in thinking that reducing global emissions is something China can be trusted to do.
Secondly, NATO is finally waking up to China — but it needs to understand its limitations when dealing with Beijing. The last time the leaders of NATO met in December 2019, they released a statement insisting that “the rise of China poses both challenges and opportunities for NATO.” This time, the alliance’s leaders omitted any reference to “opportunities.” Instead, the post-summit communique said: “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security.” Clearly, times have changed.
However, there is a note of caution the alliance must heed. Many of the challenges China poses to NATO are in the fields of 5G technology and telecommunications, disinformation, and questionable infrastructure investments across Europe that threaten to undermine the continent’s security. As an intergovernmental security alliance, NATO lacks the policy competencies to deal with these nonmilitary threats. Therefore, the individual member states inside NATO need to step up and do more. It is not clear if this will happen.
Thirdly, any meeting between a US president and Putin is a waste of time. It was clear that nothing productive was ever going to come out of this meeting between the two leaders. The one concrete proposal that both sides agreed on was to return their respective ambassadors to each other’s country.
The meeting was a great propaganda victory for Putin. In the eyes of the Russian people, their president looks like an equal on the global stage to the president of the US. The usual topics, such as Ukraine, human rights, climate change and cyberattacks, were discussed. Although both leaders described the meeting as friendly, nothing of substance was agreed.
Finally, the West is still committed to the failed Iran nuclear deal. Along with climate change and China, Biden’s third and final foreign policy priority is re-entering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). At every meeting he held in Europe, whether it was the G7, the NATO summit, the US-EU summit or even during the press conference after meeting Putin, he mentioned Iran and the importance of the JCPOA. Tellingly, Putin did not mention Iran once during his press conference.
Many were hoping that this first international trip might offer a glimpse of an emerging ‘Biden doctrine’ on foreign policy.
It was probably not a coincidence that, during the same week Biden was going around Europe making the case for the JCPOA, the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) met in Riyadh to call on the P5+1 to include them in the ongoing negotiations in Vienna. The GCC’s foreign ministers also called for Tehran’s ballistic missile program and support for terrorism to be included in the ongoing negotiations. It would be a good idea for Biden to take this advice and make his next overseas trip to the Gulf. This way he can hear firsthand from those who will be most impacted if Iran was able to get a nuclear weapon.
Many were hoping that this first international trip might offer a glimpse of an emerging “Biden doctrine” on foreign policy. During his final press conference, Biden said that foreign policy was merely an extension of personal relationships. This is wrong and naive. If this belief forms the basis of a Biden doctrine, then expect a troublesome US foreign policy in the coming years.
The Biden administration will continue to focus on domestic issues. There will only be a strong interest in international affairs when domestic policy and foreign policy overlap, as with climate change or Russia’s cyberattacks.
Biden took almost six months to conduct his first international trip as president. By the time his final press conference in Geneva took place, he looked exhausted and ready to get home.
- Luke Coffey is the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey