In First Trip Abroad, Biden Tells Allies "America Is Back" : The NPR Politics Podcast In the first overseas trip of his presidency, Biden is in Europe delivering a central message to allies: America is back. But while G-7 leaders agree on confronting the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, they diverge on how hard to push China. Plus, will Biden's meeting with Vladimir Putin pave the way for a more predictable relationship with Russia?

This episode: White House correspondents Scott Detrow, Tamara Keith and Franco Ordoñez.

Connect:
Subscribe to the NPR Politics Podcast here.
Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org
Join the NPR Politics Podcast Facebook Group.
Listen to our playlist The NPR Politics Daily Workout.
Subscribe to the NPR Politics Newsletter.
Find and support your local public radio station.

In First Trip Abroad, Biden Tells Allies "America Is Back"

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1006329056/1006363597" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ALEXA: Hi. This is Alexa from Geneva, Switzerland, where President Biden and Vladimir Putin will be meeting in a couple of days. This podcast was recorded at...

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Maybe they'll pull Alexa into the summit too, make it a trilateral meeting. It is 12:47 Eastern here in the United States on Monday, June 14.

ALEXA: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: I am heading there in a couple days. I'll be looking forward to being close.

DETROW: You can have your own summit.

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordoñez. I also cover the White House.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: And I'm Tamara Keith. I also also cover the White House (laughter).

DETROW: And if you didn't guess the topic, we're talking about President Biden today. He is in Europe in the middle - about the halfway point of his first trip as president. Franco, you are there with him. Let's get all of the other stuff out of the way. Franco, did you meet the queen yesterday?

ORDOÑEZ: I did not meet the queen, but I did get to fly from Heathrow Airport to Windsor Castle on a Royal Air Force helicopter. And that was pretty cool flying in...

DETROW: OK, that's cool.

ORDOÑEZ: ...Over Windsor Castle.

KEITH: Oh, wow, that is cool.

DETROW: I truly actually would just want to talk about Windsor Castle the whole time, but that is not what we're here to do. A lot of things have already happened on this trip. We're going to look back and preview this upcoming summit with Putin in a little bit. But first, Biden met with the G-7 over the weekend in Cornwall, England. Now he is in Brussels meeting with NATO allies. Franco, what is Biden's goal at this NATO summit, which is an overlapping group of people from the last summit but not the same mix of people?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, like, what he's been talking about a lot - I mean, the kind of, like, the, thrust of this entire trip is this mantra that he has been pushing, that America is back. And what that means is what President Biden is doing - is he trying to rebuild trust with European allies, European allies who have grown a bit uncertain about, you know, the U.S. commitment to the region after four years of, you know, a whole different political perspective. Obviously, I'm talking about former President Trump and his isolationist approach to global policy. And what Biden is trying to do is resume U.S. leadership on the world stage to work on, you know, some of the challenges that he says are most important, including COVID-19 and climate change.

DETROW: And we're going to talk about what this different dynamic has meant in terms of policy and takeaways from this meeting. But certainly the pictures coming out of this are a lot more friendly than what we saw during the Trump era - none of the confrontations, the dramatic photos that emerged from Trump's G-7s and G-20s and things like that. Tam, you were on Trump's very first international trip, which was wildly different than what Biden is doing right now. Remind us what the approach was and what it was like on that trip.

KEITH: I think the most telling part of that trip was - there was this big will he or won't he reaffirm U.S. support for Article 5, which is the part of the NATO treaty that says that if one NATO member is attacked, they will - it's a mutual defense agreement. And so leading into President Trump's first visit to NATO, his staff assured the press, yes, President Trump will affirm his support for Article 5. He gets to NATO, and he never says the words. Well, President Biden today shows up - like, he was like - the first words out of his mouth, he's, like, blurting out, we support Article 5. America is back. It was like he wanted to just say it loud, as quickly as possible. And it's just a real difference that President Trump - former-President Trump really had this America-First approach. And President Biden has a very multilateral view of American engagement in the world.

