To understand the bold ambition behind President Joe Biden’s Europe trip this week, consider him less as the US commander in chief and more as the doctor in charge of the democratic (little “d”) world.
80 years ago, when far fewer democracies were besieged by rising authoritarian forces, Franklin Roosevelt declared himself Dr. Win-the-war. Now that the democratic world is under attack again, it is Biden’s turn to get Dr. To be Save Democracy.
After repeatedly diagnosing the cancers that threaten global democracies, Biden sped up the course of treatment last week. Like any good doctor, he understands that after so many years of invasive and metastatic disease, healing and recovery remain uncertain.
Waiting longer would have ensured 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 out a leitmotif for his entire presidency: “We must prove to the world and to our own people that democracy can still meet the challenges of our time and the needs of our people.”
While the 78-year-old president’s message and remarkable perseverance during the trip’s five whistle stops were impressive, any US leader can organize a similar series of meetings. This included his bilateral collaboration with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, followed by the G-7 meeting of the world’s leading industrial democracies, then the meeting of NATO leaders, a US-European Union summit and the conclusion in Geneva with the Russian President Vladimir Putin, the embodiment that Biden fights for.
More remarkable is what Biden did to them. Through careful planning and negotiation, his team and partners created dozens of pages of agreements, communiques, and future commitments. All of this should provide a narrative thread and provoke a common cause among the world’s leading democracies.
Behind all of this, there is an overarching focus of the Biden government on China as the challenge of our time. In contrast to the Trump administration, which has brought itself into conflict with Europe and China at the same time, the Biden administration has made every effort to win the Europeans on its side in the competition with China, even if compromises from individual countries and a whole European Union are calling for China to be its leading trading partner.
Agreements reached last week included a communique from the Carbis Bay G-7 Summit, which included a commitment to provide the world with another billion doses of Covid vaccines this year, a plan to revitalize it of member countries and a commitment to a global minimum VAT.
This included a statement from the US-EU summit, perhaps the least reported and underestimated of the week’s agreements, which established a series of dialogues that encouraged closer cooperation on everything from Covid aid and climate change to technological cooperation and China could enable.
“We intend to continue coordinating our common concerns, including ongoing human rights violations in Xinjiang and Tibet,” the statement said, “the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and democratic processes, economic coercion, disinformation campaigns and regional security issues.”
The end of a 17-year-old trade and customs dispute between Boeing and Airbus has the increasing competition with China as a motivating factor. Even the joint declaration by the US President and Russia on strategic stability contained in three paragraphs had China in its sights, with the aim of initiating a bilateral dialogue on strategic stability, the aim of which was to create a more predictable environment with Moscow Washington’s energies are more direct to Beijing.
However, beneath the surface of all President Biden’s meetings lingered lingering doubts about the durability of this renewed American commitment to alliances, democratic partners, and a common cause – which led to an understandable whiplash among leaders attending meetings of a. had participated in a completely different tone with President Trump.
Europeans have every reason to wonder what the next US election might bring as Trump and his allies still refuse to accept his election defeat and claim fraud. They also have their own electoral uncertainties as the German elections in September are set to end Chancellor Angela Merkel’s nearly 16-year term and French President Macron faces the local elections on Sunday, which preview his next year’s showdown with Marine Le Pen could offer.
Thanks in no small part to these uncertainties, Biden’s great success with his partners over the past week, who were just too eager to embrace the change. What the Trump administration demonstrated, as did the first few months of Biden’s presidency, is the continued dependence of global democracies on US leadership. So why not use the present to implement as many agreements and habits as possible in the hope that they could last.
With that in mind, the week began appropriately with the New Atlantic Charter signed with British Prime Minister Johnson, a useful reminder of the historic difference the internationally active United States can make on the 80th anniversary of the original Atlantic Charter, which was adopted by the US President Franklin Roosevelt was agreed and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
“Our revitalized Atlantic Charter”, says the new document, “builds on the commitments and aspirations formulated 80 years ago and reaffirms our ongoing commitment to preserve our enduring values and to defend them against new and old challenges. We pledge to work closely with all partners who share our democratic values and to counter the efforts of those who seek to undermine our alliances and institutions. “
It is worth remembering that nearly four full months before the US formally entered World War II, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to the original charter outlining their ambitious common goals for the postwar world and clear US support for the British war effort expressed on 08/14/1941.
It is also worth thinking about what kind of world would have been created if the US had not stepped forward.
Given the threatened liberal order of the post-war era, the New Atlantic Charter could serve as a call for a renewed international commitment to the revival of democracy.
As early as December last year, I wrote at this point: “Joe Biden has the rarest opportunity in history: the chance to be a transformative president.”
Biden’s trip to Europe recognizes and builds on this opportunity. Perhaps just as motivating, however, are the known but unspoken costs of failure at a time when the question of the global forces that will shape the future is at stake.
Frederick Kempe is a 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 worked for the Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant editor-in-chief and senior editor for the European edition of the newspaper. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times bestseller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his view every Saturday of the top stories and trends of the past week.