President Joe Biden is headed to Europe at the end of this week on the first foreign trip of his administration, for G-7, NATO, U.S.-EU, and U.S.-Russia summits in the United Kingdom, Belgium, and Switzerland.
Below, experts from Brookings’s Foreign Policy program describe what they are watching for, in terms of potential policy outcomes, developments in key relationships, and opportunities and things that could go wrong.
Pavel K. Baev, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Center on the United States and Europe:
It will be tiresome but not burdensome for President Joe Biden to run through the sequence of G-7, NATO, and U.S.-EU summits, in which allies and partners will be glad to consume his “come together” discourse and reluctant to press their multiple but manageable disagreements. It is the meeting with Russia’s prickly and manipulative President Vladimir Putin that will test his resolve and patience. The two veteran politicians have a good measure of one another, so without preamble, they can make a good start on the well-prepared matters of strategic stability, agreeing on protracted multi-track talks, which may or may not yield fruit in a few years.
Biden has made it excessively clear that he seeks “stable and predictable” relations with Russia, and Putin can promise to restrain Russian hackers and to spare Ukraine another bout of military pressure. As a counter-claim, he can demand that no new waves of protests be allowed to topple the dictatorship in Belarus. Putin’s main message will inevitably be about the unacceptability of Western “interference” in Russian internal affairs, which means that his siloviki will keep persecuting the opposition and exterminating free media as they see fit. Biden cannot consent to that but an implicit “understanding” might emerge. The problem with establishing such boundaries of “stability” is greater than just damaging Biden’s agenda of strengthening democracy. Putin is predictable only in his desire to keep the initiative in his confrontation with the West, so he is apt to strike at the first opportune moment.
Although it is not yet on the formal agenda of the different summits, I will be watching for developments on trans-Atlantic travel. To this day, travel is still heavily restricted between the United States and Europe (specifically the Schengen area, United Kingdom, and Ireland), a 15-month purgatory with no end in sight. However, by the end of June, all 27 EU member states will have reopened their borders to American travelers — safety protocols varying with each country. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has yet to give any indication that it intends to reciprocate, or even to fix the dramatic visa backlog in its consulates in Europe. I will be looking at whether Europeans bring up the issue and the administration offers a path forward. As both sides are determined to identify a positive agenda out of President Biden’s Europe tour, the asymmetry created by the ongoing U.S. travel ban will be noticed. As Biden claims to be a “committed trans-Atlanticist,” relaxing rules for European travel would be a demonstration of trust and goodwill.
A larger question looms over the sequence: Can the G-7, and trans-Atlantic partners, regain a central role in designing global governance, and overcome nationalistic impulses? I will look at efforts towards building a sustainable recovery with new rules on corporate taxation. I also expect G-7 partners to demonstrate solidarity with the developing world, with progress on the number of vaccines being donated, efforts on debt relief, and increased pledges for climate finance.
President Biden will go into his summit with President Putin in a strong position, having just come from a NATO summit that will emphasize the close alliance among the United States, Canada, and Europe. While both presidents have talked about the importance of strategic stability and arms control, fundamental divisions remain. Biden often discusses the importance of democracy, which Putin fears, and Biden continues to reiterate American support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, which Putin views as part of Russia’s privileged sphere of influence. Expect Putin to air his grievances against the United States, which he uses to try to deflect his responsibility for Russia’s continued economic stagnation. Biden, meanwhile, will do what his predecessor did not: make clear that continued Russian interference in American elections is unacceptable.
The days of U.S.-Russia summits with long fact sheets touting various agreements and initiatives are ancient history, but the two countries could pay lip service to their desire to cooperate on issues like the Arctic, Iran, and climate change. Biden has repeatedly stated his desire for a stable and predictable (i.e., boring) U.S.-Russia relationship that will enable the United States to keep its focus on China, and that seems to be the reason he offered the summit in the first place. Putin’s domestic challenges have led him to take a more aggressive foreign policy stance, so Biden’s hopes for quiet on the Russia front are likely to remain unfulfilled.
The United Kingdom is hosting both the G-7 this week and the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) meeting in Glasgow in early November, two key meetings in this crucial year for climate action. London is keen to have the G-7 set the tone for a successful COP26.
The G-7 environment ministers met in May and made important commitments on climate, including setting goals in line with limiting global average temperature rise to 1.5°C, preserving 30% of land for nature by 2030, and eliminating funding for coal plants by the end of 2021. The coal decision was a particularly big step for Japan, which has been an important funder of coal plants abroad. At the summit, G-7 countries are likely to call for similar commitments from G-20 countries at their October summit in Rome.
