Even without using his predecessor’s foreign travels as a benchmark, U.S. President Joe Biden’s first overseas trip as president should be considered a success.
He was greeted with open arms at the G7 summit in England and in meetings with the European Union and NATO in Belgium. His meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin was sober, serious and gaffe-free. Biden could rightfully claim that “the United States is back.” The lingering question is: For how long?
Biden knows the value of the institutional architecture that his predecessors built. He recognizes that the G7, the EU and NATO are vital components of global order and that his country is, despite periodic frustrations, much better off with them than without. Biden also knows that those organizations need to be updated and modernized to address new challenges and the process of reform must be consensual: Washington cannot impose its will on its partners as it once may have.
Key to that modernization is a renewed sense of unity, which is relatively easy to achieve when all members value a partnership and want it to work. More difficult is finding a shared sense of purpose around which they can coalesce.
For the U.S.-EU partnership, the answer is shared democratic values and a determination to rebuild economies badly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. For NATO, the bedrock is shared recognition that the world faces systemic challenges and an alliance formulated to address trans-Atlantic threats must open its aperture and deal with dangers farther away.
The meetings with European leaders got off to a good start when the two sides agreed to shelve a dispute over subsidies to aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus — a trade spat that festered for 17 years. The agreement is a clear signal that Biden is serious about seeing Europe as an ally, rather than an antagonist. As Biden later explained, “Europe is our natural partner, and the reason is, we’re committed to the same democratic norms and institutions, and they are increasingly under attack.”
The EU-U.S. statement that followed identified China as one of the most important sources of that assault. The two sides agreed to “closely consult and cooperate on the full range of issues in the framework of our respective similar multi-faceted approaches to China, which include elements of cooperation, competition, and systemic rivalry.”
The statement from the later meetings with NATO officials denounced Chinese actions, declaring that Beijing’s “stated ambitions and assertive behavior” posed “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security.” The organization called on China “to uphold its international commitments and to act responsibly in the international system, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains, in keeping with its role as a major power.”
Biden’s determination to push the EU and NATO, two groups that have historically focused on challenges much closer to Europe, to address the China challenge — and their readiness to do so — is a function of a new world, one that is seemingly smaller and more interdependent.
That same logic motivates Japan to reach out to partners in Europe and more deeply engage them in Indo-Pacific affairs. It helped drive the Japan-Europe Economic Partnership Agreement. It is pushing the United Kingdom to want to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. It spurs the U.K., France and Germany to dispatch their warships half a world away to sail the South China Sea.
The Indo-Pacific drives the global economy and governments that aspire to play leading roles in global governance must engage this region. Or more precisely, they cannot afford to not be engaged.
Biden recognizes this. He also recognizes that the U.S. and like-minded countries must act together if the rules and institutions of international law and order are going to reflect their values. Biden knows that alliances are not deadweight, even if allies struggle to meet the targets for defense spending that they set for themselves.
The G7, the EU and NATO summits sent two messages. The first is that the United States is back. The second is that it and its partners are ready to vigorously fight for international leadership.
European leaders are happy to see Biden but they know well their partner across the Atlantic. They know that Donald Trump is not a spent force in U.S. politics and that even if he does not return to the White House, his thinking and his values will continue to shape the Republican party and its policies.
The governments of Europe, like allies elsewhere in the world, recognize that Biden might be an interregnum, and that he, not Trump, could be the anomaly. They are therefore seizing the moment to engage with Biden, to reaffirm to their publics that the U.S. is a valued partner and to show the U.S. public that Europe is a valued partner as well.
Japan is delighted with Biden’s success, because it has an equally profound stake in his mission. Japan too wants to build the broadest and deepest possible coalition to support the prevailing international order, one that favors rule of law, democracy, human dignity and open markets. That effort got a considerable boost last week, but there is much work to be done.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
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