Thursday, December 9

Biden’s G-20 Challenge: Convincing Allies His Promises Are Legit


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(Bloomberg) — US President Joe Biden entered office declaring that “America’s back” and vowing a new era of engagement with the world. He arrives in Rome this week for a meeting of the world’s largest economies facing deep skepticism that he can make good on that promise.

Initial optimism that Biden would undo former President Donald Trump’s go-it-alone approach has faded after a calamitous Afghanistan withdrawal and other early moves that alienated allies. And Biden’s struggle to deliver on his legislative agenda has fueled doubt that the US can lead the world in fighting climate change, the post-pandemic economic recovery or other priorities.

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Closing the perception gap between his foreign-policy promises and the reality of his presidency so far is crucial for Biden. That’s particularly true with the Group of 20, which helped the world recover from global economic disaster in the late 1990s and 2000s but whose impact has waned as fractures grow between the US, Russia, China and other members.

“We did have great expectations from our European colleagues, and certainly President Biden worked to enhance those expectations with his interventions in Europe and strong support on allies,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“But the decisions that the administration has taken are very much consistent with the domestic mood and polarization and have left them quite disappointed.”

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The slogan of this year’s G-20 is “People, Planet and Prosperity,” reflecting a focus on protecting people from the coronavirus pandemic, combating climate change and sustaining the economic recovery. Biden had hoped to arrive with at least a tentative agreement at home on his climate and economic agenda after weeks of bruising negotiations with holdouts inside his own party, but a deal has proved elusive.

‘Middle Class’ Foreign Policy

The White House says it has several priorities for the summit. Biden will meet French President Emmanuel Macron beforehand in a bid to finally put to rest a dispute over a US submarine deal with Australia that displaced one with France. Then, the US will look to cement a global minimum tax agreed to by world powers in recent weeks, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said. Another goal is to rally support around the administration’s strategy to bring Iran back into a deal limiting its nuclear program.

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Biden also wants momentum on debt relief in the wake of the pandemic as well as commitments on climate change, and he’ll look to discuss global supply-chain constrictions and skyrocketing energy prices.

“You are going to see first-hand, in living color, what’foreign policy for the middle class’ is all about,” Sullivan said in a briefing for reporters on Tuesday.

He dismissed the idea that Biden’s credibility would be hurt without an deal on his domestic agenda, including climate policies.

“Whether there’s a deal this week or the negotiations continue, there will be a lot of energy and enthusiasm for the effort the president is undertaking right now to make bold, far-reaching investments that will deliver on his commitments,” Sullivan said.

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Biden will enjoy one advantage at the summit: two top US rivals won’t be there in person. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are both participating virtually. The Italians are planning to limit access to G-20 sessions to just four people per country, including its leader.

Plunging Popularity

Publicly, EU officials say the European relationship with the US hasn’t been damaged much by the Australia submarine deal, particularly after Biden’s fulsome apology to the French and repeated efforts to smooth things over. Vice President Kamala Harris will visit Paris the second week of November.

And there is noticeably improved coordination between Europe and Washington on China, Russia and defense issues, even if the sides don’t agree on everything. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have met several times and speak frequently on the phone. Under Trump, Borrell saw former Secretary of State Michael Pompeo only once, a meeting postponed several times.

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But Biden’s capacity to rally other nations around America’s goals has been weakened by a foreign-policy summer from hell in which the president’s popularity plunged at home and abroad.

The Afghanistan withdrawal, the controversial submarine deal at the expense of French shipbuilders, continued angst over the US commitment to helping the world combat coronavirus, and diplomatic spats from Ankara to Beijing have left world capitals once again suspicious the US president is more concerned with domestic politics and self-interest than global projects.

Those moves have only added to anxiety that for all Biden’s promise to make fighting climate change and recovering from the pandemic a priority, the US is now too polarized to play a leadership role. Simmering below the surface is anger that the US and other nations are still putting themselves first in line for coronavirus vaccines while poor nations scramble for doses.

“This is not going be fun, this is not going to be easy, this is not going to be friendly,” Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer said of the summit. “When Biden became president, his big thing was,’America’s back. ‘The allies don’t feel that way. And the Chinese and the Russians don’t feel that way. Almost nobody is prepared to accept that formulation.”

©2021 Bloomberg LP

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