ORDOÑEZ: And, you know, I mean, just to add to the will he or won't he, you know, with - when it was President Trump, it was like, you know, will he or won't he insult another world leader? Whereas President Biden - it's hugs with French President Emmanuel Macron. It's walking along the beach, arm in arm. There is so many smiles. There are so many kind of warm words. It's a real juxtaposition than when President Trump was at the G-7 and NATO.

DETROW: But I guess the personal dynamics are not the end goal, right? They are the means to the end goal of getting agreements that are in the U.S.' interests, that are in the interests that the president sees that all of these allies share. So on that note, what was the takeaway from this weekend's G-7? Biden went into that with a very clear goal, particularly when it comes to agreement on how to counter China. Did he get what he wanted coming out of that meeting?

ORDOÑEZ: He got a lot out of China, and he's likely to get more. I mean, he has really pushed allies to take a stronger stance on China, particularly in the geopolitical sphere, you know? One of the things that President Biden and the allies did was create a fund to help less-developed countries kind of go through and build those big infrastructure projects. And that's to be a alternative to China's Belt and Road Initiative. He has also gotten some allies on board on taking a stronger stance against China's human rights violations. And it's a big deal because a lot of European allies have been hesitant, have been reluctant to criticize China because of - for economic reasons because of the ties that they have, so it is something. It is significant that President Biden has been able to get some of these allies on board in these areas, maybe not as much as he wants, but it is a first step in that area.

DETROW: And, Franco, just remind us what this Belt and Road Initiative is because it's a huge global thing that has kind of been on the side burner here in the U.S., which is part of the problem.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, absolutely. You know, the Belt and Road Initiative is essentially the way that China helps lesser-developed countries get the capital they need for big infrastructure projects - bridges, roads, energy projects. But what comes with it are a lot of things in return, and it has a lot of political influence. And that has been very worrisome to the United States and Western allies, the influence that China has been gaining on the rest of the world. So they want to provide an alternative to that. But, you know, reality is that the United States and the Western nations have not been able to, you know, come up with the same kind of money as fast and as easily.

DETROW: Tam, on the eve of this first summit, Biden announced the U.S. was going to donate 500 million vaccines to global vaccination efforts. He wanted other world leaders at the G-7 to join him. What was the result?

KEITH: They joined him. So he went in saying, the U.S. is going to do 500 million. What you got? And what they come out with is a billion total doses in the coming months to be donated by the world's leading economies to the world's poorest nations through something called COVAX, which is this global effort to get vaccines into the arms of people in something like 93 of the world's poorest countries. And they also agreed to work on creating production facilities or supporting production facilities around the world to also increase the vaccine supply. So a billion doses is not enough to vaccinate the world, but it is a whole heck of a lot more than they were talking about just, you know, a few days ago.

DETROW: So, Franco, obviously huge issues being discussed at these summits - and again, now you're at the second meeting, which is NATO, that's happening right now. So you had that. You had Joe Biden not being Donald Trump. But I feel like the third big dynamic was this was world leaders' return to face-to-face diplomacy. What has it felt like to be there in person? Has it felt back to normal, or does it still kind of feel like this COVID awkward world?

ORDOÑEZ: In one sense, absolutely, there is a sense of getting back to normal. You know, being back on the coast of the Atlantic in Cornwall, England, as they do what they call a family photo of all the leaders - when they take the photos of all the leaders together, that felt very much back to the normal. At the same time, there - and it was absolutely clear that the pandemic is still very much a part of our lives and very much here because, you know, vaccinations are not nearly as far along as they are in the United States. There's a lot more, you know - there's definitely mask-wearing. There's a lot more social distancing. There - so many of these meetings we have not been able to go to because of COVID restrictions.

DETROW: All right, we're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we will talk about the summit that is most likely going to have fewer hugs and handshakes and warm embraces - this meeting between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin.

