Seeking a sharp break from the “America First” policies of his predecessor – which often manifested in bitter disagreements, escalating trade wars and rejection of the systems established to prevent conflict – President Joe Biden on Friday reaffirmed the US position of global leadership, the power of its alliances and the resilience of democracy in the United States and abroad.
“This too shall pass,” Biden said in 2019, lamenting the isolationist turn the US took under then-President Donald Trump. “We will be back.”
On Friday, Biden made good.
“I’m a man of my word,” he told the virtual meeting. “America’s back.”
In contrast with his predecessor, Biden took Russia to task for its destabilizing activities in cyberspace, accusing the country’s leader – using only his last name – of attempting to destabilize Europe.
He announced he was halting a withdrawal of troops from Germany that Trump had demanded, framing the decision as critical to bolstering Europe’s defenses. And he voiced support for NATO and its Article 5 commitment to collective defense, something Trump sometimes appeared reluctant to affirm during his years in office.
It was an attempt both by Biden and his counterparts to move on from the tumult and unpleasantness of the Trump years, which left transatlantic ties badly strained. Whether they can be quickly restored remains an open question; European leaders have eyed with caution the insurrection attempt on January 6 as evidence of pervasive division in the United States that cannot be quickly erased.
Still, Biden made the case that – for now at least – the United States will return to the table.
“I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship,” he said, addressing the conference remotely from the White House East Room. “The US is determined to reengage with Europe. To consult with you. To earn back our position of trusted leadership.”
Biden's First 100 Days
Paired with his first virtual session of the G7 a few hours earlier, Biden’s back-to-back diplomatic engagements centered on his attempt to affirm what he said was the “cornerstone of all we hope to accomplish”: America’s ties with its most traditional allies.
He did not specifically name Trump, who viewed Europe as a trade rival and often said he believed traditional US friends were harder to deal with than adversaries. But he hardly had to.
“Our partnerships have endured and grown through the years because they are rooted in the richness of our shared democratic values. They’re not transactional,” he said, rebuking the preferred worldview of his predecessor in favor of something more cooperative.
While officials, in previewing his appearances, said Biden would not be focused mainly on Trump during his outings, his predecessor’s looming influence nonetheless informed the message the President sought to convey.
He said the world was at an “inflection point” between democracy and more autocratic regimes; his statement that “democratic progress is under assault” could be interpreted as describing his own country as well as foreign nations.
“I believe with every ounce of my being that democracy will and must prevail,” he declared.
He made broad declarations about joining together to counter Russia and China, though he did not offer specifics on either front. He made passing reference to Iran, saying the US was ready to reengage in negotiations on the nuclear deal, but did not provide a timeline. And while he said the US remained committed to ensuring Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorists, he did not outline plans for a US troop withdrawal.
Instead, his remarks were meant as a broad statement of support for US-Europe ties after four years in the wilderness.
“The last four years have been hard, but Europe and the United States have to lead with confidence once more, with faith in our capacities, a commitment to our own renewal, with trust in one another,” he said.
Meeting earlier over video conference with the G7 from the White House Situation Room, Biden joined a club in which he’s long sought membership. In a brief photo-op, he was smiling and nodding along as the summit’s host, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, made introductory remarks.
The meeting was not without some hitches; at one point, mumbling in German interrupted Johnson’s speech and he instructed German Chancellor Angela Merkel to mute her line.
“Can you hear us Angela? That’s OK,” he said. “I think you need to mute.”
During the meeting, he unveiled a $4 billion US commitment to COVAX, the global effort to provide vaccines to poor countries. The President plans to announce $2 billion contribution to the fund and commit to spending another $2 billion, contingent on contributions from other nations.
The session also marked the United States’ official return to the Paris climate accord, 30 days after Biden announced he would re-enter the US in the pact during his first day in office.
Biden joins a G7 that had been fractured by the presence of Trump, who came to dislike the group and questioned why he needed to participate in its summits at all. At his first meeting, held on a cliffside in Sicily, he felt ganged up upon when the leaders tried to convince him to remain in the Paris deal.
The next year, during a riverside retreat in the northern woods of Quebec, he stubbornly resisted the other leaders’ entreaties on tariffs and left early, rescinding his signature from the concluding statement as he flew to Singapore to meet with Kim Jong Un.
The leaders clashed again a year later during a heated dinner meeting underneath the Biarritz lighthouse in France, when Trump said he wanted Russia to rejoin the group.
By his fourth year in office, when it was his turn to host the summit, Trump went back and forth on where it would be convened, upset that optics and ethics prevented him from holding it at his resort in Doral. Ultimately, at the urging of French President Emmanuel Macron, he held a video conference call. But he never hosted an actual summit.
There is undoubtedly a sense of tensions relaxing with Biden replacing Trump in the United States’ chair around the G7 table. Even among those leaders who attempted to cultivate the former President, such as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Biden provides at least a more predictable and stable presence than Trump, whose sour moods – often prompted by jet lag, aides said – derailed many a G7 session.
In some ways, the restoration of a reliable American voice was Biden’s signal message during his debut multilateral outing, which a senior administration official likened Thursday evening to a “virtual trip to Europe.”