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Opinion: What Biden needs to prove to G7 and NATO allies

David A. AndelmanDavid A. Andelman
Or can they?
Certainly, in the early moments of Biden’s first international swing as president, he and first lady Jill Biden are saying (and wearing) all the right things. The first lady’s “Love” message embroidered onto the back of her ensemble is certainly a sharp contrast with the “I really don’t care, do you?” question emblazoned across her predecessor’s jacket on one trip.
But more important than Biden’s message is his tone. The last four years have been a rough time for the trans-Atlantic relationship. Three years ago, at the tense G7 summit in Canada, the tone was set by an epiphanal photo showing a smug former President Donald Trump being faced down by determined German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with the other leaders watching their world implode around them. Beyond Trump’s insistence on restoring Russia’s Putin to membership in the group, ignoring his seizure of Crimea, his threat to cut off trade with countries that failed his test of fair treatment of America threw the entire conference in disarray as he stormed out, refusing to sign the final communiqué.
Now, as several European diplomats have told me, it will take a lot to convince them that Biden represents a return to normalcy and not simply a peaceful interregnum before America snaps back to a toxic nationalism.
Will Trump be held accountable—this time?Will Trump be held accountable—this time?
Former President Trump, after all, did his best to bring down, or reconstruct, a host of red lines that had defined the trans-Atlantic relationship for a century or more. So, it was entirely in keeping with this new administration that the first stop of the American president and his British counterpart, Boris Johnson, was to view the Atlantic Charter, signed by former President Franklin Roosevelt and former Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the dawn of World War II.
Biden and Johnson emerged to present a new Atlantic Charter. This 604-word document is, like its predecessor, a declaration of a grand vision and a pledge to uphold democracy, but this time in the face of 21st century challenges. Today, the US and UK are not at war, and there is no enemy like Nazi Germany and the Axis powers as there was at the time of the first Atlantic Charter. But Russia and China pose challenges to the global order as the West sees it.
The 2021 charter calls on Western allies to “oppose interference through disinformation or other malign influences, including in elections.” And it embraces the challenges represented by today’s technology, affirming “our shared responsibility for maintaining our collective security and international stability and resilience against the full spectrum of modern threats, including cyber threats.”
Biden and Johnson introduced this charter in the face of innumerable challenges — many pandemic-related — which both leaders and those who arrived on Friday for the expanded G7 have acknowledged the importance of addressing. Biden announced the US would be buying 500 million Covid vaccine shots to distribute to developing nations. Johnson followed with a pledge to provide more than 100 million vaccines and the other G7 nations will bring that total to 1 billion worldwide.
Bill Barr's despicable conduct is now on full displayBill Barr's despicable conduct is now on full display
But there are other challenges, too, which hang over all those assembling in Cornwall, England, this weekend. According to the Washington Post, Russia is preparing to supply the Iranians with an advanced satellite system that will improve its ability to track military targets. The G7 and NATO afterward will need to find a way to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin — setting the stage for Biden’s talks with him in Geneva later in the week. And Biden will need to demonstrate to Putin, too, that he is not simply an interregnum the Russian leader can wait out.
Still, the US and most of the European countries do have substantially different views on a host of issues — particularly with respect to China. Over the Trump years, many EU nations have sought to grow their economic relations with China as a counterweight to a somewhat unreliable partnership with the US. Such relationships are not easily or willingly unwound — another aspect of the reservations many of these countries retain with respect to the durability of the Biden form of globalism. This can be summed up by the feeling that Biden may need to be as tough on China as Trump, but recruit allies to join him. Yet many of these allies, especially in Europe, see China as economically vital. “Europe has its own interests,” Noah Barkin, a researcher at Rhodium Group told the Financial Times. “There is not going to be seamless cooperation on China.”
Other items high on the agenda will hopefully be less fractious, including a new global minimum corporate tax rate of at least 15%, which foreign ministers agreed to last week, as well as a unified approach to climate change.
At the same time, Europe is facing a seismic restructuring of its power dynamics as Merkel prepares to leave the chancellorship and her unofficial role as Europe’s most powerful figure. French President Emmanuel Macron arrived at the G7 prepared to assume that leadership role, though he faces a bruising campaign over the next year to win a second five-year term in his own country. The class photo of the G7 leaders was revelatory — Biden just to the right of host Johnson, Macron just to Johnson’s left despite all the frictions surrounding British exit from the EU and Merkel off on the end. Later, the White House issued a statement saying that Biden and Macron had a private discussion on different topics, including “counterterrorism issues in the Sahel” that especially concerns Macron. Still, it was Merkel, not Macron, who won a personal invitation to the White House on July 15.
Meanwhile, Biden has still not managed to appoint and confirm ambassadors to any of the countries in the G7 or most of those who’ll be at the NATO summit. The US is still represented by chargés-d’affairs in each of these capitals. One European diplomat asked me how committed Biden actually is to renewing positive relationships with long-standing friends given such looming gaps.
Yet, so far, Biden appears to be demonstrating that there is a rational, reliable hand on the tiller in Washington, DC. Of course, no single G7 or NATO summit will be enough to reassure our allies that the United States is fully committed to its role as a global leader, but it’s a good first step.
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