Today, President and Dr. Biden left for their first trip abroad since he took office. In the next eight days, President Biden will meet with U.S. allies in Europe before meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16. “We’re going to make it clear that the United States is back,” Biden said. “And democracies of the world are standing together to tackle the toughest challenges and the issues that matter most to our future.”
Biden is the most experienced president in foreign affairs since President George H. W. Bush and has longstanding relationships with a number of the leaders with whom he will meet. He has made it clear that he understands the global stakes of this current political moment. He intends to shore up democracies around the world as they face off with autocracies. Biden has announced that the U.S. will try to enforce international law and human rights not with military force but through sanctions and soft power, but that he is willing to work with other countries within those parameters.
At a meeting of the G7, an informal organization of wealthy democracies including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, Biden is expected to announce that the U.S. will purchase 500 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine and donate them to other countries in a bid to help vaccinate the world against the coronavirus. Currently, wealthier countries are far more likely to have access to vaccines than poorer countries. In Africa, fewer than 2% of people have received any doses.
In addition to the continuing coronavirus pandemic, the G7 is expected to focus on the climate change crisis and the rise of China as a world power. National Security adviser Jake Sullivan said the U.S. wants to be sure “that democracies and not anyone else, not China or other autocracies, are writing the rules for trade and technology for the 21st century."
After reinforcing traditional U.S. alliances at the G7, Biden will meet on Monday with allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the military alliance formed in the wake of World War II and from which former president Trump threatened to withdraw. NATO allies were taken aback by Biden’s abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the Monday meeting will address that withdrawal, among other issues.
But the visit is mainly a show of solidarity. "This summit will be a strong demonstration of trans-Atlantic unity, of Europe and North America standing together in NATO," said Secretary-General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg. "Because we are stronger, we are safer together in a more unpredictable world."
Riding on a week of meetings that illustrate the strong ties between the U.S. and its traditional allies, Biden will confer with Putin. Biden has taken a stand against Russia’s cyberhacking and violations of human rights but has offered to negotiate on nuclear weapons as well as other areas of mutual interest.
But he has been firm in his determination to hold Putin responsible for attacking our elections. In a speech to U.S. troops and their families when he arrived in England, Biden was greeted with loud applause when he said: "I'm meeting with Putin to let him know what I want him to know…. The United States will respond in a robust and meaningful way when the Russian government engages in harmful activities. That there are consequences for violating the sanctity of democracy."
For his part, Putin today demonstrated his faith in autocracy when a Moscow court announced after a secret hearing that those who work with opposition leader Alexei Navalny to expose Russian government corruption in any of his three organizations are “extremists.” After being poisoned last summer, Navalry returned to Russia in January, only to be tried and sentenced to prison. Now, those continuing his work, donating to it, or sharing the anti-corruption videos that have made Navalny so popular face prison sentences. The ruling will help to quell opposition to Putin before Russia’s September elections.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price condemned the move. “With this action, Russia has effectively criminalized one of the country’s few remaining independent political movements,” he said in a statement. “The Russian people, like all people, have the right to speak freely, form peaceful associations to common ends, exercise religious freedom, and have their voices heard through free and fair elections.”
Biden is trying to reinforce democracy even while it is under threat at home. For the first time in our history, the office of the presidency did not change hands peacefully, and former president Trump continues to rally his supporters by insisting—falsely—that he won the 2020 election. Rather than reinforcing the rules of our democracy, the leaders of his party have chosen to throw their weight behind the former president.
Biden’s message about the strength of the world’s democracies is a hopeful one, but it is not necessarily one on which European allies can rely.