Editor's Note: Below is a complimentary research note written by National Security analyst LTG Dan Christman. To access our Macro Policy research please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In light of unfolding global events, including Russian cyberattacks on the U.S. and the mounting Chinese naval presence in contested waterways, President Biden's first foreign trip was well-timed.
Further, it tightly accords with a key tenet of his foreign and security policy: before confronting adversaries, restore relationships with friends and allies.
So, what were the principal outcomes that impact business and the geo-strategic competition with key rivals? In order of the travel itinerary…
1) First, the bi-lateral with Boris Johnson: the quick bottom line was the welcomed reaffirmation of the US-UK “special relationship.”
But unfortunately, a U.S. trade deal with the UK is still on the “outs.” It remains a mystery why the White House is so reluctant to move on an issue of significance for U.S. exporters and American consumers.
President Biden didn’t get off to a good start when he landed in the UK by quoting from Irish poet W.B. Yeats immediately upon arrival.
The lines Biden used he has employed dozens of times in earlier campaigns and while he was VP; but unfortunately for this trip, the lines he used (“a terrible beauty has been born”) were from the poem “Easter 1916,” a paean to the 1916 Easter Rising that marked the beginning of the Irish war for independence.
Biden is clearly worried that BREXIT could undermine the 1998 Good Friday agreement that has kept the peace on the Ireland/Northern Ireland border; and he is undeterred in expressing this worry to London and linking this worry to any future US-UK bilateral trade deal.
Fortunately, the poem gaffe didn’t seem to affect the warm relationship he established with Boris.
Nevertheless, there will be no trade deal any time soon, and for American business, an indication of progress toward that deal would have been the most important deliverable at his first stop.
2) Second, his meeting with G-7 leaders in Cornwall, England: some internal squabbles, like how to deal with Putin and how strongly to call out the PRC over human rights, were subordinated to one overriding goal: demonstrate unity! It was a low but important bar for success, and success was achieved.
Panned ahead of time by a New York Times correspondent as nothing more than Biden “diplomatic pantomime,” the G-7 meetings had minimum substantive outcomes but maximum symbolic significance.
In the larger battles of governing models - authoritarian state capitalism versus open, market-centric democracy - seeing G-7 leaders unite is not diplomatic pantomime; it’s a visible demonstration that leaders who respect the will of their people and the rule of law can unite around shared values and shared interests.
That symbolic unanimity has substance out of proportion to the images transmitted from Cornwall. Both Putin and Xi Jinping jump almost reflexively on the vulnerabilities of western alliances: internal squabbles amongst friends.
Hence the point of the three days of the G-7 was simple: to ensure that the Biden-Macron-Merkel-Johnson elbow bumps echoed in the leadership halls of Beijing and Moscow. Based on outcries in official Chinese media especially, the echoes reverberated.
3) Third, NATO: given Donald Trump’s 2017 disparaging of NATO’s core Article V collective security provision, this meeting should have been a foreign policy “lay-up” for the U.S. President. It turned out to be.
The Biden statement that he viewed Article V as “sacred” was in many ways THE key summit deliverable, reinforcing as he did the very foundation of deterrence that has kept peace on the continent for over 75 years.
The second critical outcome from the Brussels summit was the historic NATO call-out of China - a major Biden objective of his entire trip.
The president succeeded in bringing all 30 NATO member countries behind a communique to publicly brand the PRC’s “stated ambitions and assertive behavior” as “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order.”
When added to the G-7’s strong statement criticizing China’s human rights behavior, it reflected an important, unified position by western democracies against autocrats and the governing model they espouse.
To be sure, there was Brussels frustration going into the meeting over President Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal announcement, perceived as peremptory, with insufficient time for consultation.
But Biden seems to have successfully sidelined the issue with pledges of off-shore military support for the Afghans following U.S. withdrawal; and NATO committed to continue its training programs which have been essential for Afghanistan war-fighting capabilities.
And on Turkey, substantive outcomes of president Erdogan’s meeting with Biden, if any, have been kept under wraps. The Turkish president was remarkably restrained in his behavior amongst fellow NATO leaders – a reflection no doubt of the broad range of challenges facing him politically and with the Turkish economy more broadly.
Erdogan’s top priority in his private session with Biden was a resolution of the S-400 air defense system that Turkey purchased from Moscow. The U.S. and NATO were predictably outraged to learn of that purchase in 2017.