Climate finance and trade are likely to be important issues at the summit. Many developing countries have climate goals that are conditional on financial aid, so success at the COP depends on greater commitment of funds from wealthy countries. The intersection of climate and trade is also a good fit for discussion at the G-7. The European Union plans to implement a carbon border adjustment mechanism to protect industries that pay Europe’s high carbon prices, but its implications for trade are complicated and untested. Working thorough the implications and ensuring that trade doesn’t become a stumbling block is an important task that the G-7 could take on.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us that those who once seemed safe may not remain so, and that no one is safe until the whole world is. Democracies like Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan displayed stellar performance in fighting the pandemic early on, maintaining nearly normal life with low infections and few deaths. However, from India to Japan, among both rich and poor economies, Asia is now ravaged by new variants, revealing inadequate testing, insufficient vaccine production and procurement, and lax quarantines, compared with China’s successful management of the pandemic through massive testing and strict lockdowns.
The pandemic has also highlighted how many national governments and international organizations were unprepared to respond quickly and effectively. Fortunately, innovative public-private partnerships such as COVAX, Gavi, and Reform for Resilience are filling in the gap both to end the pandemic and to prepare for the next one. As the chair of Reform for Resilience’s Asia-Pacific hub, I see how Asian countries are depending on the G-7 to donate vaccines immediately and then to enlarge contract manufacturing of vaccines in Asia.
President Biden’s trip is an opportunity for the U.S. and G-7 to develop a new mechanism that unites democratic governments with research institutions and the private sector to end this pandemic. This is a wake-up call for the G-7 to create more robust healthcare systems, resilient economies, and sustainable environments, all of which will prepare us better for the next pandemic, whose arrival is only a matter of time.
As President Biden embarks on his first foreign trip, he has set an ambitious agenda — rebuilding America’s relationships with its closest allies and rallying the world’s democracies around a common goal of thwarting the implicit and explicit creep of authoritarianism. It is a noble aim, and a necessary endeavor, but neither a frenzy of summitry nor soaring rhetoric are the best means to achieve it.
After the epic disruption of Trump-era policies, Washington’s European allies will welcome the reassurance with a skeptical eye. Biden’s readiness to reengage must overcome not just the scars of the past four years, but also the continuing questions about the health of America’s own democracy as well as traditional resistance to any sense of a domineering Washington. And while our shared values and interests underpin the relationship, there is — and always has been — some divergence among our allies about how to advance them.
The good news is that this administration is well-suited to meet the needs of the moment. Biden himself has more foreign policy experience than any of his recent predecessors, and his track record is one of realism, not overreach. Moreover, he has spent the first five months of his presidency demonstrating America’s capacity for steady competence on the home front by marshaling the resources of the federal government to turn the tide against the historic challenge of the coronavirus pandemic. His administration should prioritize the same approach — consistency and efficacy — in addressing the systemic challenge posed by authoritarian great powers.
When President Biden meets President Putin in Geneva on June 16, he needs a big idea for future European security. Meeting for its own sake may be useful but only marginally. We need a strategy and a vision.
Specifically, it is time to rethink NATO’s standing desire to push the alliance further east — a policy virtually guaranteed to continue to produce a higher state of tension and greater risk of war than would otherwise characterize the West’s relationship with Russia. A new security architecture should seek to reverse verifiably Russia’s aggressions against its neighbors while creating a non-aligned zone among those eastern European countries not currently in NATO.
NATO was not created, and should not now be used, in an attempt to solve every European political or security problem. Nor was its original intent to expand. It started with just 12 members. It only added four in the course of the next 40 years — Germany, Turkey, Greece, and Spain. The goal was never growth for growth’s sake. Nor was NATO seen primarily as a tool for democracy promotion.
Moreover, the practical effect of attempting to enlarge NATO into these countries has arguably been to set back Russian relations with the West enormously. To be sure, the main fault is with Russia’s behavior; NATO should not apologize for past expansion. But the idea of further NATO expansion is the main policy that the West can and should rethink.
We are beginning to see the silhouette of the Biden administration’s democracy agenda, as the White House translates the president’s rhetorical commitment to prioritize supporting democracy and human rights in U.S. foreign policy into action. Last week, for example, the U.S. released a National Security Study Memorandum designating fighting corruption abroad as a core national security interest.
A key question going into the G-7 meeting is not whether the group will commit to supporting democracy abroad (they already have) but what they will promise to do together to achieve this goal.