And we're back. And before we start talking about this upcoming Russia summit, Franco, I want to talk about one moment on this trip because like we've been talking about, Biden is saying over and over again, America is back. Everything's cool. We're all on the same page. You were at a press conference with the president this weekend, and you asked him about the fact that he has kept some of the protectionist tariffs in place that the Trump administration put in place on these allies, a fact that really goes against this talking point. Let's listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ORDOÑEZ: I wanted to ask you, when you are having these conversations with European allies, who are very concerned about these sanctions, how do you justify that? And what are your plans...

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: A hundred and twenty days - give me a break. I need time.

DETROW: President Biden not loving that question because, Franco, like you pointed out, it contrasts the message he is putting out there that everything's cool again.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, absolutely, and for the most part, European allies are very pleased that President Biden is back. And, you know, it's not the same tension as it was before. At the same time, there are some real concerns that European leaders have about some of the policies that are in place. And this is one of them, that, you know, President Biden has kept in place some of Trump's policies, including these steel and aluminum tariffs. And that has been a big concern. It's not the only one, but it's one of the big ones.

DETROW: And that gets to this broader tension that's going to continue. And, Franco, you and I have interviewed national security officials about it - the fact that even though Joe Biden is this multilateral global person he wants to be, he realizes that in this political moment, he needs to be a little bit more, you know, protectionist, a little bit more...

KEITH: America-First, if you will?

DETROW: Yeah, a little bit more America-First-light because he thinks that is what American voters want in this moment.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I mean, this is a very sensitive but also very critical part of the Biden foreign policy. I mean, they need to be able to show that every foreign policy decision also impacts those in middle America. And that is very America-First-light. It's America First without the isolationism. It's America First without the nationalism.

KEITH: So, Franco, you will be headed to Geneva, as we talked about, for this summit. And you will be in the pool. So you likely will be able to see what the handshake looks like when President Biden meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Biden has talked about wanting to establish a more stable, predictable relationship with Russia. Putin has said the relationship has never been worse. Is it possible to improve the relationship, or is that even the goal?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I mean, the way that it's been put to me is that what they're trying to do - what the Biden administration is trying to do is maybe put some guardrails on it. But there has been a lot of questions about the fact that the administration hasn't been more clear about what outcomes they expect to get out of this. And it is true that the Biden administration has not been able to be very clear, but they say that they need to have a discussion, and they need to get on the same page. President Biden needs to be able to tell Putin what his priorities are and what his concerns are, and they want to give the same opportunity to President Putin.

The - you know, the details of this summit are still being worked out. We know there are going to be a couple sessions, a larger circle of U.S. and Russian advisors first and then later, a smaller one for the leaders. There's going to also be a press conference by the president. What there's not going to be is one of those joint press conferences like the one that was very famous - the Helsinki press conference that President Trump and Putin were a part of.

KEITH: Where President Trump stood next to President Putin and sided with Putin over the U.S. intelligence community about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

DETROW: And my favorite thing about that that I just want to say is, Tam, you and I were hanging out when that happened. We were both on parental leave. You knew what was going on. I was determined to stay in a news-free bubble, and your face turned purple, and you were freaking out because clearly something was happening. But you respected my wishes and somehow did not tell me this was going on.

KEITH: The alerts just kept coming in on my phone, and I kept just holding it in. But it was really hard.

ORDOÑEZ: I don't know how you guys did that.

DETROW: It was easy for me. It was hard for Tam. But this upcoming summit, we will all be working. We will all be following it closely. Franco, you will be there, and we will be doing a podcast on it as soon as it ends on Wednesday.

ORDOÑEZ: I'll be sending you texts.

DETROW: All right. That's it for now. Stay tuned throughout the week as we bring you more from this trip.

I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House.

ORDOÑEZ: I'm Franco Ordonez. I also cover the White House.

KEITH: And I'm Tamara Keith. I too cover the White House.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.