At G20, Biden promotes US leadership, but faces its limits

Creativity Foreign Policy

At G20, Biden promotes US leadership, but faces its limits

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Even without the leaders of Russia and China in attendance at the G20 summit in India, their influence created real challenges for President Joe Biden, who drew on creative diplomacy to assert U.S. global leadership.

“The message ‘America is back’ is pretty easy to sell at a G20 where the president of the United States is in attendance, but Xi and Putin are not,” says Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School in Medford, Massachusetts, and an expert in U.S. grand strategy and geopolitics.

Mr. Biden was “engaged in what [former Secretary of State] George Shultz used to refer to as ‘gardening,’ and it’s something Biden really goes out of his way to do,” he adds. “You take care of your allies and partners and work with them along the way so they will trust you and work with you and with international institutions” – like the G20, NATO, or the AUKUS grouping of Asia-Pacific powers.

Still, Mr. Biden’s turn to the world stage, which wrapped up Monday with a stop in Vietnam, was not one of unmitigated triumph. The trip also highlighted a rising challenge to established global powers from developing countries, as well as growing doubts about America’s staying power as the 2024 presidential election looms.

The developing world’s desire not to be beholden to any one power or to the U.S.-led post-World War II international order was evident in the G20 summit’s final statement, which contained softer language on Russia’s war in Ukraine than did the group’s statement last year.

That change reflected host India’s efforts since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022 to stake out a neutral position amenable not just to it but to numerous developing countries that have eschewed the West’s fierce condemnation of Moscow’s aggression.

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Indeed for some experts, the stubborn global divide over the war in Ukraine demonstrates the limits of Mr. Biden’s approach to foreign policy.

“Much to Biden’s credit, he rallied our European allies on Ukraine, but his inability to rally other countries from a standoffish position … has to be seen as a negative,” says Robert Lieber, emeritus professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington. The G20 statement on Ukraine is further evidence that “the number of countries willing to condemn Russia since its invasion hasn’t budged,” he adds.

Mr. Biden may have won some points with the Global South as a result of the proposals he championed at the summit, including new World Bank initiatives to put more money into developing countries’ digital connectivity and other projects. He also signed on to a new infrastructure project to connect India to the Middle East and Europe through rail and ports – a plan some analysts say aims to provide an alternative to China’s ambitious Belt and Road program.

But countries are unlikely to be won over until the shovels actually start hitting the dirt, some experts say.

“The Global South’s point of view is that so far they’ve heard mostly talk even as China has steadily moved infrastructure projects along,” says Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States in Washington. “If you want to win them over, you have to change their perspective that we [the West] provide lectures, while China provides easy cash.”

Concerns over a return of isolationism

Then there are the doubts Mr. Biden faces internationally concerning the prospects for his international vision or for a more isolationist America, especially if former President Donald Trump returns to the White House.

“What I heard was deep concern over what was widely portrayed as the historic disaster a second Trump presidency would constitute,” says Mr. Daly, who returned to Washington last week from Berlin. “It’s quite clear [other countries] would no longer see the U.S. as a reliable partner they can count on and work with if they’re going to be whipsawed by a dramatic change in our foreign policy every four years.”

Indeed for some, part of Mr. Biden’s objective over a month heavily focused on foreign policy – next week he’ll make the case for his international vision at the United Nations General Assembly in New York – will be to secure to the extent he can America’s role in the world, whatever the result of the next presidential election.

“The primary thing Biden can do is defeat Trump in 2024,” says Dr. Drezner, whose article “Bracing for Trump 2.0” is featured in this month’s Foreign Affairs.

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Mr. Biden can use the months before entering the heat of the campaign to cement his vision and America’s commitment to its global role by locking in ties with allies and partners, he says. Gains that the administration seeks with some hard-to-crack cases – Dr. Drezner cites Mexico on immigration and illicit drugs, and Iran on its nuclear program – might be won by using the “threat” that terms for cooperation will be better now than under a second Trump administration.

In case anyone failed to grasp the message of an engaged America at the G20, Mr. Biden bookended the India visit with further displays of U.S. leadership.

On his post-summit stop in Vietnam, he cemented a strategic partnership aimed at countering China’s increasingly aggressive activity in the South China Sea. Vietnam raised the U.S. to the highest level in its hierarchy of diplomatic relations.

Mr. Biden – who met at the G20 with China’s No. 2 leader, Premier Li Qiang – rejected the suggestion at a Sunday press conference in Hanoi that his five-day trip “around the world” was about containing China, preferring to characterize it as aimed at fostering greater global security through strengthened ties with allies and partners.

“We have an opportunity to strengthen alliances around the world to maintain stability,” he said. “That’s what this trip was all about.”

Global campaign

Equally striking in this endeavor was the full-court press of American global engagement that the administration ran over the week leading up to the G20 summit.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kyiv to demonstrate “enduring support” for Ukraine against Russian aggression, while White House Middle East envoy Brett McGurk traveled to Riyadh to press forward on a potential Saudi-Israeli normalization agreement that would transform the Middle East.

The U.S ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield – a member of Mr. Biden’s Cabinet – made a visit to Chad’s border with Sudan to highlight the plight of refugees from Sudan’s civil war and warn about the threat of what some experts say could be another genocide in Sudan’s Darfur.

The flurry of recent activity around the administration’s goal of a grand deal securing a normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia had many eyes trained on Mr. Biden in New Delhi to see if he would meet with summit attendee Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

No meeting occurred, though Mr. Biden did warmly shake hands with the crown prince – whom he had once vowed to treat as a “pariah” over the 2018 assassination of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi.

Georgetown’s Dr. Lieber says a normalization deal would constitute a “sea change” in the Middle East and a “real achievement for Biden’s foreign policy” in the run-up to the 2024 election.

“It’s the kind of deal that only an engaged United States would be able to accomplish,” says Dr. Lieber, author of the recent book “Indispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in a Turbulent World.”

He says there’s no getting around the “terrible crime” the Saudis committed in killing Mr. Khashoggi. But he says the reality is that the U.S. engages with many unsavory leaders and countries “that have committed vastly greater crimes,” in pursuit not just of its own interests but of a more “stable world.”


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