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Biden says America is back. Can it bring the West with it?

LONDON — The first foreign trip of Joe Biden’s presidency will be far more than a few smiling photo ops and well-manicured communiqués.

Many see his attendance at the Group of Seven summit and then the NATO summit over the next week as a one-shot chance: not just to help fix relations with Washington’s bruised allies, but also to reassert the faltering influence of the U.S. and the West itself.

The visit will also be shadowed by questions about whether Biden, for all his trans-Atlantic experience, is actually more focused on the rising competitor in Beijing than in old Cold War allies across the pond.

“After four tumultuous years of Trump, the Europeans have now got the U.S. leadership they always dreamed of,” said Fabrice Pothier, NATO’s former head of policy planning. “Except now the story has moved on.”

From left, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a work session during the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, in August 2019.Ian Langsdon / Pool via Reuters file

From Friday to Sunday, Biden and his team will attend the G-7 summit of the leading industrial nations, an international spectacle crammed into the small Cornish seaside resort of Carbis Bay, in the southwest corner of England.

On Monday, he will travel to Brussels for a brief NATO summit before he flies to Geneva for a face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.

The meeting with Putin is likely to involve strong words. But the G-7 is where decisions that will shape U.S. international relations and the world will or won’t be made.


The G-7 is a club of industrialized postwar allies — the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Germany, France, Italy and Japan — that first met in 1975. Russia joined in 1997, making it the G-8, before it was kicked out in 2014 for invading Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

This year there are four guest countries: India, Australia, South Korea and South Africa.

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On the agenda are the global coronavirus response, climate change, trade and technology. But Biden has made it clear that he sees the trip more broadly as an opportunity to rally allies behind the cause of liberal democracy in what he considers to be a struggle against the authoritarianism of Chinese President Xi Jinping, a characterization Beijing rejects.

The White House says the most immediate way to do that is through the global coronavirus response — to provide “a high-standard, climate-friendly, transparent and rules-based alternative to what China is offering,” as national security adviser Jake Sullivan put it in a briefing Monday.

President Joe Biden disembarks from Air Force One after landing at Joint Base Andrews, Md., last month.Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters file

The past year has hardly been an ad for the West, as the U.S. and others failed to stop mass Covid-19 deaths and then distributed vaccines only domestically before agreeing to donate them to poorer countries.

Meanwhile, China has controlled the virus within its borders, its economy is booming this year, and it has sought to improve its image abroad by donating or selling tens of millions of vaccine doses.

If this is, indeed, an inflection point for the West, it comes soon after many experts wondered whether the G-7 had become obsolete. Then-President Donald Trump wasn’t alone last year when he called it “a very outdated group of countries”; critics have said it is a Cold War relic ill-suited to dealing with the complex problems of the modern world.

“The world is waiting to see whether the G-7 can lead the world out of this crisis in a way that’s productive,” said Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the U.S. and the Americas program at Chatham House, a London think tank.

“Will the West stand up and lead and, quite frankly, get shots in the arms…

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