The G-7 members are expected to codify a global minimum corporate tax rate. Can we expect something of similar ambition from the group’s discussion on “championing shared values including democracy and human rights”? One would hope so since whether democracy or autocracy predominates globally is more important than the percentage of profits which corporations hand over.
Commitments on how the seven — in concert with like-minded democracies, perhaps led by the D-10 including invited G-7 guests India, Australia, and South Korea — will protect and promote democracy would be welcome. They might commit to increasing support for strengthening institutions and civil society in fledgling democracies so that citizens instead of predatory elites thrive. They might also outline how allies will help protect democracy from Chinese and Russian malign influence, via standard repercussions and more proactive steps to shore up vulnerable countries.
This week will give greater shape to how the White House intends to translate promises on democracy into tangible action.
When President Biden meets his G-7 counterparts this week, the meeting will be heavy on signaling that the G-7 is back. In 2009, as the global financial crisis raged, it was the G-20, not the G-7 (G-8 at the time) where leaders and finance officials successfully signaled that even countries with different ideologies and political systems could work together for the common good. The larger G-20 grouping effectively eclipsed the G-7 in the following decade, but though its agenda expanded, the results delivered did not.
This week’s G-7 will also include Australia, India, and South Korea, signaling that the G-7 is now the principal forum where multilateral approaches to global issues will be hashed out among countries sharing democratic values, in hopes of making tangible progress in tackling current crises like COVID-19 response and climate. By reenergizing the G-7, the British hosts, Biden, and other attendees are signaling that when the wider G-20 meets, coordinated positions will have already been agreed, effectively presenting other G-20 countries, including China and Russia, with what is effectively a fait accompli. China has already reacted, arguing that “the G7 has no right to and should not exclude developing countries or other platforms for multilateral governance.”
This week’s G-7 is another reflection of the Biden administration’s framing of the world into democracies and autocracies. It could also signal that what is left of the halcyon era of efforts at global cooperation is over, and with it, the primacy of the G-20.
The weekend’s historic G-7 agreement on global corporate tax rates could be a gamechanger for the trans-Atlantic trade relationship; German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrats’ chancellor candidate, is already celebrating it as a victory. Are U.S.-German relations back on track after all?
Not quite. It is notable that the Biden administration faced down a heavy bipartisan drumbeat for sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in May for the sake of improving relations with Germany — yet the president is about to spend a week in Europe without going to Berlin.
Meanwhile, President Putin has casually upended a key argument fielded by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government to defend the project. Under an agreement negotiated by Berlin with the Kremlin, Russia was supposed to maintain its Ukrainian gas transit route until 2024. Yet on Friday Putin told a conference that Ukraine would have to show “good will” if it wanted to keep the transit route: a public slap in the face for Germany.
Much is at stake for Germany in this week’s summits — not least whether the successor to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (whose term ends in 2022) might be German; the name of Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is popular among her peers, was floated this week. So it might be time for Berlin to take a hard look at the relative strategic value of its relationships with the U.S. and Russia. One potential outcome could be to reconsider its opposition to a moratorium on the pipeline.
The White House sees President Biden’s forthcoming trip to Europe as a demonstration that “America is back” after four years of President Donald Trump. There is a considerable risk that this message will fall flat. There is little appetite on either side of the Atlantic for a return to the Obama administration’s Europe policy. Europeans follow American politics and understand that Trumpism is not dead and could make a comeback in elections in 2022 or 2024. Meanwhile, as Jeremy Shapiro recently argued, many Biden administration officials are skeptical that Europe can or will do much to help the United States in its competition with China.
Biden is unique among American presidents in his long-established engagement with and affinity for the Atlantic alliance. He should use this trip to set out his vision for how that alliance should change in decades to come. This must include serious consideration of helping the EU become more autonomous and capable, fleshing out an economic agenda for the alliance, showing how the U.S. can help support liberal democracy in Europe, rethinking NATO’s 2% of GDP defense spending metric so it is better suited for an era of competition with China, and encouraging continuing security cooperation between the U.K. and EU. Going big would ensure Europe is more resilient to a return of Trumpism, and better positioned to compete with China for its own reasons. But this is unlikely to happen on this trip, so it will probably have to wait a while longer.
The Biden administration has a pretty good idea of what it wants from Europe, which is to go along with their China policy. They are less clear about what they type of Europe they want. Ultimately, if Biden wants a Europe that competes with China he will have to change how the US thinks about the EU, strategic autonomy, burden sharing, and trade.