Biden’s European Tour: “The United States is Back” and the Limits of Nostalgia

Joe Biden opened his first foreign trip as president by announcing that the “United States is back.” What the president didn’t clarify was back where. The obvious answer is that the United States is returning to working with its allies.

Biden’s meetings with the G-7, NATO and European Union leaders confirmed this. After President Donald Trump’s erratic unilateral diplomacy, Biden declaration asserted that transatlantic relations were being reset and stabilized with the American president re-assuming America’s traditional leadership role.

While this answer may satisfy those who have longed for the post-1945 U.S. “indispensable” role after four years of Trump’s creative destruction, nostalgia has its limits.

What United States was Biden referring to? The first euphoric hundred days of his presidency are over. The success of the vaccination program has not translated into political capital. The infrastructure bill is bogged down. Republicans are determined to keep major changes they passed during the Trump administration.

The Trump era has not ended. Not only is Mar-a-Lago the center of the political opposition, but those who followed the 2020 election closely saw how Republicans did well in local and state elections. In 23 states, Republicans control both houses and the governorship. The consequences of those Republican successes are now playing out across the country.

And, it needs to be noted, despite whatever slim margins Biden may have in today’s Congress, history tells us that they will be wiped out in the upcoming mid-term elections. It is quite possible that the Democrats will lose at least one house of Congress in 2022 which would leave Biden further hampered in whatever changes he proposes.

The reality at home is far from Biden’s declaration. And the western allies know this. Biden is on less solid ground than Ronald Reagan when he met Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva in 1985. The United States in June 2021 is far from the opening line of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign: “It’s morning again in America.”

The United States is back with whom? Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron? Prime Minister Johnson is under domestic pressure after a series of scandals as well as facing a potential vote for Scottish independence. Chancellor Merkel, the most solid European leader for decades, has decided to retire with no obvious candidate of similar stature to replace her. French President Macron’s term in office ends in May 2022 and he is not assured of defeating Marine Le Pen in the upcoming presidential election.

So when the French president said at the G-7 meetings that; “It was great to have a U.S. president who’s part of the club and very willing to cooperate,” one must question the political longevity of the members of this exclusive club.

The United States is back in the multilateral system? Much is being made that Biden is returning the United States to the multilateral system after the Trump hiatus. And since the summit with the Russian president was held in Geneva, there is reason to be hopeful here. But again, this may seem too obvious. Biden has yet to name an ambassador to the international organizations in Geneva. No U.S. ambassador greeted him when he stepped down from Air Force One.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was unanimously approved for another term although this was a foregone conclusion since there were no other official candidates. The U.S. may be back in the multilateral system, but is that something to brag about? No one from the United Nations was present at the Geneva summit nor did any of the leaders go to the United Nations headquarters in Geneva during their visit.

As for the summit itself, although the Genevois and Swiss boasted that the eyes of the world were on Geneva, it was more like a working meeting between two heads of state. Biden came a day early and received all the necessary protocol pomp one could imagine. Putin arrived on the day of the meeting, refused all formal protocol, and went straight to the meeting.

The actual meeting lasted a little over three hours. It was programmed for four to five hours. The Reagan-Gorbachev summit was over seven hours. Considering translations, I am told, the actual Biden-Putin summit lasted a little over 1 1/2 hours. Professional, but not earth shattering.

While the Reagan/Gorbachev meeting focused on nuclear weapons and the final declaration declared that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” this meeting touched on numerous subjects including cyberwarfare which is much more complex than nuclear weapons. No major decisions were arrived at. The only tangible immediate result is that a Russian ambassador will return to Washington and an American ambassador to Moscow.

Both sides agreed on no joint press conference at the end. Putin took advantage of his time to lambast the United States for daring to bring up human rights in Russia, never once pronouncing the name of Alexei Navalny but using whataboutyouism to bring up George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, the Guantanamo prison and the U.S. prison system in general.

So not only was Putin allowed the prestige of seeming equal in power to the United States president at the meeting, but he was also given a platform for a fifty minute performance at his press conference. This is very far from President Obama’s description of Russia as no more than a “regional power.” Putin would have no doubt been more controlled had Biden been there. The summit invitation and separate news conferences were questionable strategic decisions by the United States.

The Biden press conference was shorter – everyone was eager to go home. He restated what he had communicated to Putin, but avoided any red lines in the sand or any concrete measures to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine, interference in U.S. elections or cyberattacks. It all sounded very much like the conclusion of a business meeting where it is announced that the different staffs will continue working on the difficult issues.

The Biden-Putin summit in Geneva has been compared to the ground breaking 1985 meeting between President Ronald Reagan and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev. The circumstances surrounding the summits are very different. 2021 is not 1985. While there are tensions between the United States and Russia, we are not in the midst of a Cold War. The Russian Federation is not the Soviet Union. The United States and Russia are important geopolitical players, but China was not at the table, nor were any members of civil society.

Today’s world is pluricentric. The era of the United States-Soviet Union domination is over. Private actors, individuals as well as multinationals, are the new geopolitical heavyweights. The Covid-19 pandemic revealed many of the weaknesses of traditional international diplomacy.

President Biden’s declaration that the “United States is back” is noteworthy for its nostalgia. As Thomas Wolfe wrote in You Can’t Go Home Again, you can’t go “back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time…” Nostalgia does have its limits.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.