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[Carl P. Leubsdorf] Biden takes first steps towards return to normalcy abroad

Two years ago, even before launching his presidential bid, Joe Biden told Western European leaders that Donald Trump’s America First foreign policy was a momentary blip in US global leadership.

“I promise you; this too will pass,” the then former vice president told the Munich Security Conference, a forum he often attended as a senator. “We will be back.”

Last week, President Biden redeemed that promise, telling the annual national security forum that “America is back. The transatlantic alliance is back. And we are not looking backward; we are looking forward, together.”

And the top US European allies signaled they welcomed his outreach.

Biden underscored his commitment to fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization members by declaring that “our unshakeable vow” is to abide by the pact’s provision that “an attack on one is an attack on all.” Trump on occasion questioned whether the United States would respect that.

And the president sought to reestablish the clear line between the world’s democracies and autocracies that often became blurred in the Trump era, calling on the Europeans to join the United States in showing that “democracies can still deliver for our people in this changed world.”

In a sense, Biden’s speech -- and a series of tangible steps he took -- represented the same return to normalcy abroad he is attempting to establish at home. He announced the US return to the Paris climate accord, halted Trump’s plan to withdraw 12,000 US troops from Germany and took the first steps toward rejoining the nuclear agreement with Iran.

But the reaction from such close US allies as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron underscored the fact that Biden won’t simply be able to restore the status quo ante and that the Trump era has induced an understandable level of European wariness.

Merkel, welcoming the decision to halt the transfer of US troops from their longtime bases in Germany, hailed the improved prospects for allied multilateralism. But she said “our interests will not always converge.” One example: the gas pipeline from Russia to Germany that the US would just as soon see not completed. And Macron made the case for “strategic autonomy,” noting Europe can’t be totally dependent on the United States.

After four years of being largely snubbed by Trump -- as well as reading last November’s American election returns -- the Europeans have to recognize that isolationist passions in the US run deep and Biden’s election won’t guarantee what may happen in four or eight years.

Still, reestablishing the solidarity of the historic US-European ties may be one of Biden’s easier foreign policy moves, given the array of long-standing global challenges with which he is going to have to cope.

They include the continuing North Korea nuclear threat, which Trump’s flamboyant summit diplomacy failed to ease; Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which have progressed despite Trump’s enhanced economic sanctions; and the festering American presence in Afghanistan, where Biden is trying to terminate a two-decade involvement that neither of his two most recent predecessors was able to end.

Meanwhile, by reaffirming the traditional US stance against the world’s leading autocracies, Biden provided yet another reversal from the outlook of his predecessor. Trump often seemed to go beyond normal diplomatic niceties in cultivating relationships with the likes of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Already, the new president has indicated that, here too, he hopes to reestablish prior parameters to those relationships by raising such concerns as human rights even while seeking to maintain or enhance economic ties.

The White House made clear after Biden’s initial two-hour phone conversation with China’s Xi that the president raised concerns about the Asian power’s human rights abuses and economic practices.

And this week, the White House signaled its renewed toughness toward Putin by dismissing any thought of pursuing Trump’s oft-stated desire to reinvite Russia to the annual Group of Seven economic summits, from which it was disinvited after Putin’s 2014 seizure of Crimea.

In yet another sign of a return to normalcy, Biden held a virtual bilateral conference Tuesday with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, singling out the nation’s closest ally and second largest trading partner for his first such “meeting” with a foreign leader. “US leadership has been sorely missed over the past years,” said Trudeau, who often tangled with Trump.

The focus on traditional relationships is also evident in the fact that Biden’s first foreign trip is likely to take him to England for this June’s annual G-7 summit, hosted in Cornwall by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Trump had a rocky relationship with the group because of his oft-repeated disdain for several of its leaders, notably Merkel.

But the G-7 leaders signaled their understanding that there is a new day in Western relations at a virtual meeting that preceded Biden’s speech to the Munich conference. They did so by adopting the new president’s terminology for economic recovery in a statement pledging to “work together to beat COVID-19 and build back better.”


Carl P. Leubsdorf
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)
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