The Financial Express

President Biden's maiden overseas visits

G7 leaders in Cornwall G7 leaders in Cornwall

President Joe Biden made his maiden overseas trip to Europe from June 10 to June 17. His first stopover was in England where he met the British Prime Minister Boris Jonson. Biden joined the G-7 summit attended by the Heads of Governments of Canada, Germany, France, Italy and Japan. The summit took place at Carbis Bay in Cornwall. This was the third G-7 summit held after the expulsion of Russia from the club following its occupation of Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Biden's overriding objective of the visits was to forcefully reassure the European leaders that the United States has returned to its allies and by extension to the international community- a marked departure from his predecessor's policy who had dismissed the G-7 block as irrelevant. When the G-7 was created some 30 years ago it represented 70 per cent of the world GDP. Over the years, it has attenuated to 30 per cent of the world economy, but its political prominence nonetheless remained profound. Biden rightly took cognisance of the diplomatic relevance of the group and conveyed loudly to its members that the United States has been back and pledged to work together in the implementation of environmental, economic and political agenda of the club.

In his meeting with British leader Boris Jonson, Biden focused on the Atlantic Charter, a statement of solidarity between the United Kingdom and the United States signed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941. Biden announced the donation of 500 million doses of Pfizer vaccine as part of joint efforts to contain the pandemic. He declared, "Our vaccine donations don't include pressure for favors or potential concessions. We are doing this to save lives to end the pandemic."  The two leaders tasked their officials to update the charter because Biden has repeatedly warned an existential struggle for the future of the world between democracy and autocracy. Jonson remonstrated, "Britain is blessed with alliances that keep us safe and advance our values, and we are putting all of this to work for the benefit of the British people."

Biden's meetings with the European Union leaders and the NATO officials focused on reconfirmation of Washington's core commitment that the United States needs Europe and the Europe needs United States too. His predecessor had welcomed Britain's exit from the EU and encouraged the British leaders to expedite the Brexit process because he felt a weaker Europe would be convenient for the United States to prevail upon ignoring the historic evidence that an anachronistic Europe would be economically fragile and politically vulnerable. That was the underlying fact that brought the countries in Europe under a single economic and trading union some sixty years ago. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the European Union expanded memberships to 28 embracing the newly emancipated East European countries.

Biden's meetings with the EU leaders adhered a trajectory "moving from discord to compromise" which resulted in the EU-US deal on aircraft manufacturing. Both sides agreed to set aside their differences over funding for rivals Airbus and Boeing and suspended tariffs related to the dispute for five years. They also committed to funding the production of large commercial jets on market terms. The World Trade Organisation authorised the United States in 2019 to impose tariff on $7.5 billion worth European goods and the EU retaliated by imposing $4 billion on American products. The two sides have now opted to de-escalate the trade disputes and withdrew tariffs on metal products by end November 2021.

Biden reiterated Washington's commitment to the NATO. It is well known that the military alliance was a joint creation of the United States and the European countries in 1949 with the objective to protect Europe from tangible threat posed by the Soviet Union. Its first Secretary General Lord Hastings Ismay said, "NATO was created to get the Russia out, move the America in and the Germans down". It was all about Europe and the Europeans knew about it though the lion shares of the budget came from the United States and for the past 70 years it has remained unchanged. Seven years ago, it was agreed that the member countries would individually contribute 2 per cent of its GDP to its defence spending, but it is evident that even the richest countries in Europe have not yet reached the target. Consequently, the military alliance cannot master the strength it is expected. Biden has not reprimanded the European leaders about their less than expected defence spending, but he encouraged NATO members, for their own sake, to get the alliance well-armed and well-funded.

Biden met with Turkish President Tayeb Erdogan in Brussels. Erdogan had a tumultuous relation with the EU and NATO leaderships. He strived for several years to join the EU, but the French government set condition after condition blocking Turkey's joining the EU. Turkey fulfilled many of the conditions but could not join the European Union. Being a NATO member, Turkey decided to buy military hardwires worth billions of dollars from Russia in 2019 much to the dismay of the United States. Turkey has been in dialogue with Russia and Iran about the civil war in Syria. More than 6 million people moved to the neighbouring countries, of whom Turkey hosts about 3 million. Of late, Ankara's relation with Washington suffered a setback when the US Congress acknowledged genocide in Armenia during the Ottoman Empire.

Biden's meetings with the G-7 leaders, EU leaders and the NATO officials were held, in fact, in preparation of his upcoming meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The meeting took place on June 16 in Geneva. Biden said ahead of the meeting in Brussels that he would make it clear to Putin that there are areas where both countries could cooperate, if Putin chooses. And if Putin chooses otherwise and acts in a way that he has in the past, then Biden will respond. Biden said in April "We want a stable and predictable relationship".

Following the summit, Biden told reporters that he forcefully confronted Putin over election interference and human rights, including the jailing of the Russian opposition leader but any hope of mutual understanding appeared slim. Putin made no concessions over his crackdown on political opponents, military intervention in Ukraine or support for the Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. Putin said after the summit, "There has been no hostility. On the contrary, our meeting took place in constructive spirit. We don't have to look each other in the eye and soul and make pledges of eternal love and friendship. We defend our interests of our countries and peoples, and our relations always have a primarily pragmatic character." Biden characterised the meeting as "good and positive" but did not think it was a turning point in bilateral relations. He suggested wait and see how the situation unfolds in the coming months. Biden was not exuberant nor disenchanted at the outcome of the summit.

Biden and his advisors know well that Russia under Putin's leadership, in the past 20 years, has emerged stronger and more dominant. It will not allow its neighbours to join the NATO or any union hostile to Moscow. In 2008, Putin sent Russian military into the South Ossetia region of Georgia to support the secessionists. When Georgian forces counterattacked, Russia launched a full blown invasion with thousands of troops and fighter aircrafts. A few years later, Russia sent forces in the south and eastern border of Ukraine and then annexed the Crimean Peninsula. President Obama admitted that the United States could do little to thwart Russian invasion. Putin has precluded the United States from setting foot in Syria - even humanitarian operations cannot be undertaken inside Syria without Russian concurrence. In a way Putin's conduct is predictable - he would not tolerate any meddling of the US or NATO in Russia's backyards.

The hegemony of the super powers is not new. The United States had unsettled the government in Chile, orchestrated military take over in Argentina and invaded Iraq. All these had far-reaching consequences and destabilised the regions. Had Russia been strong and powerful 18 years ago, as it is now, the United States would not have been able to invade Iraq in 2003. The situation in the Middle East would have been very different.

President Biden and President Putin had another opportunity to acquaint each other in Geneva. Hope they would conduct their bilateral relations with pragmatism keeping peace and stability of the regions in mind. The sufferings of the millions in the conflict zones should serve as a reminder to the leaders of super-powers that dialogue paves the way for peace.

Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations. [email protected]


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