“We will make it clear that the United States is back and the democracies of the world are standing together to overcome the toughest challenges,” Biden told US troops at an air base in eastern England on Wednesday.
For Biden, democracy isn’t just an abstract civics class concept that Americans only experience when they walk into the voting booth every few years.
It is a system, a way of life, and a set of rules and norms that have made the United States the strongest and richest country in history. The free, wealthy nations that rebuilt and protected the United States after World War II faced communist tyranny in the form of the Soviet Union and signed 70 years of peace. This web of open, like-minded countries is also the key to America’s world power. When democracy abroad dies down, so does US influence.
But now everything is threatened.
The rise of a new superpower, China, determined to enhance the wealth and power of the United States, becomes a serious threat to democracy and offers potential autocrats an alternative power model of one-party rule.
Russia – the adversary Biden will face at the end of his European tour – interfered in the last two US elections to help Trump, who often appeared to be advocating his foreign interests against the Americans.
But the most extraordinary thing about Biden’s trip is that he is not an American president who opposes tyranny abroad – that has happened before. He is sitting with US allies at a moment when the greatest threat to democracy comes from the United States.
Trump’s method of undermining elections, turning propaganda reporting into arms, creating false realities, promoting nepotism and stigmatizing immigrants was painfully familiar to Europeans because of their own history and because autocracy is taking root again in the former Eastern bloc.
Biden seeks to revive U.S. alliances that have looked back on the glory of that era for decades. The oldest president in US history looks to the future.
“I think we are at a turning point in world history,” Biden told American troops. He quoted a “moment when it is up to us to prove that democracies not only exist, but will excel if we seize the enormous opportunities of the new age.”
And he warned his counterparts about the G7 summit this weekend on the rocky Cornish coast.
“We have to discredit those who believe that the age of democracy is over, as some of our fellow citizens believe,” said Biden.
A post-Trump boost
But the Trump presidency and the former president’s dire exit from power have traumatized many friends of America abroad. It cast some doubts that democracy can survive in the United States. Privately, diplomats from allied nations will admit that they are not fully convinced that Biden ended America First’s populist nationalism. Some fear he could just be an interregnum and Trump or a new president in his image could return in January 2025.
Part of the reasons for Biden’s trip is to calm some of those nerves that are raising concerns about US staying power. European nations need not agree with the United States on every political issue. But after the upheavals of the Trump era, which turned America from a force of global stability to a force of disruption, they long for strategic certainty from Washington.
“What President Biden needs to do is show consistency and credibility in the US pledges and really see this as stabilizing our alliance network in both Europe and the Indo-Pacific,” said Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, at a briefing.
“Our allies will not believe this will last until they see, through multiple election cycles, that US policy, regardless of government, sees the benefits of alliances,” said Conley.
Yet political leaders are pragmatists. They understand that despite doubts about his ability to carry through the fullness of his agenda against Republican obstruction, Biden has more than three years in power. Its goals to fight global warming and overcome the pandemic mirror theirs. The President has every chance of his first successful trip abroad. Biden’s trip opened on Wednesday with news that the US had bought 500 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines and would be sending them to countries that cannot buy bulk supplies themselves. He’s already rejoined the Paris Agreement, from which Trump stepped out, and the US will be a key player at the next global climate conference in Scotland in November.
While the president initially seemed to want to recruit the EU states for a global pact against China, his team has cooled the rhetoric on the subject a little and realized that the EU is close to the US in terms of democratic values, but not want to choose sides in a new cold war.
A showdown with Putin
CNN has reported that Biden’s interest in a summit meeting with the Russian leader was being discussed in his administration about the potential risks, at a time when Washington-Moscow relations had bottomed out in decades.
While the encounter is likely to involve tough conversation – since the core of Putin’s political project is to diminish as much as possible the power, prestige and influence of the US – Biden was determined to move on. US officials hope to find some common ground despite the broader atmosphere of hostility – for example, in the nuclear talks with Iran and the nuclear weapons talks.
Biden told troops in England on Wednesday that he wanted to come face to face with Putin, “to let him know what I want him to know”.
After waiting a lifetime to fulfill his dream of becoming president, Biden – who has traveled the world as a senator and vice president and conveyed the messages of others – now has that duty with everyone he is in a dangerous moment for America’s power and the power hits the world that made it.
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