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GENEVA – President Biden had three major missions on his first trip abroad since taking office: convincing the allies that America is back, forever; gather them in common cause against the growing threat from China; and set some red lines for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, whom he called his “worthy opponent”.
He has largely done the first, although many European leaders are still wondering whether his presidency is perhaps still just an interlude between the Trump era and the election of another America First leader who has no interest in the 72-year-old Atlantic Alliance.
In the case of the second, he made provisions at least in parts of Europe, where there was enormous reluctance to regard China first as a threat – economically, technologically and militarily – and secondly as an economic partner.
Mr Biden was cautiously optimistic about finding ways to reach a polite settlement with Mr Putin. But it’s far from clear that any of the humble initiatives the two men outlined on Wednesday after a stiff, three-hour summit on the shores of Lake Geneva will fundamentally change a bad dynamic.
Mr Biden, one of his senior officials said after the meeting, is “consistently optimistic” that despite a long history of efforts to undermine the Western alliance, Mr Putin could see benefits in changing course.
“Maybe he’s the only one,” said the adjutant.
This was Mr. Biden’s European comeback tour, and he started in England, on the rocky coast of Cornwall, playing all the old crowd favorites – friendship, alliances, counseling, comity and multilateralism. At each stop he opened with the same three words: “America is back.”
He quoted poets, mostly Irish poets. All of this was warmly welcomed by European leaders who had been hit and injured by President Donald J. Trump’s attacks on them as weak, divided and self-serving free riders.
What Mr Biden didn’t say was almost as important as what he said. He didn’t ask why he should commit to defending countries that run trade surpluses with the United States, a common topic for Mr Trump. Instead, he spoke of the economic benefits of developing new forms of clean energy or of joint projects in semiconductor manufacturing.
However, when French President Emmanuel Macron said while sitting with Mr Biden, “It’s great to have the US President in the club,” it was a line that would clearly play differently in different parts of the divided United States. Among the 74 million who voted for Mr. Trump last year, the “club” is the problem, a place where American interests are suppressed.
But Mr Biden never directly addressed – at least in his public statements – the fundamental source of the post-Trump traumatic stress syndrome: doubts about the future of American democracy. Obviously, he has no predictions, let alone guarantees, of what will happen when his term expires in January 2025. So he didn’t try.
“Don’t underestimate the Trump years as a shock to the EU,” said Rosa Balfour, director of Carnegie Europe, a Brussels think tank. “There is a shadow of his return and the EU will be left in the rain again. Therefore, the EU is more cautious when it accepts US demands. “
But Mr Biden has argued to Europeans that the best insurance against another Trump-like president is to work with him to show democracies work and respond to China’s challenge.
Competition with China was at the center of an agreement to settle the decade-long dispute between Boeing and Airbus, a source of tariffs and allegations that dates back to 2004.
What was eventually resolved – and removed the imposition of US $ 11.5 billion in tariffs – was a shared determination to avoid reliance on a Chinese supply chain for aircraft construction and to slow China’s entry into the commercial aircraft business. The subtext should begin by including Europe in the “decoupling” from China’s economic influence.
While the news that America is back is noticeably relieved, Thomas Bagger, a German diplomat and advisor to the country’s president, said, “We have also noticed that the focus of US politics is changing and the central importance of China’s rise for US interests will have profound consequences for Europe and every new German government. “
Both Mr Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who has always been the strongest voice in favor of treating China primarily as a partner and secondarily as a competitor – expressed concern that a balance might be struck between China that one important trading partner is the one for the solution of the climate crisis and not a military power in Europe.
“If you look at the cyber threats and the hybrid threats, if you look at the cooperation between Russia and China, you can’t just ignore China,” Merkel said. But she also said: “You can’t overestimate it either – we have to find the right balance.”
Another subtext of the trip was the discomfort of some European heads of state and government at the repeated declarations by Mr Biden that the struggle of the age is “democracy versus autocracy”. It is not that they disagree, said several on the sidelines of the meetings, but rather that Mr Biden’s words could harden the division and usher in a new Cold War.
They say they understand Mr. Biden’s concerns that China’s technology strategy is to build a system of cellular networks, submarine cables, and space resources that will enable it to disrupt communications or covertly monitor them.
And they don’t argue with the White House’s efforts to stop American investments in Chinese companies that sell facial recognition software and social assessment algorithms that Beijing uses to suppress dissent and imprison its Muslim minority. But so far they have not teamed up with Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken when he calls Beijing’s actions against the Uighur population and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities genocide.
So Mr Biden toned down his talk about autocracy vs. democracy for this trip. And that worked.
“Biden got words from the Europeans, but no action,” said James M. Lindsay, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Settling some trade issues is a very good place to start. But it’s not about how to start, it’s about how to stop, how to translate the feelings in the communiqués into a common policy, and that will be very difficult. “
Mr Biden carefully choreographed the trip to demonstrate the repairs to the Alliance before meeting with Mr Putin. Mr Biden made it clear that he wanted to present a unified front to the Russian leader to show that the United States and NATO allies were one in the post-Trump era.
This allowed Mr Biden to adopt a softer tone when he came to Geneva for the summit, where he tried to portray Mr Putin as an isolated leader who has to worry about his country’s future. When Mr. Biden said, “I don’t think he’s looking for a Cold War with the United States,” in response to a reporter’s question, it was a signal that Mr. Biden believes he has an influence over the rest the world has underestimated.
Putin’s economy is “struggling,” he said, and he faces a long border with China at a time when Beijing is “hell-bent” on domination.
“I think he’s still worried about being ‘circled’,” said Mr Biden. “He’s still worried that we might actually want to turn him off.” But, he added, he doesn’t believe these security fears are “the driving force behind the kind of relationship he seeks with the United States”.
As a first test of Putin’s willingness to deal seriously with him, he set up a review of improving “strategic stability” which he described as a control of the introduction of “new and dangerous and sophisticated weapons now on the market” Shorten response times, which increase the likelihood of accidental war. “
It is an area that has been neglected, and if Mr Biden is successful, he can save hundreds of billions of dollars that would otherwise be spent on hypersonic and space weapons and the development of new nuclear delivery systems.
But none of this is likely to put Mr Putin off in the world of cyber weapons, which are dirt cheap and give him an instrument of power every day. Mr Biden warned during his press conference that “we have considerable cyber capabilities” and said that while Mr Putin “does not know exactly what it is”, if the Russians “violate these basic norms,” we will respond with cyber . ”
The US has had these capabilities for years but has hesitated to use them for fear that a cyber conflict with Russia could escalate into something much larger.
But Mr Biden thinks Mr Putin is too invested in self-preservation to let it get that far. In the end, just before boarding Air Force One for the flight home, he said, “You have to find out what the other’s self-interest is. Your self-interest. I do not trust anybody.”
David E. singer reports from Geneva and Steven Erlanger from Brussels.