Transatlantic relations were boosted by nearly a week of summits marking U.S. President Joe Biden’s first diplomatic travels. But the months ahead will test the ability of alliances, great powers, and multilateral groups to advance global health, security, and economic opportunity, as well as whether the United States can lead the effort, say experts at leading global think tanks.
The West Is Back, but Much Work Remains
U.S. President Joe Biden’s first international trip has been impressive in its ambition and execution. In one week, the president aimed to reinvigorate the building blocks for Western-led multilateral cooperation, including the Group of Seven (G7), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and European Union; reassert America’s leadership; talk tough to autocrats who seek to divide Western democracies; and affirm the universal value of human rights. Biden also succeeded in further embedding the China challenge as the geopolitical framework for Western-led international cooperation.
Still, it is too soon to know whether the West can once again lead, especially in a world consumed by the global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and one in which its relative economic weight, though significant, is diminished. A few things are already crystal clear, however.
First, words and symbols are the currency of international diplomacy. In only a few months, Biden’s leadership has transformed the West. One carefully sequenced and highly choreographed week of diplomacy, five months of signaling a commitment to principled multilateralism, and a concerted effort to include Asia’s leading democracies have helped revive the image of the West and of the United States as a moral and relevant actor on the international stage.
Second, extending the notion of the West in a practical and meaningful way is essential, and thus adding Australia, India, South Africa, and South Korea to the G7 summit was vital. Meetings earlier this year of the Quad, high-level Biden administration visits to Japan and South Korea, and Biden’s meetings at the White House with the leaders of Japan and South Korea went some distance to demonstrating that Asia’s democracies could be invited guests at the G7 but not on the global stage.
Third, the return of the United States to the multilateral stage is also a reminder that working around American power, a tactic increasingly common during the Donald Trump administration, was noble but compromised. China’s and Russia’s disruptive policies were more successful than they should have been. Backsliding on the provision of global public goods was marked.
Still, the ability of the West to lead hangs in the balance. Fixing democracy at home is necessary and not only for the United States, but the world cannot and likely will not wait. If the West is to succeed in shaping the future world order, it will need to deliver the goods before it is too late. In this regard, vaccinating the world is at the top of the list. The direction of travel is the right one, but the past week has also demonstrated that the West is still decidedly off the mark.
Avoiding Post-summit Depression
It has been a week of milestones for global governance. Amid still-perceptible effects of the Trump administration, U.S. President Joe Biden’s first trip to Europe was all about rebuilding trust with European allies and tackling the three Cs that occupy hearts and minds on both sides of the Atlantic: COVID-19, climate change, and China. The ulterior goal was to show to the rest of the world that the West is no longer in decline but again a formidable force to be reckoned with.
Although Europeans will need time to gain confidence about the health of U.S. democracy and that America is not just back but also here to stay, the bonhomie between leaders and the robust statements of the G7, NATO, and U.S.-EU summits were a necessary antidote to concerns about America’s isolationist stance of yesteryear.
The summits were a critical launchpad for Biden’s global democracy and human rights agenda. The official statements and the sit-down with Russian President Vladimir Putin provided a boost to the belief that the West is ready to counter autocracies. Not all allies, however, as individual press conferences after the summit revealed, are in lockstep.
Trumpeting the commitment to postpandemic economic recovery and the fight against climate change, the U.S.-EU summit communiqué repeated concern over China’s and Russia’s increasingly threatening behavior. The official language was unsurprisingly similar to the G7 and NATO statements with its nods to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang and its call for another investigation into the origins of COVID-19. In front of the assembled media, however, European leaders were keen to project strategic autonomy, in particular over dealings with China: a “systemic rival” but commercially inescapable.
Whether the jet-setting recovery tour will amount to more than just a sugar rush for transatlantic relations depends on the West’s ability to translate summit conclusions into concrete initiatives. To avoid a slump in the wake of the summit as former patterns of behavior reemerge, both sides of the Atlantic will need to work hard to turn lofty words into action.
