Biden in the UK

“A commitment by the American people” to the world, Jill’s jacket, Joe goes for a pint (sort of), Donald who? — and the Kremlin casts a shadow over it all

On the first stop of his first trip overseas as president, Joe Biden was in the UK for bilateral talks and visits in advance of this weekend’s G7 summit, which will take place in Cornwall. It was a dense 24 hours meant to set the tone for the rest of the trip — so let’s catch up on where we are so far, and what to look for next.

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“A breath of fresh air”

“It’s so beautiful [here],” says Biden to a journalist already ensconced in the patio of a bar when he rolls up for an end-of-day drink with the First Lady, “you don’t even need the sun.”

Jill Biden had arrived in a jacket that said LOVE across the back, a lovely troll of the prior first lady’s I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO YOU? moment. The Bidens had strolled and bantered with the British Prime Minister and his wife, and they had gone out of their way to thank hosts and military families at RAF Mildenhall, where US troops are based. The mood was light even when the subject matter was not. 

All of this goes a long way to soothe allies battered by four years of directionless presidential outbursts. The change in tone is hard to miss — amiable, casual, purposeful, engaged. 

It’s a positive start. But the “it didn’t hurt as much” factor won’t get anyone very far without substance to follow form, and the allies are watching closely to see what Biden delivers in word and deed.

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Visit to RAF Mildenhall 

Biden’s speech to US troops based in the UK deserved more attention than it got.

Biden praised the troops, called them the best of us for choosing to serve, saying how much the rest of us owe them for answering the call. “We owe you. We owe you big,” he intoned. He wove in stories about his uncles and son who served in wars, and talked about the history and significance of the base and the indelible US-UK partnership it now represents. All of this is the standard fare of which we have been starved, and the nostalgia of the mundane is now sweet.

But Biden also explained the depth of the agenda that needed to be covered in the days ahead:

“And at every point along the way, we’re going to make it clear that the United States is back and democracies of the world are standing together to tackle the toughest challenges and the issues that matter most to our future; that we’re committed to leading with strength, defending our values, and delivering for our people.”

Biden also made comments about bringing the fight to Putin, bringing a cheer from the crowd. This was a good offset to the questions that have peppered the administration about why they are meeting Putin when it’s clear that Russia isn’t looking to play by any rules.

But later, Biden added:

“I’ve been clear: The United States will respond in a robust and meaningful way when the Russian government engages in harmful activities. We’ve already demonstrated that. I’m going to communicate that there are consequences for violating the sovereignty of democracies in the United States and Europe and elsewhere.”

Respond. Consequences. Not deter, for example. React. It may seem like a small thing to highlight, but I think it is an important one. 

This careful use of language echoes what we heard from Secretary of State Blinken after his pre-meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov:

"When it comes to those differences, as President Biden has also shared with President Putin, if Russia acts aggressively against us, our partners, our allies, we'll respond. And President Biden has demonstrated that in both word and deed, not for purposes of escalation, not to seek conflict, but to defend our interests. Having said that, there are many areas where our interests intersect and overlap." 

He offered that these “intersecting interests" included climate change, the pandemic, Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea before wrapping up with the necessary invocation of this administration — “We seek a predictable, stable relationship with Russia” — as if saying it enough times will wish it into existence. (It won’t, more on this below.) 

Removing the possibility of escalation constrains us without checking our adversary when we know it is a unilateral action. 

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Vaccine pledge

Biden announced that the US would purchase and donate 500 million doses of the Pfizer covid vaccine to 100 countries who need it over the next year. The UK quickly stepped in to add a commitment for 100 million more vaccine doses, and Johnson announced that all together the G7 nations would commit 1 billion doses.

Making this announcement on foreign soil, and obviously in coordination with our allies, Biden made it clear that he was employing US leadership to ensure everyone had to step up. There was no “I” in his announcement — he called it “a monumental commitment by the American people” to the world. He didn’t browbeat or blackmail anyone for what they “owed.” He just led by example.

This is a very important step, especially as wealthier nations get the pandemic under control at home. Providing vaccine to the world isn’t just about our own health and security, and it isn’t just about moral duty or fairness or abstract concepts of leadership. This is an absolutely essential element of diplomacy and economic assistance to nations that shouldn’t have to suck up to China and Russia to get much-needed vaccines. 

This is about the mobilization capacity of democratic leadership versus the will of authoritarian powers. More will need to be done, but this is a good start.

