U.S. President Joe Biden started what can be described as a healing tour as he meets European leaders during a G-7 summit in England and tries to dispel the bad memories of the Trump White House.
(CN) — In a bid to regain the world’s trust in American leadership, U.S. President Joe Biden kicked off a jam-packed weeklong visit to Europe with an announcement that the United States will buy 500 million vaccine doses for distribution to poorer countries.
Ahead of a G-7 meeting in Cornwall, Biden landed in England on Wednesday afternoon and gave a speech to American troops at the R.A.F. Mildenhall air force base where he laid out a vision of the U.S. working with other democracies to solve the world’s most pressing problems, climate change chief among them.
His decision to surround himself with troops as he delivered a speech about the strength of democracies, American ingenuity and the importance of diplomacy also sent a clear message to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he will meet next Wednesday in Geneva in what will likely be the defining moment of his first foreign trip as president.
“We have to discredit those who believe that the age of democracy is over, as some of our fellow nations believe,” Biden said, insinuating that places like Russia and China are fostering autocratic regimes. “We have to expose as false the narrative that decrees of dictators can match the speed and scale of the 21st [century] challenges.”
Tensions between Russia and the U.S. are extremely high with the U.S. accusing Putin of sponsoring cyberattacks, ordering political assassinations, violating arms control treaties, squashing democracy at home and threatening to invade Ukraine. Likewise, Putin accuses the U.S. of a multitude of crimes and seeking to destabilize Russia. It remains uncertain how much the Geneva summit will help ease tensions.
Beside Putin, another figure hangs over this trip to Europe: The shadow of Biden’s radical predecessor in the Oval Office, former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Biden’s win in November came as a huge relief to European leaders and dispelled fears that America was turning away from its longstanding allies in Europe and dangerously taking a go-it-alone path while torpedoing the multilateral, diplomacy-first world order created in the wake of World War II and so cherished by Europeans.
Brick by brick, Biden is trying to rebuild a transatlantic alliance that Trump did so much to break apart. During his tenure, Trump questioned the need for NATO, spoke softly about Putin’s aggressions, fueled tensions over trade with the European Union, praised the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU and was preparing to remove American troops from Germany.
In the run-up to his summit in Geneva with Putin, then, this weeklong trip can be seen as a healing tour where Biden, an old hand at international diplomacy, does the rounds with European and NATO leaders.
On Thursday, Biden was to meet British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and announce that the U.S. will buy 500 million vaccine doses over the next year for distribution to poorer countries. This goodwill gesture to help the world’s poorest is a major boost to the World Health Organization’s efforts to vaccinate much of the world’s population, the most vulnerable first.
“We have to end Covid-19, not just at home — which we’re doing — but everywhere,” Biden said. “There’s no wall high enough to keep us safe from this pandemic or the next biological threat we face — and there will be others.”
This act of so-called vaccine diplomacy by Biden can be seen as part of a larger ambition to prove that Trump’s “America First” foreign-policy approach was an aberration and that “the United States is back” as a trusted leader and the strongest advocate for democracy and decency.
To achieve this goal, Biden seems to think that showing unwavering commitment to tackle climate change will go a long way in proving American global leadership. During his speech on Wednesday, he said climate change was the biggest threat facing the world.
On this front, too, Biden is trying to sweep away the bad memories of Trump, who took the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and who even expressed skepticism over the scientific evidence showing the planet is getting catastrophically warmer.
To drive the point home about the seriousness of global warming, Biden related a story to the troops at Mildenhall about his first visit as vice president with former U.S. President Barack Obama to the Pentagon’s secure vault, known as the Tank.
“The military sat us down to let us know what the greatest threats facing America were — the greatest physical threats,” Biden said. “And this is not a joke: You know what the joint chiefs told us the greatest threat facing America was? Global warming.
“Because there’ll be significant population movements, fights over land, millions of people leaving places because they’re literally sinking below the sea in Indonesia; because of the fights over what is arable land anymore,” Biden said.
In Cornwall, the Group of Seven, an organization made up of the wealthiest nations, is making climate change a central theme.
The G-7 members are the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Canada. The EU also sends representatives. Russia was a member until 2014 when it annexed Crimea in Ukraine and was booted from the group known as the G-8 at the time. Since then, the U.S. and its allies have imposed heavy sanctions on Russia.
The focus on climate change resonates strongly among European leaders, who are in the midst of drafting the most stringent and comprehensive legislation on climate change in the world and legally committing their nations to drastically reducing their reliance on fossil fuels.
Biden’s talk of tackling climate change in a “coordinated, multilateral” way, and leading on “the global transition to clean energy technology” is a huge breath of fresh air for Europeans after Trump’s unilateral moves.
“We must all commit to an ambitious climate action if we’re going to prevent the worst impacts of climate change,” Biden said.
He said the G-7 leaders plan to “launch an ambitious effort to support resilience and development around the world by investing in high-quality, high-standard physical, digital, and health infrastructures.”
During this trip, Biden is scheduled to meet Queen Elizabeth II on Sunday before heading to Brussels for discussions with EU and NATO leaders ahead of his summit with Putin.
On the sidelines of the NATO meeting, Biden will sit down with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey is a NATO member but it is increasingly causing friction because of Erdogan’s belligerent moves in the region, such as moving troops to Syria and Libya and angering Cyprus and Greece by sending gas exploration ships into their maritime boundaries.
Under Erdogan, Turkey has become associated with a worrying rise in authoritarian regimes around the globe that are jailing dissidents and journalists, seizing control over court systems, shutting down critical media outlets and attacking the concept of liberal democracy as inefficient and dangerous.
In Europe, Biden is trying to rally the world’s democracies to put up a fight against the rise in autocratic rulers.
“You know and I know they’re wrong,” Biden said about autocratic rulers, speaking to American troops in England. “But it doesn’t mean we don’t have to work harder than ever to prove that democracy can still deliver for our people.”
He said, “I believe we’re at an inflection point in world history — the moment where it falls to us to prove that democracies will not just endure, but they will excel as we rise to seize the enormous opportunities of a new age.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.