But Biden’s journey has conveyed what matters most. Its main concern is China. Biden’s high-profile Democracy Summit, which received a rote quote from the G7, has been postponed until next year. No location was specified. In contrast, the Chinese challenge appeared three times in the G7 communiqué and was first cited by NATO – an alliance supposed to defend the North Atlantic.
“Biden’s basic message to his European friends was, ‘Don’t worry guys, I support you. Now let me do my real business in the Indo-Pacific, ”says Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, the London-based think tank. “The language on China was careful. But it went through everything. “
China has also tacitly hovered over the US-Russia summit. The contrast between Biden’s meeting with Putin in Geneva and Trump’s infamous 2018 one-on-one talks with him in Helsinki was perhaps the most striking feature of Biden’s trip. Unlike Biden’s domestic critics, who accused him of giving Putin the undeserved gift of appearing on the same stage, most Europeans were happy to see them speak.
“Negotiating with your opponents is what diplomacy is supposed to be – as long as you have assistants and note-takers present,” says Fiona Hill, who, as Trump’s adviser to Russia, did not allowed to participate in his private meeting with Putin. “Not to speak makes no sense. Should Biden refuse to meet Xi Jinping because China has concentration camps?
A surprising aspect of Biden’s approach was his pragmatic treatment of Putin. He refrained from lecturing on democracy, although he threatened Putin with “devastating” consequences if Alexei Navalny, leader of the banned opposition in Russia, were to die in prison.
He also pledged to retaliate against future Russian cyberattacks following SolarWind’s deep penetration into US government systems last year. The two agreed to create a working group on nuclear and another on cybersecurity, which some see as the current equivalent of the Cold War arms talks.
The latter process is likely to be riddled with mistrust – Russia, or groups the United States believes to be linked to Russia, has caused great disruption to the United States at very low cost. But the fact that the group exists now might make Putin think twice.
Pragmatic with Putin
In contrast, Biden made only fleeting references to “values” and “freedom”. The only one of the two who referred to the ideals in public – perhaps as a form of trolling – was Putin, who praised Biden’s “moral values” and his willingness to talk about his family. Again, the contrast with Trump was stark.
“Trump has always been seen as transactional and Biden as sentimental,” says Stephen Wertheim, co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “In practice, Biden was pragmatic with Putin, while Trump was obsessed with status and prestige.”
The explicit aim was to make US-Russian relations less dangerous and unstable. The test of whether Biden was successful will be in the dogs that bark – the poisonings abroad of Russian dissidents and the cyberattacks on the West that are not happening. It will take time to assess. It’s hard to prove a negative. Biden’s implicit goal was to allay Putin’s paranoia.
Biden drew derision in him for describing Russia as a “great power” and Putin as a “worthy adversary”. He was also criticized last month for refusing to impose sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. Biden also paid little attention in Geneva to rumors that Ukraine would be admitted to NATO. The word “appeasement” began to return to Washington’s vocabulary.
Still, Biden’s flattery had a purpose. Some call it a “reverse Henry Kissinger,” named after Richard Nixon’s famous national security adviser, who made cap-and-dagger trips to Beijing in the early 1970s to capitalize on the Sino-Soviet split.
The more respect Biden treats Russia as a great power, the easier it will be for him to detach Russia from China’s grip.
– Fiona Hill, former Russian adviser to Donald Trump
China ends up separating from the Soviet bloc. Beijing is today the main partner. The longer-term hope is to drive a wedge between Russia and China.
“The more Biden treats Russia with respect as a great power, which Putin aspires to, the easier it will be for him to detach Russia from China,” Hill said.
Such an approach means downplaying Biden’s “democracy versus autocracy” framing. America would instead play on Russia’s autocratic angst at being treated like a little brother by China. Some of America’s partners, including France, Japan and India, are also trying to forge closer relations with Russia in order to weaken its ties with China.
“At this point, it would be a geopolitical mistake for America not to attempt a ‘reverse Kissinger,’ says Shapiro. “At the very least, America should stop pushing Russia into China’s arms. But it will take more than one presidential term to succeed.
Biden’s geopolitical chess game is fraught with pitfalls. Chief among them is Europe’s reluctance to view China with the same existential preoccupation as America. The continent trades more with China than with the United States. Biden referred to the Chinese threat in various summit statements. But joint declarations are not the same as concrete action.
For example, Europe is a long way from following the American lead in imposing a continent-wide ban on sensitive Chinese technologies, such as the Huawei 5G network.
Biden is also limited by Europe’s skepticism about his re-election in 2024 – Trump’s once biting and shy legacy. Europeans politely listened to Biden’s emphasis on democracy over autocracy. But their greatest concern is for the future of American democracy. Will Biden’s “America is Back” mantra survive his tenure?
“Europeans are as obsessed with America’s internal divisions as they are with the future of global democracy,” says Brian Katulis, senior researcher at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “A European official told me that he thinks of America the same way an amputee feels that a missing limb is still there. Will he grow back?
The relief with which Biden was greeted in Europe suggests that he has convinced his allies that America is at least temporarily back in action. The way Biden delivered this message was also appreciated.
Instead of talking about the return of the United States to the head of the table, Biden said America is “back to the table.” Rather than America in the lead, it was “America in the lead with allies”. Such modulations seem trivial, but they have shown a sensitivity that has recently been lacking. The Europeans also noted that Biden spent hours preparing for each of his summits.
“It was almost a shock to see professional diplomats in action again,” says Niblett. “Biden’s team are experienced and understand the game.”
Yet there was little cover-up that the Atlantic is no longer the most important geopolitical theater in the world in America’s eyes. This distinction belongs to the Indo-Pacific. Although this is Biden’s first presidential trip, his first summit was virtual in March with the leaders of the Quad – the United States, Japan, India and Australia. The Quad is not a formal alliance. But he plays a bigger role in Biden’s plans than NATO’s future.
“During the Obama years, if you mentioned the Quad, people thought of America, Britain, France and Germany,” says Hill. “Now that can only mean the Indo-Pacific.”
For now, transatlantic relations are entering a phase of better redress. The coming months will reveal whether Biden’s flintier approach to Russia will pay off. At Putin’s press conference on Wednesday, he was asked if there is now confidence between him and the US president. “There is no happiness in life,” Putin replied. “There is only a mirage on the horizon.”
Without the Russian gloom, Putin could have given a lecture on the limits of end-of-history thinking. Biden’s destination is clear – a stable world order with America as the first among its peers. This horizon is always likely to be just out of reach.