President Joe Biden has just returned from his first international trip, making several European stops in an effort to reassert America’s prominence on the world stage. How did he do? This post (humbly) offers a report card, summarizing the trip. While it is clearly too early to determine the long-term success of Biden’s first foreign Presidential visit, some initial observations are in order, especially in comparing Biden’s performance on the world stage to his predecessor.
Below are five areas that were highlights of the trip and grades for the President’s accomplishments in each area.
The Pandemic Response: B+ Biden gets high marks for beginning his visit by announcing America’s contribution of 500 million vaccine doses to nations where demand for vaccines vastly exceeds supply. This announcement prompted a similar commitment from G7 nations and provided a clear signal that the US sees itself, once again, as a world leader in confronting global crises. The grade would have been an A if the offer was made (and implemented) sooner, which could have saved countless lives.
Restoring Trust Among Allies: A This is perhaps the most positive aspect of the President’s trip. “America is back,” he said repeatedly, and in his statements and actions and posture at every stop, it became clear that this was more than a slogan. Rather, it was an expression that prompted reassurance to democracies around the world that the US was reasserting its leadership on the world stage. Even the sequence of his visits—meeting first with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, then nations of the G7, then NATO and finally Russian President Vladimir Putin—was a subtle but important symbolic statement, reflecting his administration’s foreign policy approach: first strengthen relationships with our friends and then present a united front to our adversaries. This is a welcome change from the inevitable traps and false excesses caused by the previous “America First” policy. It clearly demonstrated that Biden’s was not a solo act, but that he had a seasoned team of experts behind him.
Security Concerns: B It is gratifying that Biden met first with the G7, where a more holistic understanding of “human security” as the basis for problem-solving as opposed to NATO’s more narrowly focused “military security” concerns, where Biden met next. But even security concerns, which have expanded to include cyber security and the growing influence of China, now touch on seemingly non-military threats to global well-being like pandemic preparation and climate change. It is important to view security in today’s world in these more expansive terms and Biden gets credit for doing so. Details are yet to emerge and there is already a split on some issues, i.e., the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany and the best way to deal with China. Kudos to Biden’s team for expanding the understanding of security to include such elements. It now remains to be seen, once the administration has had more time to act, whether or not this expanded understanding of security will prove beneficial to US interests and to the world at large.
The Environment: C- Perhaps it was inevitable, with so many pressing issues on the table, that the environment would take a back seat. But this was disappointing. This always seems to happen. Whenever climate change is not screaming from the headlines (wildfires, hurricanes), its importance is overlooked. This long-term, persistent, existential threat demands imaginative, forward-looking thinking and urgent policy changes. While there was general assent during Biden’s trip that nations can and must address this issue together, little emerged that illustrated innovative plans to tackle this issue. I wished for more. How long must we wait?
Dealing with Putin: A- The final leg of the President’s European trip was a summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. Biden’s oft-stated goal for this meeting was to Tell Putin “what I want him to know.” Apparently, that happened. Though short on details, the President set a tone that bodes well for specific accomplishments in the future that will—as he declared—be in the best interests of both the American and Russian people. Some small gains were made: returning ambassadors to their respective home offices, the creation of a strategic stability dialogue, negotiations regarding two US Marines held in Russia. But, the real strength in Biden’s encounter with Putin was his refusal to soft-pedal Russia’s breaking of diplomatic norms—harboring cyber criminals, persecuting political enemies, election meddling—while standing firm on principles of human rights and the integrity of elections for which the US has become a beacon of hope around the world.
Like in earlier stops on his European journey, the President’s bearing was strong, resolute and in control. Hubris and the desire to humiliate were absent, once again a marked change from his predecessor, and as reassuring quality for all Americans to appreciate. So, on average, Biden’s report card for his first international trip, is a more than respectable B+. He has set a high bar and laid the groundwork for even higher marks in the future.