To understand the presumptuous ambition behind President Joe Biden’s European trip this week, think of him less as the commander-in-chief of the United States and more as the democratic (little “d”) chief physician of the world.
Eighty years ago, the less democracies were under siege by the oncoming authoritarian forces, Franklin Roosevelt, in his famous speech “Four Freedoms” to Congress in 1941, proclaimed himself Doctor of War Victory. Now that the democratic world is facing another attack, it is Biden’s turn to be dr. Save-Democracy.
After repeatedly diagnosing cancers that threaten global democracies, Biden has accelerated his course of treatment in recent weeks. Like any good doctor, he understands that healing and recovery remain uncertain after so many years of invasive and metastatic disease.
A longer wait would ensure the patient’s failure in what Biden diagnosed as a “turning point” in the historical and systemic struggle against authoritarianism. As he said this week at NATO headquarters in Brussels, setting a theme that supports his entire presidency: “We must prove to the world and to our own people that democracy can still overcome the challenges of our time and provide it with the needs of our people.. “
While the 78-year-old president’s messages and his outstanding resilience to five whistles have been impressive, any U.S. leader can schedule a similar set of meetings. They included his bilateral relationship with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, followed by a G-7 gathering of the world’s leading industrial democracies, a meeting of NATO leaders, a US-EU summit and a Geneva summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. what Biden is fighting.
More important is what Biden did with them. Through painstaking planning and negotiations, his team and his partners have drafted dozens of pages of agreements, announcements and future commitments. All of this is designed to provide a narrative thread and to challenge a common goal among the world’s leading democracies.
Behind all this lies the Biden administration’s overriding focus on China as a challenge of our time. Unlike the Trump administration, which clashed with Europe and China at the same time, the Biden administration has sought to bring Europeans to its side in competition with China, even if individual countries and the European Union as a whole are asked to compromise on China’s leading trading partner.
Agreements reached last week include a Announcement at the top of the Carbis Bay G-7 which contained, among many more, commitments to provide the world with another billion doses of Covid vaccine this year, a plan to revive member economies, and a commitment to a global minimum tax.
They included a Statement at the US-EU summit, perhaps the least reported and underestimated of the weekly agreements, which have established a series of dialogues that could establish closer cooperation on everything from Covid’s relief and climate change to technological cooperation and China.
“We intend to continue to coordinate our common concerns, including persistent human rights violations in Xinjiang and Tibet,” the statement said, “the erosion of autonomy and democratic processes in Hong Kong; economic coercion; disinformation campaigns; and regional security issues.”
The movement to end the 17-year trade and customs dispute between Boeing and Airbus also has growing competition with China as a motivating factor. Even three paragraphs US-Russian joint presidential statement on strategic stability had China in its view, aimed at launching a bilateral dialogue on strategic stability, aimed at creating a more predictable environment with Moscow so that Washington’s energy could be more focused on Beijing.
Remaining beneath the surface of all of President Biden’s meetings, doubts have been cast about the permanence of this renewed U.S. commitment to alliances, democratic partners, and a common goal — producing understandable whipping of heads of state and government who attended President Trump’s far different tone.
Europeans have reason to wonder what the next U.S. election could bring, as Trump and his allies continue to refuse to accept his electoral defeat and claim to have been deceived. They also have their electoral uncertainties, the German election in September is expected to end nearly 16 years of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership, and French President Macron faces Sunday’s local election, which could provide an overview of his showdown next year with Marine Le Pen.
To a small extent, the credit for these insecurities is attributed to Biden’s high degree of success with his partners last week, who were just too eager to accept the change. What the Trump administration has demonstrated, as in the first months of Biden’s presidency, is the continued dependence of global democracies on American leadership. So why not take advantage of the present to put as many agreements and habits in place as possible, hoping they could be lasting.
In that spirit, the week began appropriately with New Atlantic Charter signed with British Prime Minister Johnson, a useful reminder of what historical differences the internationally engaged United States can make in the 1980sth anniversary of the original Atlantic Charter agreed US President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
“Our revitalized Atlantic Charter,” the new document reads, “building on the commitments and aspirations established eighty years ago, reaffirms our continued commitment to upholding our enduring values and defending them from new and old challenges. We are committed to working closely with all partners who share our democratic values and oppose the efforts of those who want to undermine our alliances and institutions. “
It is worth recalling that almost four full months before the formal entry of the United States into World War II, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to the original charter, outlining their ambitious common goals for the postwar world and giving clear US support to British war efforts on August 14. 1941
It is also worth thinking about what kind of world could have come into place if the United States had not stepped forward.
With the threat of a post-war liberal order, the New Atlantic Charter could serve as a call for a clear renewal of international commitment to reviving democracy.
Back in December last year, I wrote in this space, “Joe Biden has the rarest opportunities that history offers: the chance to become a transformative president.”
Biden’s trip to Europe recognizes and builds on that opportunity. However, perhaps equally motivating is the perceived but unspoken cost of failure at a time when the question arises as to which global forces will shape the future.
Frederick Kempe is the best-selling author, award-winning journalist, and president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States ’most influential think tanks on global affairs. He has worked for The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant editor-in-chief and as the longest-serving editor in the European edition of the paper. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times bestseller and was published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look every Saturday at the main stories and trends of the past week.