US president Joe Biden will make his first overseas trip as US president this week, determined to convince allies and adversaries “America is back” after four years under former president Donald Trump.
Having laid out a vision of the 21st century as a struggle between democracy and autocracy, Mr Biden’s one-on-one meetings will include the prime ministers of Britain and Belgium and strongmen from Russia and Turkey.
The 78-year-old, whose foreign policy experience runs deeper than any US president before him, steps into an arena where China is on the rise and where Mr Trump forced once unthinkable questions about whether Washington can be trusted.
“What Biden and many of the other members of his team will have been hearing from those countries who they are trying to persuade to do this or that is, ‘How can we take America’s word for it?’” said Sir Peter Westmacott, a former British ambassador to the US.
“Look what happened to the Iran nuclear deal: it got torn up by the next president.
“What happens if there’s another Trump or a Trump clone in the White House in four years’ time? What’s the point of reaching an agreement with you guys at this stage when it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on?
“ So I think they are conscious that harm has been done to America’s reputation as a reliable ally.”
After four and a half months of a hectic domestic agenda, Mr Biden is out to make up for lost time on the international front.
Mr Biden will meet British prime minister Boris Johnson on June 10th to “affirm the enduring strength of the special relationship” between the US and UK, the White House said.
It will be the leaders’ first meeting in person and has potential for awkwardness. In 2019 Mr Biden called Mr Johnson a “physical and emotional clone” of Trump.
Westmacott, author of the book They Call it Diplomacy, observed that Mr Biden “did not think Brexit was a good idea, did not appreciate some of the gratuitous insult language from Boris in the past about Democratic colleagues and did not appreciate much the pretty clear message they gave that they’d be very happy in No 10 with four more years of Trump. So there’s that to be parked and managed.”
The agenda is likely to include the coronavirus pandemic, a global corporation tax initiative, the challenge of China, the Iran deal and the UN climate conference in Glasgow in November.
Famously proud of his Irish ancestry, Mr Biden has warned that any UK-US trade deal is “contingent” on respect for the Good Friday Agreement.
Mr Westmacott added: “I suspect there will be, from Biden’s point of view, not just ‘How’s Brexit going?’ but also marking the prime minister’s card on the Northern Ireland dimension. It really does matter to Biden, who’s got strong Irish Catholic credentials. He’ll want some reassurance that the prime minister does get the point.”
“There’s no question that trust in the United States was badly impacted by the Trump administration in the way he handled our alliances.”
Mr Biden must heal the damage done, Mr Panetta acknowledged. “He can, but he’s probably dealing with allies that are trying to figure out whether this is just another passing phase in the United States’s foreign policy or something more permanent.”
World leaders spent four years second-guessing Trump’s practical application of the “madman theory” of diplomacy, some massaging his ego, others keeping him at arm’s length. All may now breathe a sigh of relief.
John Bolton, a former national security adviser to Mr Trump, said: “The takeaway for the other members of the G7 and the world at large is not that America was ever away; it’s that Donald Trump is a complete anomaly in American history and what Biden represents is a return to normalcy with a centre-left Democratic president.
“It’s not a normalcy that I agree with but a normalcy comparable on his side to, say, George W Bush on the Republican side. Trump has no ideology. He represents no coherent thinking. There is no Trumpism. He is an aberration. So in that sense, that should be comforting to the other G7.”
On June 13th, Mr Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, will meet the Queen at Windsor Castle, her first in-person encounter with a foreign leader in more than a year.
It will mean the 95-year-old monarch has met all but one of the 15 presidents during her reign - Lyndon B Johnson being the exception.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, asked on Thursday: “Who among us wouldn’t want to meet the Queen?”
He also meets Recep Tayyip Erdogan, weeks after Mr Biden’s recognition of the 1915 Armenian genocide opened what the Turkish president called a “deep wound” in already strained relations.
Brussels hosts Biden for an EU-US summit on June 15th, an opportunity to celebrate America’s return to the Paris climate agreement and shape a common approach to China. The president will also meet King Philippe of Belgium and the prime minister, Alexander De Croo.
Finally, Mr Biden will head to Geneva for a potentially chilly encounter with Vladimir Putin on June 16th.
Mr Biden said in February he had warned the Russian leader that “the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions - interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens - are over”. In March, Mr Biden assented to a description of Mr Putin as a “killer”. - Guardian