Despite many trial balloons floated by Ankara before the Brussels summit to resolve the issue, it remains amongst the thorniest unresolved challenges within the broader NATO family.
4) Fourth, Biden’s meetings with EU leaders: as with NATO, EU neuralgia with Washington going into the meetings was high, most notably over the long-festering Boeing/Airbus dispute as well as the steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by President Trump.
As Biden departed, the steel and aluminum tariffs, unfortunately, remained in place – to the continuing annoyance of the 27-member European trading block.
But the announcement of a five-year “ceasefire” on the aircraft subsidy dispute (along with the suspension of over $11B in retaliatory tariffs) brought a welcomed sigh of relief for all parties. This issue had come to symbolize the increasingly divergent paths being taken by the U.S. and EU on a broad range of economic and trade issues.
While the Boeing/Airbus spat has been set aside, a myriad of others remains, including how to deal with China and climate change, two of President Biden’s top priorities.
Clearly, it will take more than one brief stop by the president in Brussels to even begin a process of bridging this divide. But (temporarily) resolving aircraft subsidies was a useful start.
5) And finally, the sit-down with Vladimir Putin: Winston Churchill reportedly described a political opponent as “a modest man, with much to be modest about!”
With a nod to Sir Winston, the Biden-Putin meeting outcome might be summarized as, “modest, with a little bit to be immodest about!” The immodest outcome?
An agreement to launch a “strategic stability dialogue,” to contain, in Biden’s words, the dangers surrounding “new and dangerous weapons that reduce the times of response and raise the risk of accidental war.”
Given the proliferation of these weapons (e.g., conventional and nuclear hypersonic systems) and the dangers they represent, this was a timely and potentially useful understanding.
The sides also committed to launching “consultations” on cyber, with Biden at the same time outlining 16 vital areas of the U.S. economy that he effectively labeled as “off-limits” to cyberattacks emanating from Russia.
As critical as this topic is for American security, Putin seemed in no mood to even acknowledge that Russia has any role to play. As he attempted to deflect press questions on this issue, Putin reverted to “whataboutism” default responses that have been the favorite of Moscow leaders since Vladimir Lenin.
Little confidence was engendered that cyber “consultations” will lead anywhere substantively on this key issue.
Nevertheless, the major geostrategic goal of President Biden going into this meeting was to avoid driving Putin ever more tightly into the dragon’s embrace that is XI Jinping.
Judging by the mood of the two leaders and the careful words they chose to describe their opposite - mutual respect, even cordiality - the president seemed to have avoided this worst outcome; by the standards of meetings with Putin by other U.S. Presidents this century, avoiding worst outcomes is no small achievement!
BOTTOM LINE: Biden will certainly have other foreign trips during his Presidential term; but starting off with a successful first international swing had to have given the president and his White House foreign policy team an infusion of confidence.
The unspoken question lingering over every venue, however, was the permanence of the American return to multilateralism: was Donald Trump the anomaly, or is Joe Biden?
Will the American populist mood deepen in the coming years, to elect in 2024 a president who returns to an “America First,” go-it-alone foreign policy.
At this point, no one knows. European leaders were hedging their bets against this outcome before the Biden trip, and still are - in every area from trade to security.
But in the meantime, except for Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Biden’s interlocutors at the end of last week could be forgiven for singing at least a few stanzas of the European equivalent of “Happy Days are Here Again!”
* * *
ABOUT LIEUTENANT GENERAL DAN CHRISTMAN
LTG Dan Christman, USA, Ret. serves as Hedgeye Potomac Research’s Senior National Security Analyst, providing deep insight into international affairs and national security. Most recently, Dan provided strategic leadership on international issues affecting the business community for organizations such as the US Chamber of Commerce. Dan’s long history of leadership includes his service as a United States Army lieutenant general and former Superintendent of the United States Military Academy. He served in highly visible and strategically important positions and four times was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the nation's highest peacetime service award.
He also served for two years as assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during which time he traveled with and advised Secretary of State Warren Christopher. He was centrally involved during this period with negotiations between Israel and Syria as a member of the Secretary's Middle East Peace Team. Further, Christman represented the United States as a member of NATO's Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium.
Graduating first in his class from West Point, Christman also received MPA and MSE degrees in public affairs and civil engineering from Princeton University and graduated with honors from The George Washington University Law School. He is a decorated combat veteran of Southeast Asia, where he commanded a company in the 101st Airborne Division in 1969.