Joe Biden’s mission at the G7 summit: to recruit allies for the next cold war
By Rafael Behr* – The Guardian
The US risks being
superseded by China as the prime global power within decades. For Washington,
the idea is appalling
Joe Biden crosses
the Atlantic this week on a tide of goodwill. After four years of Donald
Trump, European leaders are grateful for the mere fact of a US president who
believes in democracy and understands diplomacy.
Trump had no concept of historical alliance, strategic
partnership or mutual interest. He saw multilateral institutions as
conspiracies against US power, which he could not distinguish from his own ego.
He heard European talk of a rules-based international order as the contemptible
bleating of weakling nations.
Biden’s stated purpose is bolstering that order. In an
article published in
the Washington Post on the eve of his trip, the president talks about
“renewed” and “unwavering” commitment to a transatlantic relationship based on
“shared democratic values”.
The itinerary starts in Cornwall with a gathering of G7 leaders. Then comes Brussels
for a Nato summit, plus meetings with presidents of the European Council and
Commission. Biden intends to orchestrate a surge of western solidarity as mood
music ahead of a final stop in Geneva, where he sits down with Vladimir Putin.
On that front, a stable chilling of relations will count as progress after the
downright weirdness of Trump’s willing bamboozlement by the Kremlin strongman.
A re-enactment of cold war choreography would suit Putin by
flattering his pretence that Russia is still a superpower. In reality,
Washington sees Moscow as a declining force that compensates for its shrunken
influence by lashing out where it can, causing mischief and sowing discord.
Putin is seen as an irritant, not a rival.
That is in marked contrast to the view of China – an actual superpower
and the eastern pole that Biden has in mind when he talks about reviving an alliance
of western democracies. In that respect, the repudiation of Trumpian
wrecking-ball rhetoric can be misleading. It sounds to European ears as if the
new White House administration is hoping to set the clock back to a calmer,
less combative epoch. In reality, Biden is coming to tell Europe to get its act
together in the coming race for global supremacy with Beijing.
By Europe, in this context, the president also means
Britain. Boris Johnson might imagine himself a world leader of continental
stature, but a US president is not required to indulge that fantasy.
Biden takes a dim view of Brexit, seeing it as a pointless
sabotage of European unity. The White House preferred Britain as a pro-US voice
wielding influence inside the EU. Since that function is lost, Brexit’s only
utility is in making it easier for the UK to embrace economic and strategic
vassalage to the US. That means toeing a hawkish line on China.
European nations should not really have to pause for long if
the choice is alignment with Washington or Beijing. It is easy to muster
resentment of US global swagger and point out hypocrisies in its claim to be a
beacon of political freedom. But the alternative is an expansionist
totalitarian state that militates against democracy and is currently engaged
in a genocide against the Uyghurs.
If China were a poorer country, Biden’s mission would be
easier. But the economic gap between the established superpower and the
challenger is closing. Per capita, Americans are still
much better off, but China could overtake the US in gross domestic product by
the end of this decade. With that heft comes world-leading technological
capability with crossover military application that keeps the Pentagon up at
During the cold war, the Kremlin maintained a credible
military rivalry with the west but was not an economic competitor for long. The
collapse of the Soviet model seemed to prove that political freedom and
prosperity came as a package. There could be no enterprise without markets, no
markets without fair rules, and no enforceable rules without democracy. The
Chinese Communist party’s hybrid model of authoritarian capitalism appears to
have disproved that theory.
When the G7 was conceived in the 1970s, its combined
membership – the US, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan –
comfortably represented a commanding share of global wealth. There was a
natural association of liberal democratic institutions and economic success.
Today, those seven nations’ combined GDP is down to 40% of the world total.
Chinese money gives Europe commercial incentives that
compete with its high-minded rhetoric on democratic values. China is Germany’s
biggest export market. Smaller EU members have welcomed Chinese investment in
infrastructure and businesses, although qualms are steadily growing about
built-in political strings and security trapdoors. A huge Brussels-Beijing
trade deal, signed last year (much to Washington’s dismay), is currently
frozen as part of a tit-for-tat dispute over European criticism of Chinese
human rights abuses.
But EU governments simply don’t feel US levels of urgency to
contain China. Geography is a factor – the US has a Pacific coast and strategic
to Taiwan, where Britain and France, for all their naval bravado, are
little more than spectators. There is a conceptual difference too. As one
diplomat puts it, Europe doesn’t like what China does, but the US doesn’t like
what China is. The idea of the US being superseded as the paramount global
power within the current century is existentially appalling for Washington.
The Trump phenomenon compounds that anxiety for the current
White House administration. It was a near-death experience for America’s
constitutional order; an intimation of mortality for a political and economic
model that looked insuperable at the dawn of the 21st century. The US president
urges fellow western leaders to show strength in solidarity because the
prospect of division, decline and the discrediting of democracy is more real
than at any time in his five-decade Washington career.
During that time, Biden has succeeded by patience, diplomacy
and soft-spoken understatement. That style earns him a grateful audience in
Europe, but the president’s manners should not be mistaken for mildness of
purpose; the modest style is deployed in service of a tough message. He is not
flying across the Atlantic to wallow in nostalgia for the alliances that won
the first cold war. He is drumming up recruits for the second one. Tue 8 Jun 2021
*Rafael Behr is a
Guardian columnist and leader writer, covering UK and international politics.
He was formerly a correspondent in the Baltic region and Russia