Joe Biden and the post-Europe letdown

The world won’t know for weeks, months or maybe even years whether the president’s victories will prove lasting

President Joe Biden returns to the White House on June 16, 2021, after his trip to Europe, where he met with members of the G7, NATO leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden returns to the White House on June 16, 2021, after his trip to Europe, where he met with members of the G7, NATO leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
Posted June 21, 2021 at 10:30am

ANALYSIS — The easiest column to write would be one that says President Joe Biden went to Europe with a message for the world that America is back on the world stage after four years of President Donald Trump’s hostility to the value proposition of NATO and America’s foreign involvement writ large, and that Biden seems to have succeeded in his mission, at least according to foreign leaders and administration officials.

But the truth is: The world won’t know for weeks, months or maybe even years whether Biden’s victories will prove lasting.

The same could probably be said for whether key initiatives coming out of the G-7 summit and subsequent meetings with NATO and the European Union actually win the world’s embrace when it comes time for implementation.

During a news conference at NATO headquarters the evening of June 14, the president cast the importance of the commitments made during his first foreign trip in office in generational terms.

“This is going to be looked at 25 years from now as whether or not we stepped up to the challenge, because there’s a lot of autocracies that are counting on them being able to move more rapidly and successfully in an ever-complicated world than democracies can,” Biden said in Brussels. “We all concluded we’re going to prove them wrong.”

Of course, the ability of democracies to respond to challenges, as opposed to, say, Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Communist-led China, depends not only on the leadership on any given day but also on the will of the people. Look no further than the U.S. voters who elected a president in 2016 with a very different view of the world order. Trump doubted the merits of U.S. investment in the world and the value of the costs incurred by American taxpayers in support of allies.

That reality may give even more urgency to implementation of commitments that Biden and the other world leaders made.

“These trips, you kind of finish them and you’re like, ‘All right, well, that’s great. Now we got work to do.’ And there’s an enormous amount of work to do, but we’re all ready for it,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters at the end of a June 17 conference call.

Among that work will be actually delivering on Biden’s promise of the United States providing a half-billion COVID-19 vaccines to the world.

As for the G-7, members must now stand up an effort to form a new global infrastructure investment organization, called Build Back Better World, designed to counter the Chinese government’s Belt and Road initiative. The B3W, as it is being called, was a Biden brainchild that won agreement at the G-7 in Cornwall, England.

The members expressed in their post-summit communique that financing should be led by the market, though clearly with significant backing of the major economies.

“[W]e believe current funding and financing approaches are not adequate to address the infrastructure financing gap and are committed to enhancing the development finance tools at our disposal, including by mobilising private sector capital and expertise, through a strengthened and more integrated approach across the public and private sector, to reduce risk, strengthen local capacities, and support and catalyse a significant increase in responsible and market-based private capital in sectors with anticipated returns,” the communique said.

That won’t be easy, according to a report from an independent task force of the Council on Foreign Relations circulated again after the G-7 announcement. The task force knows a thing or two about the world stage: It was co-chaired by Jacob J. Lew, the former Obama administration Treasury secretary, and retired Adm. Gary Roughead, a former chief of naval operations.

The report argued why it will be so difficult to compete with the existing Chinese campaign of influence through investment, which is visible throughout the developing world — in part because the United States and other major democracies did not make such investments when given the chance before.

“These collective shortcomings allowed China to tap into a legitimate need around the world for new infrastructure and to fill the gap in infrastructure financing and construction in a way that benefits it,” the report said. “Beijing’s ability to offer hard and digital infrastructure around the world at low prices is made possible by a combination of political backing from the Chinese Communist Party, the financial power of its state-owned banks, excess capacity in a number of important sectors, and its development of large, highly capable manufacturing and technology companies.”

As for the final stop on the trip, the one that generated the most headlines? The summit between Putin and Biden finished with a perhaps predictably short list of deliverables. The most visible will see ambassadors to Moscow and Washington returning to their respective overseas postings.

Biden said he presented his Russian counterpart with a list of the types of critical infrastructure that should be off-limits to cyber and ransomware attacks, and both sides have noted that work must commence on an updated strategic arms control treaty, with New START now set to expire in 2026.

But, as the president himself said June 16, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

Biden pulled out that old adage when asked whether he trusted Putin to live up to his word. But it might be rightly applied to much more of the U.S. president’s weeklong European tour.

Niels Lesniewski is CQ Roll Call’s chief White House correspondent.