WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden is likely to receive a warm welcome from European leaders when he arrives in the United Kingdom on Wednesday to begin a seven-day trip to three countries, and it's no secret why.
Unlike his predecessor, Biden is immediately familiar to most of his European Union counterparts and deeply committed to the transatlantic alliance that has been a pillar of the postwar democratic order for seven decades. He doesn't consider NATO "obsolete." Nor does he publicly berate allied leaders, while embracing Russian President Vladimir Putin, perhaps the biggest threat to European stability.
But not being Donald Trump is the easy part.
Biden, whose itinerary includes the annual Group of 7 summit of leaders of major developed nations in Cornwall, England; a ceremonial visit with Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle; NATO and European Commission summits in Brussels and a much anticipated sit-down with Putin in Geneva, has laid out a lofty objective for his first international trip as president — nothing less than rallying the world's democracies "to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age."
But those challenges — including the lingering pandemic, climate change, cybercrime and containing autocracies in Moscow and Beijing — are complex ones. They are made all the more so by cracks in the foundations of America's alliances and its own democracy, and allies' uncertainty about U.S. leadership that can't be assuaged simply by Biden's "America is back" talk.
"There are real credibility concerns for the United States that are not of Biden's creation, about whether allies can trust that the U.S. isn't going to revert back to Trump," said Ben Rhodes, a former national security aide to President Barack Obama. "Even after Biden's win, the U.S. doesn't look like the most functional [democratic] model."
Yet for administration officials, "All of their big-ticket initiatives internationally are much easier if they can get on the same page with the European allies."
Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, told reporters Monday that the best way to reassure allies about the stability of U.S. democracy is to "show the rest of the world what America is capable of."
He pointed to the president's early success in slowing the spread of COVID-19 and winning Congress' quick passage of a $1.9 trillion relief package. But now the rest of Biden's agenda, from infrastructure to voting rights, is at a standstill on Capitol Hill.
"The Europeans see very clearly the pressures this president is under domestically," saidCathryn Clüver Ashbrook, the executive director of the Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship at the Harvard Kennedy School. "This honeymoon phase is a very different one emotionally, and it's much shorter than the one we saw with President Obama."