Washington, United States.
US President Joe Biden travels to Europe on Wednesday to reassure his allies and stand firm before Russia, a visit that includes a G7 summit, one with NATO and another with the European Union, before a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
For his first trip abroad, the 46th president of the United States chose to highlight the transatlantic ties, subjected to great tension during the presidency of his predecessor, Donald Trump.
“My trip to Europe is an opportunity for the United States to mobilize democracies around the world,” he wrote, presenting himself as a central actor in what he described as an ideological confrontation with the “autocracies,” led by China.
Since his arrival in the White House, Biden insists that the United States returned to the table of multilateralism, determined to play a key role, from fighting the covid-19 pandemic to that of climate change.
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But beyond a true relief after the disagreements and invectives of the Trump years, a form of impatience is perceived on the European side.
For Benjamin Haddad of the Atlantic Council think tank, although the tone is clearly more constructive, a certain “disappointment” is palpable.
“There is a lot of talk about ‘America is back’ (the United States is back), there is positive rhetoric, but now is the time to act,” he told AFP.
For many, the distribution of US vaccines to other countries has been too slow. Washington’s lack of reciprocity following the European Union (EU) decision to reopen its doors to American travelers caused discontent. And the way the withdrawal from Afghanistan was announced, without any real prior consultation, was not appreciated in European capitals.
This situation can be explained by conjunctural factors related to the priorities at the beginning of the mandate. But there are also deeper reasons. “Fundamentally, Europe is much less important in American foreign policy than it was 20 or 30 years ago,” says the French researcher.
The “doubts” of the allies
In addition, the mandate of Donald Trump, who came to describe NATO as “obsolete”, left wounds. “The allies continue to have doubts and take into account the forces that brought Trump to power in 2016,” says US diplomat Alexander Vershbow, former No. 2 of the Atlantic Alliance.
Following his arrival in Cornwall, southwest England on Wednesday night, Biden will attend the G7 summit (Germany, Canada, the United States, France, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom) after a face-to-face meeting with the first British minister, Boris Johnson.
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On Sunday, along with First Lady Jill Biden, he will visit Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle. With the exception of Lyndon B. Johnson, the monarch will have met with every American president in her 69-year reign.
He will then fly on Air Force One to Brussels (NATO leaders summit and EU-US summit), before ending his eight-day trip in Geneva with an expected summit with Putin.
Ukraine, Belarus, the fate of the jailed Russian opponent Alexei Navalni, cyberattacks: debates with the Russian leader are expected to be tough and difficult. The White House, which alternates conciliatory messages and warnings, insists that its expectations are modest.
The sole objective is to make relations between the two countries more “stable and predictable.”
The memory of Helsinki
The US presidency gave very few details about the development of this meeting, suggesting only that a joint press conference of the two leaders was not on the agenda.
The one that took place between Trump and Putin in Helsinki in July 2018 remains on everyone’s mind in Washington.
That day, in a strange press conference that sparked protests even on his Republican side, the president seemed to value Putin’s words more than the unanimous conclusions of US intelligence agencies on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. .
Biden’s team assures that the tone this time will be very different. “We do not see a meeting with the Russian president as a reward for him,” said Jake Sullivan, national security adviser.
The main reason for the summit? “To be able to look President Putin in the eye and tell him: here are the American expectations,” he added.
“NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg insisted that dialogue with Russia is not a sign of weakness.
And in a carefully choreographed sequence, two days before leaving Washington, Joe Biden invited his Ukrainian counterpart Volodimir Zelenski to visit him at the White House this summer.
For the city of Geneva, the meeting will have a special flavor: in 1985, it hosted a summit between US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.