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On Tuesday morning, near the top of a White House press briefing, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan made a statement: “After many comments in recent weeks on the state of transatlantic relations, the United States and Europe are heading towards these two summits aligned and united on the main elements of the global agenda. “
Sullivan then highlighted the vast efforts the US and EU are working together on, aimed at tackling the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and promoting a favorite target of the Biden administration: a “rules-based international order”.
But the fact that Sullivan had to come to the press and argue that everything was fine before President Biden traveled to Rome for the G-20 and then to Glasgow for a major UN climate summit, underlines how bad the past few months have been for an administration that has campaigned on the promise of restoring respect and order to key US alliances.
It’s a long way from June, when Biden went through a parade of handshakes, hugs and smiles on his first trip overseas as president. Allies of other G-7 and NATO nations could barely contain their joy that Trump’s tumultuous and rocky era was over and the US president had once again prioritized coalitions and alliances.
“America is Back,” was Biden’s constant refrain throughout the meetings.
The America-is-back vibe was best summed up by Biden’s friendly seaside meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron at the G-7. Macron – who had memorably traded multiple seemingly endless handshake competitions with Biden’s predecessor, former President Donald Trump – smiled and told reporters: “I think it’s great to have a president. American in the club and very willing to cooperate. “
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Pretty much since then, “the Europeans have certainly witnessed a series of very poorly executed political decisions that required strong consultation and engagement from the allies, and yet were totally lacking,” argued Heather Conley, a former civil servant. of the State Department and senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
This includes a submarine deal that upset Macron to the point that he temporarily recalled the French ambassador to the United States.
The issues causing trouble between Biden and his allies
Conley highlighted three key points of tension arising from the policies of the Biden administration.
First, the United States has been much slower than the rest of the world to fully reopen its borders due to concerns over COVID. Non-essential travelers – with proof of vaccination – will only be allowed to enter the country in the coming weeks.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Biden to go faster during a summer visit to the White House. It was a rare note of contention during a visit that further underscored the closeness of US-German relations.
Next, and most important, was the chaos and violence resulting from the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.
NATO allies in the country had to scramble to get their citizens out as the Taliban invaded Kabul. Senior officials in Germany, the UK and other key allies have lambasted the move, although Biden has repeatedly insisted that everything is fine. “I have not seen any questioning of our credibility on the part of our allies in the world,” he said at a press conference in August.
Then there was a surprise deal with the UK and Australia to share top-secret nuclear submarine technology, a move seen as a way to counter China’s growing power in the Pacific.
The problem was, this led to Australia canceling a huge submarine contract with France, taking America’s longest-standing ally completely by surprise. When the French Ambassador to the United States, Philippe Etienne, lambasted NPR’s decision Morning edition, he could have described Europe’s complaints against the Trump administration.
“There is a lack of transparency, there is a breach of trust,” he said, after being temporarily recalled to France. “There is unpredictability. But there is also inconsistency.”
Biden has worked to work things out with France and will hold a one-on-one meeting with Macron in Rome on Friday. (Vice President Harris will travel to Paris next month to continue the effort.)
Conley argued that all of this has made European allies question how much they can still count on the United States, even with Trump’s turbulent years now behind them. “One problem is recoverable. I think two are starting to become a model,” she said. “And then the third strike – then countries start to make different decisions about how they’re going to cooperate with the United States. And I think that’s where we’re at.”
And that leads to the high global stakes of the second half of Biden’s trip: a major climate conference in Scotland, aimed at accelerating emission reduction targets first set in Paris six years ago.
Biden called for significant greenhouse gas reductions by the end of the decade – a halving of the country’s carbon footprint – with the ambitious goal of a net zero economy by the end of the decade. mid-century.
Biden’s climate influence depends on Congress
Alberto Pezzali / AP
Scientists agree that the world is running out of time to avoid the worst of global warming. But the legislative package that would have achieved most of Biden’s end-of-decade goals has been drastically reduced – and is still being negotiated.
Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry warned that showing up in Scotland without a deal would be devastating to American credibility, especially after decades of broken promises. He told The Associated Press the blow would be as bad for the country’s image as it was when Trump pulled the United States out of the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Kerry returned later, as did Biden. Sullivan insisted on Tuesday that the allies have no doubts about Biden’s commitment to tackle climate change.
“I don’t think world leaders will see this as a binary problem: is it done? Is it not done? Somehow he will be on the right track to do it,” Sullivan said.
What this track looks like, and how it is reducing greenhouse gas emissions so quickly, remains unclear, without the Clean Electricity Performance Program which had been the centerpiece of the climate agenda of legislation.
Yet Todd Stern, the Obama administration’s climate envoy, generally sees Glasgow as Sullivan. “I don’t think countries are going to think, ‘Oh my God, the United States is not doing anything.’ I think they’ll be worried for sure, ”he said, if Biden arrives at the conference without a legislative framework in place.
Stern said the state of mind, however, assumes some some sort of legislation is passed – even if it takes longer than Biden would like and does less than Biden initially wanted. If the deal collapses completely, Stern admitted that the reputation of the United States – and Biden’s climate influence – would become a “huge problem.”
So the most important part of Biden’s trip will likely be making some sort of deal before Air Force One takes off for Rome on Thursday.