Coming up with a common approach will hinge significantly on the two economies’ ability to bridge existing divides over technology policy. In that sense, a good deal is riding on the new U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council, which will coordinate standards on new technologies such as artificial intelligence, discuss supply chains (in particular for semiconductors), and address technology regulations and competition policy, all in an effort to steal China’s thunder. Using the combined influence of a transatlantic technology space could indeed form the backbone of a more global coalition of like-minded democracies.
The Need for Alliances in an Uncertain World
After almost 150 days in office, President Biden finally met his global counterparts in a series of multilateral and bilateral meetings. This delay, though, seems to have given him enough time to adequately assess global uncertainties.
The COVID-19 pandemic aside, the past four years have demonstrated how much the world continues to change. Yet some constants remain. China and Russia are still major challenges in regard to international cooperation. China may be the emerging stronger power, but in many ways both countries are disruptive and revisionist, states that prefer to settle old scores and to intimidate rather than to lead. The last decade strained the rules-based world order. Each time the effectiveness of multilateralism was tested, international institutions found themselves toothless against brazen impunity. The danger is that such activities could increase.
The anxieties generated by the actions of one or more disruptive powers are compounded by transnational challenges that defy borders and concern everyone. No one country, regardless of how developed, can meet them. In an ambiguous world where hard power is revitalized, the need for strong alliances is greater than ever.
The United States is “coming back” to an uncertain global situation. Although the message of the Biden administration from the start has been that the United States will be more active in international affairs rather than inward-looking, the question is whether this return will be permanent. The continued preeminence of the United States is attributable to the vast array of its alliances: NATO and the EU in Europe, the Quad in East Asia, and, notably, Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, among others. China and Russia lack such alliances. They have also failed to develop an essential—indeed, the most important—global asset: personal freedoms and democracy. Only the United States and most of its allies can claim this.
The Biden administration should acknowledge this continued need for allies and treat them with due consideration if the United States is to build a resilient base that will not shift in the future.
A Missed Opportunity to Help the World's Poorest Countries
By two of three benchmarks, the recent series of international summits in Europe was a success. It avoided tensions and resulted in useful leader statements. Yet the summits failed in terms of preserving the rights of a younger generation that is doomed to shoulder the enormous costs of the COVID-19 pandemic.
First, governments made an effort to show that they are once more ready to cooperate rather than highlight their differences. They avoided divisive topics, at least in public. U.S. President Biden refrained from commenting on the EU’s recent investment agreement with China, plans for a carbon border adjustment mechanism, digital taxation, and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Europeans refrained from criticizing the United States for what many consider to be symptoms of a continued America First foreign policy under a Democratic administration, including the quick exit from Afghanistan without consulting U.S. allies beforehand, the penchant for “Buy American” clauses, and the continued use of coercive economic instruments. The lack of quarrels indeed counts as a success. It also indicates that the United States and EU are ready to put their differences aside to tackle a problem much larger and more important: how to deal with a rising autocratic China.
Second, official statements from G7 leaders included several noteworthy lines that have not garnered media attention but show agreement on measures to strengthen economic recovery from COVID-19. One remarkable example is EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s acknowledgment that pulling out of certain programs too early after the Great Recession was a mistake. The United States and EU are now aligned in their desire to continue large-scale fiscal programs to fight the pandemic-induced economic slump, unemployment, and increased poverty.
Third, despite these successes, it is difficult not to be astonished by the lack of decisive action taken at the summits to really “build back better.” At least, it likely feels so for those who are and will be bearing the brunt of pandemic-related costs: young people around the globe who are heavily affected by long periods of school closures, longer spells of unemployment, waning opportunity for social upward mobility, and mounting postpandemic public debts.
Not providing significant debt relief to poor and medium-income countries while asking them to restructure their economies to reach climate targets agreed in the Paris Agreement does not add up. This will leave far too many behind.
