Biden: Careful, Personal Diplomacy

Terry H. Schwadron

June 14, 2021

By contrast with Donald Trump and Mike Pence, the first foreign forays for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have to go into the books as positive, ally-friendly efforts, complete with commitment to humanitarian effort and a sense of re-engaging the United States with the rest of the world.

But any idea that this was a swaggering America arriving on a white horse seems more destined for myth-making than reality.

“America is back” and “democracy is at risk.” the substantive gist of the Biden message in Europe is well short of any discernible strategy, and the list of actual accomplishments with G-7 partners would be pretty curtailed beyond statements that look like achievements. As a number of reporters on the trip noted, the main message seemed that Biden wasn’t Trump.

It seemed mostly about the handshakes and the photo ops of friends re-uniting after the unliked uncle had left the room.

Partly because of how far Trump had moved the United States into isolationism, both Biden in Europe and Harris in Guatemala seemed more about reestablishing relationships than about achieving demonstrable international commitments on disputes ranging from dealing in a united way with China, Iran, the Middle East, trade or stopping the flow of migrants to the southern border.

There was more talk about cooperation against future pandemics than any agreed-upon retributions towards China’s role in keeping quiet too long about coronavirus dangers not ending coal, though there was general agreement to investigate the origin more and to push back against human rights and economic policies from China that the G-7 leaders find unfair.. There were some words towards cracking down on international cybersecurity hacks, but words do not equal action by Russia, in particular.

Sending a Message

Yes, there were no real international snafus. But Biden and Harris managed to get tangled in distracting, peripheral messages about the role of Brexit in Northern Ireland, where tempers are rising, or in Harris’ nervous, recorded laugh to shrug off why she has defined her role in immigration not to include visits to the actual Southern border.

More importantly, European leaders made clear they were glad to be post-Trump but in no mood to be dictated to about China and the international agenda. And the Guatemala president, who has one hand out for U.S. billions, was quick to use the other to smack the Biden team over inviting its problems, to repel too much interest in changing himself.

Early on, Biden won points for committing to buy and donate 500 million doses of vaccine for the world’s coronavirus-vulnerable nations, and for renewing an Atlantic Charter “special relationship” with Britain, but without a whole lot of detail about what exactly that means for trade, for example.

Yes, the other G-7 members would also agree to donate vaccines, and yes, there were nice words. Those looking for specifics will be disappointed. Instead, we had repeated messages for abroad and home that Biden was no Trump, and we were left to draw our own conclusions.

It was all putting pressure on a meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin next week, and that session was looking increasing bleak to show any constructive actual results.

Harris Stubbed Her Toe

Likewise, Harris went to Guatemala with the promise of a $4.4 billion check, but it was not publicly clear at all what the money would be spent on or how it might not once again end up in the wrong hands. Instead, she persisted in the face of the border visit criticism to say that only long-term development in the region would stop victims of violence and natural disasters from trekking dangerously to the U.S. border only to be stopped and sent back.

Guatemala President Alejandro Giammattei says he places blame for the border crisis on Biden and the Democrats’ “lukewarm” rhetoric on illegal immigration — adding that he urged Vice President Kamala Harris during their meeting to impose harsher penalties on human smuggling. And Harris did a poor job of handling reporters’ insistence to harp on the distraction of Republican criticisms that Harris had not herself visited the border.

Her message, like Biden’s and Trump’s before him, were aimed as much at domestic audiences as for the actual international partners with whom they were meeting.

Trump himself couldn’t hold back from trying to inject himself back into the picture, criticizing his former G-7 partners for welcoming Biden just because they could push him around, and, of course, Republicans chose to ride the Kamala-Harris-not-at-the-border train repeatedly.

So one trip didn’t solve the world’s problems.

Hey, maybe it’s enough that the new folks were treated with due respect, so long as there’s not too much crowing about huge successes later.




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