By Ian Teunissen van Manen
North America Analyst
Earlier this month, US President Biden embarked on a trip to Europe, marking his first international travel since taking office in January. This trip included stops in the UK for the G7 Summit and Brussels for meetings with EU leaders and the NATO Summit (Miller, 2021).
The trip gathered a great deal of attention from the international political community, and rightfully so. Even before the trip started, many people thought that it was likely to be a tone-setter for how the Biden Administration plans to repair the damage caused by former President Trump and his administration, as well as how attempts to renew alliances and cooperative relationships across the Atlantic will be received in multiple key settings (Erlanger, 2021).
The fact that President Biden’s first international trip is to Europe is undoubtedly strategic and significant. Many recent US Presidents prioritize the US’ North American neighbours and allies on their first international trips, and thus this change in and of itself serves as a noticeable break from previous administrations (Miller, 2021).
In preparation for his trip, President Biden published an Op-Ed in the Washington Post, stating his motivations and priorities while abroad. Biden stated the main goal of his visit to Europe: “this trip is about realising America’s renewed commitment to our allies and partners, and demonstrating the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age.” (Biden, 2021).
One of the most critical aspects of rebuilding relationships with allies will be NATO. Trump famously disparaged NATO and its members, saying that members needed to start “paying their bills” (Borger, 2018). In his op-ed, Biden took a contrasting stance: “In Brussels, at the NATO summit, I will affirm the United States’ unwavering commitment to Article 5 and to ensuring our alliance is strong in the face of every challenge, including threats like cyberattacks on our critical infrastructure.” (Biden, 2021). This change of position, though not unexpected, is sure to be welcomed by NATO allies as the Biden administration progresses.
In addition to meeting with allies, Biden’s trip concluded with a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Biden has labelled his “worthy adversary” (Sanger & Erlanger, 2021). In his Op-Ed, Biden expressed his desire to set “meaningful consequences for actions that violate U.S. sovereignty, including interference in [the US’] democratic elections” (Biden, 2021). Under the Trump administration, the US had an interesting relationship with Russia, which included the apparent mutual admiration shared between Trump and Putin (Roche, 2021), as well as the storied Russian interference in the US Presidential Election of 2016. Biden clearly has a different approach: in an interview earlier in the year, he agreed that President Putin was a “killer” (Roche, 2021), which speaks to Biden’s will to hold Russia and its leader accountable and sets him apart from his predecessor.
Did Biden’s trip to Europe accomplish everything that it set out to do?
It is clear that some progress was made. Biden was able, at least to a certain extent, convince the US’ European allies that the US was “back” (Sanger & Erlanger, 2021). However, it remains clear that some European leaders are concerned that Trump and Trump-esque “America First” policies are the new normal, and that Biden and his administration are a brief respite from these types of policies (Sanger & Erlanger, 2021).
Nevertheless, the US and its European allies took some strong stances throughout the course of Biden’s visit to Europe. The G7 pledged to donate a billion vaccine doses to countries to have limited vaccine access, took a stand against China about its human rights violations, and committed to tackle global crises such as climate change, gender equality issues and free trade (Herzenhorn, 2021).
At NATO, a hard line against China was taken, and the importance of the mutual defence pact was reiterated by Biden, as he stated that NATO is “critically important to [the US]” (Siebold, Holland, & Emmott, 2021).
It is relatively unclear as of yet whether Biden’s meeting with Putin was fruitful. In any case, it was unlikely that a three-hour meeting would significantly change the dynamic of US-Russian relations (Sanger & Erlanger, 2021). Nevertheless, Biden has drawn clear boundaries, and remains hopeful that Putin will be persuaded to change to a more amiable course of action in the coming years (Sanger & Erlanger, 2021). However, as one of Biden’s aides stated: “[Biden] may be the only one” who remains optimistic on that front (Sanger & Erlanger, 20201).
Thus, although some inroads were certainly made, much remains uncertain. It is likely that, despite some uncertainty around whether the US is back “to stay” (Sanger and Erlanger. 2021), European leaders will look to capitalise on the shift from “America first” policies. This will likely lead to closer cooperation in the coming years of the Biden administration, and shift the Transatlantic narrative to one of partnership and renewed alliances, at least for the time being.
Biden, Joe. “Opinion | Joe Biden: My Trip to Europe Is about America Rallying the World’s Democracies.” The Washington Post. WP Company, June 9, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/06/05/joe-biden-europe-trip-agenda/.
Erlanger, Steven. “Biden Is Embracing Europe, but Then What? NATO and the E.U. Have Concerns.” The New York Times. The New York Times, June 6, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/06/world/europe/biden-nato-eu-trump.html.
Herszenhorn, David M. “5 Takeaways from Britain’s G7 Summit.” POLITICO. POLITICO, June 13, 2021. https://www.politico.eu/article/5-takeaways-from-britain-g7-summit-cornwall-boris-johnson-coronavirus-china-trade-coal-brexit/.
Miller, Zeke. “Biden to Make First Overseas Trip in Office to UK, EU.” AP NEWS. Associated Press, April 23, 2021. https://apnews.com/article/joe-biden-donald-trump-europe-north-america-summits-148d5b4aaf534a8e09ff01c38611ba48.
Roche, Darragh. “Vladimir Putin Returns Compliments to Donald Trump Ahead of Joe Biden Meeting.” Newsweek. Newsweek, June 12, 2021. https://www.newsweek.com/vladimir-putin-returns-compliments-donald-trump-ahead-joe-biden-meeting-1600049.
Sanger, David E., and Steven Erlanger. “For Biden, Europe Trip Achieved 2 Major Goals. And Then There Is Russia.” The Seattle Times. The Seattle Times Company, June 17, 2021. https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/for-biden-europe-trip-achieved-2-major-goals-and-then-there-is-russia/.
Siebold, Sabine, Steve Holland, and Robin Emmott. “NATO Adopts Tough Line on China at Biden’s Debut Summit with Alliance.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, June 14, 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/nato-welcomes-biden-pivotal-post-trump-summit-2021-06-14/.