Cornwall G7: Abundant Promises, Limited Actions
The contrast between the G7 and Group of Twenty (G20) summits over the last four years and this year’s G7 summit in Cornwall, England, could not have been more striking. Cordiality and collegiality appears to have returned. This, of course, was no accident. President Biden was anxious to show that the United States was back. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was keen to show that the United Kingdom remains an important world player after Brexit. Other leaders were simply relieved to no longer have to put up with President Trump’s theatrics.
A similar narrative was evident at the NATO and U.S.-EU summits. The main messaging was designed to remove the combative image of the preceding four years. But, on substance, little change was evident. Even the Biden-Putin meeting avoided clashes and portrayed a serious workman-like posture despite the reality of serious policy differences.
In addition to the solid choreography at the G7 were announcements: pledges to donate hundreds of millions of COVID-19 vaccines; reinforced cooperation to combat future pandemics; enhanced support for global infrastructure development; combating climate change; and a new global tax accord. There is a pattern here: many good announcements but few details.
Hence, the success of this summit is measured in promises, not in actions. These promises are clear progress after the last four years and are welcomed. Concrete progress will require sustained effort, however. Nontrivial challenges lie on the path ahead. Can the new U.S. posture be maintained by immediate actions to implement these commitments? Can the return of U.S. policy to multilateral cooperation be guaranteed over the next few years?
In their domestic responses to the pandemic, G7 governments have generally gone big. In their global actions, however, they continue to go small. A case in point: The International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization, and World Health Organization recently laid out a comprehensive response to the crisis on the scale needed to successfully combat it. The G7 came nowhere close. In fact, on vaccines and on infrastructure (on which the G20 has been promising progress for years), their policy announcements appear to be more of a catch-up response to Chinese leadership.
The G7 no longer represents enough of the world to lead by itself on most global issues. This is why the G20 was created. Many of the other G20 leaders seem perplexed about what the G7 leaders are up to because many of these issues, pandemic preparedness and infrastructure in particular, have been topics of conversation among the G20 for some time. The G7 leaders should have both a convincing story and concrete policy recommendations when the G20 leaders meet in Italy in October.
The success in changing the narrative at the G7, NATO, and other meetings should be celebrated. But this delicate progress could easily unravel in the absence of substantial progress.
Overhyped Biden-Putin Summit Still Gives Modest Hope
Since Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s meetings with U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, no summit has generated as much hype as the Geneva talks between Presidents Putin and Biden. Why? Relations between Washington and Moscow are essential—at least because they have the world’s largest nuclear arsenals. But this relationship is not the core of international politics, as it was forty years ago. Likely no one expected any breakthroughs in Geneva because the mistrust runs too deep. Mutual threats now, though, are hardly comparable to the peak of the Cold War. Fears on both sides are more products of internal confusion and insecurity than of external menace.
The attention on this summit has to do with the nature of the world today. When Gorbachev met with his U.S. counterparts, they discussed how the world should change from the Cold War they were experiencing—a fairly stable international arrangement—to something better. Gorbachev believed in the equal convergence of two systems but failed because his system collapsed. The U.S. presidents expected liberal democracy and market economies to spread around the globe—to everyone’s advantage—and saw no reason to discuss this with anyone opposed to the idea.
The wheel has come full circle. Russia did not find a place in the proclaimed international order of the late twentieth century. Then the order itself started to erode, unable to manage its ever more numerous deviations from the liberal canon.
Those who launched the transformation—Washington and Moscow—bear the responsibility to restart it. Many elements of the Cold War seem to have resurfaced. In terms of structure, everything has changed; in terms of atmosphere, far less has. Biden’s summitry with the G7, NATO, and EU looked like a way to revitalize the bipolarity of the Cold War—us vs. them. But “them” is now led by Beijing, not Moscow. A desire to structure the increasingly chaotic international environment is understandable, but it remains to be seen if that framing is still apt.
Exchanges between Washington and Moscow since the mid-2010s almost destroyed the prospects of good relations. Paradoxically, the United States and Russia first have to return to a civilized and rational confrontation. Only then can they start to look for ways out—following principles that will likely serve better than those of more than thirty years ago. The spirit of the Geneva summit provides hope that the two countries can find a viable path and follow it.