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Bilat with BoJo

The energy between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Biden was amiable — maybe even a little too amiable. Johnson was eager to dispel the label of “British Trump“ and ensure good relations with the new American president. Biden was eager to start the trip on the right note and not to be reminded again that he had called Johnson a clone of Trump. Donald who? No one had ever heard of the guy. 

The burning sage to cast out the remaining bad juju came when Biden and Johnson signed a new Atlantic Charter. The original was signed in 1941 by Churchill and FDR as a kind of symbolic statement of joint principles about what would happen during and after WWII. 

This new version adds substance to the niceties of this first meeting between Joe and BoJo, cementing the idea that the bilateral relationship is important to both nations and unique. (This is especially true for post-Brexit Britain, which has a lot of homework to do to get its paperwork and trade deals in order.)

The new charter is full of words we got used to the Trump administration deleting from websites and doctrine — human rights, values, dignity, climate change. It is also very pointedly about opposing the tactics used by Russia and China — disinformation, cyber attacks, malign influence, the redrawing of international boundaries and rules — without ever naming either of them.

But this is the problem: not naming them. Not having the will of orientation.

“… a senior United States official called [the Charter] a ‘profound statement of purpose’ that echoes the 80-year-old charter by underscoring the original declaration that ‘the Democratic model is the right and the just and the best’ one for confronting the world’s challenges. The official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity before the meeting between the two leaders, said the charter did not envision a new Cold War between great powers, but rather a world whose problems — including climate change, pandemics, technological warfare, and economic competition — are complex and often nuanced.” 

Every Biden speech emphasizes the existential conflict between democracies and authoritarian systems. Yet every statement of intended policy is about solving global challenges by working with those authoritarian powers.

You cannot have it both ways, or you’ll end up with a clash between your agendas in a way that has incurred significant costs for others in previous iterations.

Or maybe we aren’t supposed to talk about the fact that the principles we agreed to in the first Atlantic Charter, we abandoned for all the places that Stalin wanted to keep after the war?

The choice China and Russia want to force us to make is between defending human rights and democracy, or advancing action on things like climate change. They will not let us have both things. That isn’t how their negotiating tactics work.

Not naming the adversaries doesn’t make them less our adversaries. Convincing ourselves they seem genuine on climate solutions or emergent technology controls doesn’t free any Uighurs from camps or Hongkongers from jail, and it doesn’t save any Syrian lives or improve the chances of Belarusians to determine their own future.

An awful lot of people don’t want to confront that this choice is upon us. Either the democratic model is the right and just and best one, and we lead with that conviction of principle first — or we put the challenges first, knowing principle will fail.

“A world whose problems are complex and often nuanced” — when have they ever not been? Our autocratic adversaries exploit those problems to weaken our values and principles. To force us to do so to achieve what should be “for the common good.” You cannot contain the expansion of an autocratic power while insisting it expand itself to deal with crisis. That is partially how we ended up in a Cold War anyway — wanting to believe that everything that Stalin built with terror to beat the Nazis was somehow going to morph into something benign after the war. 

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What’s ahead

For now, Biden’s comments on Northern Ireland gained more attention on the other side of the Atlantic than in the US, but the first day of the trip was a congenial start. 

Upcoming meetings with the G7 and the EU will include far more challenging conversations on a wide array of issues. The US is used to seeing many of these issues — healthcare and pharmaceuticals, privacy and big tech, climate, agriculture, energy, defense, China — through the lens of our own deluded domestic debates, failing to see how truly far we are from the opinion of many of our allies. 

The divisions on China are particularly stark: Europe sees China primarily as economic opportunity, while the US sees it as a primary threat. It’s going to be hard to talk around — but Biden wants us to be talking less about Russia than about China after this week.

Of course, this will be challenging since Biden set his first meeting with Putin at the end of his European meetings, and Putin has done exactly what Putin always does, which is bang his little tin cup along the bars — banning Navalny’s opposition groups, cavorting with Lukashenko after applauding (and likely assisting in) Belarus’ hijacking of an international passenger flight to capture a political opponent, stirring stupid conflict with Ukraine — insisting on attention so that any meeting agenda will be reactive and not proactive or strategic.

And that’s how to interpret what’s happening: Putin is trying to hijack the agenda. 

Biden should walk into the meeting wearing a Ukraine football jersey or something — but more on all of that this weekend!