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Summits On Summits: Biden Was Busy During His 1st International Trip As President

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Geneva, where Joe Biden just wrapped up his first international trip as president. It ended here today with a four-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It was important to meet in person so there can be no mistake about or misrepresentations about what I wanted to communicate. I did what I came to do.

KELLY: Before the two men sat down at an 18th century Swiss villa, Biden participated in the G-7 and NATO summit and an EU summit all before he got here to Geneva. Well, as he makes his way now back to Washington, we're going to take a few minutes to talk through whether President Biden did indeed do what he came to do throughout this trip and what comes next. Joining me in that conversation, two people who have been tracking Biden's trip, NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt and diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen.

Hello to you both.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Michele, you start. What did Biden come to Europe to ask for? What did he want from America's European friends?

KELEMEN: Well, first of all, he needed to close a pretty turbulent chapter with allies to get over disputes from the Trump era and show that, as he always puts it, America is back and it has allies behind it. So, for instance, on Russia, he said because of the meetings with European allies, he was in a better position to represent the West. When he sat down with Putin, he wanted to show there was a united front on things like cybersecurity and Ukraine. And more broadly, he said he wanted to rally fellow democracies - again, those are his words - to take on the big challenges the world faces. And by that, he means China and also climate change.

KELLY: Frank Langfitt, that is what Biden came to Europe asking for. Did he get it?

LANGFITT: He did pretty well, actually, Mary Louise. I mean, if you look at what happened in the G-7 here in England, the G-7 called out China on the incarceration of Uyghurs in western China, the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong - not the sort of criticism you usually hear from the G-7 of China. The NATO nations called China a challenge to the rules-based global order, criticized its disinformation campaign. And the European Union and the U.S. decided to freeze a massive trade dispute between Boeing - over Boeing and Airbus so they could focus on new competition. That's COMAC, the Chinese state-run company that's building rival passenger planes. So at each stop on the way across Europe, he got - you know, he got support. And it was verbal - you know, certainly verbal support. And they also - I think the leaders seemed to feel quite comfortable with Biden and happy to have him.

KELLY: Although on China, isn't there still a lot of daylight between what Europe thinks is the right approach to China and what the U.S. thinks is the right approach to China?

LANGFITT: Yeah, there definitely is. And this is a challenge that he faces. And he's - I think the president is obviously very aware of this. I'll give an example. It really comes down to sort of the broader economic relationship that certain European nations would like to have with China. For instance, Germany wants to continue to have access to the Chinese car market, which is the world's largest. And so when you looked at the statements, some of them were pretty carefully worded. And I think that was to make sure they didn't really anger the Chinese Communist Party and spark some kind of economic retaliation. And arriving at NATO this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson put it pretty well.

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PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: I don't think anybody around the table today wants to descend into a new Cold War with China. I don't think that's where people are. But I think people see challenges. But they also see opportunities.

LANGFITT: And I think another question is, how do you - OK, these are all words and communiques and things like that, but how do you actualize them? And I'll give you an example with NATO. A question is, what can NATO do vis-a-vis China? Some of it can be on cybersecurity. On the other hand, there's no NATO Navy other than the U.S. that can really project power into Asia. And French President Emmanuel Macron put it very well. He said China isn't part of the Atlantic geography, or perhaps my map is off.

KELLY: Yes, I noted that carefully worded statement myself. But, Michele, President Biden clearly believes that the U.S. presents a stronger front against China when it has its allies on the same page. I suppose the problem develops when the allies disagree with the U.S. approach to China. What happens then?

KELEMEN: Well, there are going to be disagreements. I mean, I guess the thing is with Biden is he wants to keep those behind the scenes and through diplomatic channels. I mean, these are complicated relationships with China and with Russia, by the way. But, you know, I was interested - at the end of the trip, he talked about how he made some progress on practical matters with Russia. And these are things that should interest U.S. allies, like arms control. So take a listen to what he had to say.

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BIDEN: We have an agreement to work on a major arms control agreement. I started working on arms control agreements back all the way during the Cold War. If we can do one in the Cold War, why couldn't we do one now? We'll see.

KELEMEN: You know, he was speaking there on the tarmac in Geneva just before boarding the flight home. And he said he faced a lot of negative questions on this trip - skepticism, for instance, that the G-7 would want to give America back its leadership role. It did, he said. And he said countries are glad to have America back, and they acted that way in meetings. He said everyone also thanked him for arranging that meeting with Putin.

KELLY: Well, speaking of skepticism, Frank, how did Beijing respond to all of this talk of containing and countering China and unified approach to dealing with China?

LANGFITT: As you would expect, they called - they accused NATO of slander, said they shouldn't be hyping the China threat. But even more significantly, on Tuesday, China sent 27 warplanes in the Taiwanese-controlled - 28 war planes into Taiwanese-controlled airspace. Taiwan, of course, a self-ruling Democratic island - so it was almost as if China was, in a way, making President Biden's point.

KELLY: All right. NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt and NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

LANGFITT: Great to talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF WARPAINT SONG, "WHITEOUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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