US President Joe Biden has started his first international trip since entering the White House as commander in chief. No American president since Dwight D. Eisenhower in the early 1960s has waited so long to make their first overseas trip. In fact, by this time in their administrations, George W. Bush and Donald Trump had already each traveled to seven countries and Barack Obama to 13.
Even with the delay, the fact that his first trip overseas is to Europe is positive. For the US, Europe remains a very important region. America’s oldest ally (France) and arguably its closest ally (the UK) are in Europe. The US is bound by the NATO treaty to defend much of the continent. Europe shares America’s views on economic freedom and human rights. And the economies of the US and Europe are deeply interconnected.
Unsurprisingly, Biden has a busy schedule. His first stop is the UK, ahead of visits to Belgium and Switzerland before returning to the US. With each stop, he has a series of important meetings. There are three summits and two bilateral meetings to watch closely.
First up is the G7 gathering in Cornwall. The summit brings together the leaders of the US, UK, Canada, Japan, Germany, France and Italy, so this will be the first opportunity for Biden to meet many of his counterparts face to face. There will be a lot on the agenda at the summit, such as post-pandemic economic recovery, assisting the global vaccine rollout, promoting free market principles, and trade liberalization. However, the biggest challenge for Biden will be keeping the G7 unified when it comes to confronting Russia and China.
After the G7 meeting, Biden will attend the US-EU summit in Brussels. This will be the first such summit since 2014. It is no secret that relations between the US and the EU were fraught during the Trump administration. President Donald Trump made his disdain for the EU clear, just as the leaders of the EU did for the US president. Biden will want to clear the air. However, this meeting comes at a difficult time for the bloc. Its economic situation is dire due to the coronavirus pandemic. Europe’s vaccine rollout started off late and remains sluggish. Top issues that will be discussed will be China, climate change, the tech sector, and various trade matters such as tariffs and subsidies.
While in Brussels, Biden will also attend his first NATO summit as president. It is the first summit since NATO started its total withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan and the first to take place since the beginning of the pandemic. Even so, it will probably be uneventful. No new members will join NATO at this time. The alliance will continue to dance around the sensitive issue of burden sharing. Russia usually dominates the discussions at NATO gatherings and this one will be no different. However, the topic of China will not be far behind.
In addition to these summits, the international community should keep an eye on two important bilateral meetings.
Biden and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan are expected to meet. In recent years, the US-Turkish relationship has been strained. The US president waited three months after entering the White House before finally calling Erdogan — and then did so only to give the Turkish leader a warning that he was about to recognize the killing of Armenians at the hands of the Ottomans in 1915 as genocide. There are big issues hurting the US-Turkish relationship. For example, Turkey’s purchase of an advanced Russian air defense system upsets Washington. Meanwhile, America’s continued support to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria rattles Ankara. However, expect this meeting to be cordial. Biden and Erdogan have known each other for years. Both are experienced statesmen and, in person, they are likely to get along well. It is also in both leaders’ interest to get the bilateral relationship back on track.
Biden’s trip will end with a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Switzerland. While this will be the first time the two have met in person since Biden was sworn in, they have spoken on the phone in recent months. Expect both leaders to take advantage of the meeting for domestic reasons. For Putin, he knows that standing side by side with the American president makes Russia look like an equal to the US on the global stage. So just having a meeting with Biden is a victory for him. Conversely, Biden knows that his meeting will be compared to that of his predecessor in Helsinki in 2018, which was a disaster for Trump. If Biden can look tough, this will be a victory for him. The international community should lower its expectations on what will come out of it. In terms of practical outcomes, the Biden-Putin summit will likely be a waste of time.
It is too early in his administration to determine if Biden has developed a foreign policy doctrine. So far, when it comes to foreign policy, he has shown little interest or enthusiasm for issues unless they are his administration’s Top 3 international priorities: Climate change, China, and the Iran deal.
Biden was not elected on his foreign policy views. His delay in traveling overseas is probably reflective of his focus on the domestic issues facing the US. Therefore, he probably cannot wait to get back home.