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Glad-handing Biden begins foreign diplomacy with the telephone


President Joe Biden had been inside the White House for only two hours on Wednesday before finding an opportunity to recall one of his many intimate meals with a foreign leader who, now they are both presidents, can officially be called a counterpart.

“When I was with Xi Jinping — and I was on the Tibetan plateau with him — and he asked me in a private dinner, he and I, and we each had an interpreter, he said, ‘Can you define America for me?’ ” Biden recounted during a swearing-in ceremony for new staffers. He said he responded simply: “Possibilities.”

The anecdote, harkening to his 2011 supper inside a Chengdu hotel restaurant, was designed to offer Biden’s view of the American dream as he assumed the presidency. But it also acted as an intentional reminder that he enters the job with a long history of cultivating international actors who he will now face as an equal — and, in some cases, an adversary.

He launches his global efforts Friday afternoon with a call to Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a reliably traditional first diplomatic outing that nonetheless comes laden with some tension: Biden has revoked a permit for the $9 billion Keystone XL pipeline, which would funnel oil from Alberta across the border to the United States.

Trudeau, who in the Donald Trump era staked out a world position as a champion of combating climate change, nevertheless said he was “disappointed” in the decision.

It was highly unlikely the matter would cause his relationship with Biden to sour too much; the same issue came between Trudeau and President Barack Obama and they seemed to get on marvelously. Trudeau will find in Biden a more like-minded partner on any manner of topics, including the environment. And he’ll find Biden a more stable presence in Washington than his predecessor, who stalked away early from a G7 summit Trudeau hosted in the northern woods of Quebec declaring him “very dishonest and weak.”

Biden will also speak Friday to Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, another traditional first conversation for a new US leader.

Long a proponent of developing personal relationships with his interlocutors — be it Republicans, business leaders or foreign heads of state — Biden enters office already knowing many of the figures he will be dealing with at global summits, in bilateral meetings and over the telephone. His stated goal is to reestablish the United States as a global arbiter of the international order and, as he said during his inaugural speech Wednesday, “repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.”

Stark contrast

That is starkly different from how Trump began his career in foreign diplomacy. As President-elect in 2016, he answered whichever leader happened to have found his cell phone number rather than arranging calls through the State Department. That led to embarrassing moments for leaders such as then-British Prime Minister Theresa May, whose ambassador in Washington scrambled to reach someone close enough to Trump who could get him on the phone with America’s top ally.

Once in office, the foreign leader calls at first seemed more organized. There were lists drawn up, times arranged and briefing cards prepared. But Trump, who mostly ignored the talking points offered by national security aides, often veered off-script and talked about what he wanted.

In one early call, he grew irate about a refugee agreement and essentially hung up on Australia’s Prime Minister. In another, he pleaded with Mexico’s President to drop his opposition to a border wall. Speaking with strongmen such as Russian’s Vladimir Putin or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he often appeared to aides outplayed, leading some US officials to privately worry the calls amounted to a national security threat.

And those were the phone calls that other officials knew about. Trump readily handed his cell phone number to his counterparts at summits. And after his phone call with Ukraine’s President triggered his first impeachment, the circle of people who could listen in was dramatically reduced.

Personal relationships

Biden is unlikely to adopt a similar approach, though one commonality may be his devotion to personal relationships over stacks of briefing books and talking points.

“I’ve met every major world leader in the last 35 years — not because I’m important, but because of the nature of my job,” he said on the campaign trail last year.

“I always would kid (Obama) — I’d say all politics is personal, particularly international relations,” Biden added. “You’ve got to know the other man or woman’s soul, and who they are, and make sure they know you.”

Many of them already do. Biden has met Putin on multiple occasions, including when the Russian leader was showing off his office in Moscow and Biden told him, inches from his face, that he didn’t believe he had a soul.

He will be the fourth US president to forge a relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who he knows from his regular attendance at the Munich Security Conference. He will eventually need to form a relationship with whoever replaces Merkel after she steps down this year.

Biden did not deal closely with French President Emmanuel Macron, who was first elected in 2017, during his time as vice president.

But his relationship with Xi has became the stuff of near-legend. The two traveled more than 10,000 miles together and sat for hours of private dinners in China and the United States when they were each other’s counterparts and Biden was dispatched to take the temperature of China’s heir apparent.

More complicated may be the leaders who cultivated Trump for their own political ends, such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Already, Johnson has chosen not to make an issue of Biden’s decision to move a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office — a distant cry from his reaction when Obama did the same thing and he blamed the “part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire.”

“Obviously it’s the job of all UK Prime Ministers to have a very close relationship with the President, a close working relationship with the President, and a good working relationship with the President of the United States,” Johnson said this week. “And actually, when you look at the issues that unite me and Joe Biden, the UK and the United States right now, there is a fantastic joint common agenda.”

Foreign leaders

Administration officials said they do not expect foreign leaders to start visiting the White House in the near term. Under Trump, foreign leader visits also fell off during the pandemic, though some — including Poland’s hard-right leader and Israel’s Netanyahu — did make the trek.

Even the traditional St. Patrick’s Day visit by the Irish leader in March seems in question; Taoiseach Micheál Martin said on CNN this week there hasn’t been a decision on whether to proceed amid the pandemic.

“I did invite President Biden to Ireland,” Martin told Christiane Amanpour. “He jokingly said to me: ‘Try and keep me out.’ “

In reality, Biden officials do not expect the President to travel abroad while the pandemic continues to rage, even though he would like to begin flying overseas.

“Despite his desire — my desire, if that matters — to do a foreign trip, I think it will be a bit of time,” press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday. “I don’t have an update when that will take place at this point.”

This year’s roster of summits could take Biden first to the United Kingdom, where Johnson is hosting the G7 at a seaside resort in Cornwall in June. In the fall, the G20 is scheduled for Rome. And Johnson is again hosting leaders in Glasgow for a climate conference in November.

Biden himself has pledged to convene a Summit for Democracy during his first year in office, though details — including its guest list, location and whether it will be assembled in person — haven’t been revealed.

That leaves, for now, the telephone as Biden’s principal tool for diplomacy, starting at 5 p.m. ET on Friday with Trudeau and later with López Obrador. Psaki said Biden would speak with leaders from Europe next week.

Though phone calls are devoid of the chemistry found in the one-on-one dinners Biden has cherished, he is not starting from scratch.

One of his final trips as vice president was to a state dinner Trudeau held in his honor during the concluding days of the Obama administration. Speaking on that snowy Ottawa evening in a hall that included former prime ministers and Canadian politicians, Biden hewed toward his personal connections to the country and its leaders.

He mentioned that his first wife, Neilia, had family connections to Toronto. He recounted how his two sons had wanted to be “Mounties” when they grew up. And he cited a phone call he had received from Trudeau’s father, Pierre, who was then serving as Prime Minister himself, in 1972 after his wife and daughter died in a Christmastime car accident.

“I lost my part of my family,” Biden said. “And your dad not only was decent and honorable, but he reached out. He reached out and commiserated with me about the loss of my wife and daughter.”

As he concluded, he made this appeal to Trudeau, who at that point seemed to be replacing Obama as the world’s preeminent liberal: “Vive le Canada. Because we need you very, very badly.”

Article Topic Follows: Politics

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