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Biden Tries To Show — Not Just Tell — The World It Can Trust The U.S. Again

President Biden speaks to world leaders during a virtual climate summit on Friday from the East Room of the White House. The event was part of an effort to restore U.S. leadership on environmental issues after the Trump administration pulled back.
Evan Vucci
President Biden speaks to world leaders during a virtual climate summit on Friday from the East Room of the White House. The event was part of an effort to restore U.S. leadership on environmental issues after the Trump administration pulled back.

For all of the statecraft that went into it, President Biden's virtual climate summit this week ultimately boiled down to one thing: the diplomatic version of a grand romantic gesture.

Biden needed to prove that the United States was committed to its relationship with the global coalition fighting climate change. To show that he knew the country had strayed before, but this time, other nations could trust that the U.S. was really serious about making it work.

So Biden invited 40 other world leaders to a giant Zoom session of sorts, and made a big, unprecedented promise: the U.S. would halve its greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by the end of the decade.

Biden's climate summit capped a key theme of his first 100 days in the White House: reassuring allies they could once again count on the U.S. as a reliable, trustworthy and stable partner.

"We had a big step to get up. We had to restore America's credibility. We had to prove that we were serious," Biden's international climate envoy, former Secretary of State John Kerry, told reporters after the summit's first day.

It's not just climate.

Four years of President Trump made other countries constantly wonder whether the U.S. would suddenly shift decades-old policies via a tweet, or whether personal grievances would derail long-standing alliances. Trump's efforts to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal and the World Health Organization — as well as his skepticism about whether the U.S. would, or should, come to the defense of NATO allies — extracted a cost on the country's global reputation.

"When the United States waffles and has wide pendulum swings of cooperation and distancing, countries begin to wonder how durable any of that was in the first place. And I think it raises big questions about how we return to a place of partnership that is durable," said Jenna Ben-Yehuda, a former State Department official and the president and CEO of the Truman National Security Project. "I think there's a question of, 'are we really friends?' There's this nature of, 'how important is this relationship, and on what does it really depend? Does it take a treaty in order to get the United States to show up? Can we count on you?' At the end of the day, countries want to know, are you going to show up for me in my moment of need?"

A pivot from the Trump era

Undoing Trump's approach to foreign policy — both the America First thinking and the seat-of-the-pants decision making — was a key theme of Biden's run for president.

"I'm sending a clear message to the world: America is back," Biden declared in February, when he addressed European allies for the first time at the Virtual Munich Security Council.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a top voice on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a close Biden ally, said early steps like returning the U.S. to the Paris agreement and rejoining the WHO, went a long way. But so did a lot of behind-the-scenes conversations.

"In a whole series of calls that he made to heads of state of long and trusted allies, President Biden made the sorts of comments and statements that were deeply reassuring to them," said Coons.

The types of reassurances Biden had to make, both publicly and privately, were things other countries had long taken for granted — like whether the U.S. was committed to NATO's mutual defense agreement. "It's a guarantee. An attack on one is an attack on all. That is our unshakable vow," Biden emphasized at the Munich conference.

Biden has also taken pains to signal to allies that his administration is being deliberative, and not setting policies via tweet. Big announcements aren't a surprise.

When Biden recently imposed new sanctions on Russia, for example, he called President Vladimir Putin first, to tell him they were coming, and then told the press he had given Putin that heads up.

Ben-Yehuda said these kinds of moves go a long way with other countries, but at a certain point, "we need more than a participation trophy."

She noted that Biden keeps declaring that the U.S. is "back." The question is, she said, "back to do what?"

A foreign policy for the middle class

About 100 days in, several key themes have emerged in how Biden deals with the rest of the world. The most notable: a goal of centering most foreign policy decisions around how they affect America's middle class.

Daleep Singh, a deputy national security adviser and deputy director of Biden's National Economic Council, explained that means "boosting job creation and also wage growth" for families and workers. "And in doing so, [we] can reduce long-standing racial and social disparities."

The approach is also a way to "strengthen American competitiveness," said Singh. Which means in some cases, keeping some Trump policies in place — like tariffs and a wary view of China.

The administration points to its response to semiconductor shortages that have idled several auto plants in the Midwest as a key example of this mindset. The White House is backing several bills to fund and incentivize more domestic semiconductor manufacturing, while conducting internal reviews and working with companies from several industries to strengthen an existing supply chain that relies heavily on Taiwan.

The administration's middle class-focused mindset comes primarily from National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who witnessed Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential defeat firsthand as a top Clinton advisor and vowed to better center the Democratic party around middle-class needs.

Given those political calculations, the administration sees communicating its policy choices so that middle-class voters hear about them and understand them as just as important as the policies themselves.

Coons said Biden's background helps there.

"He doesn't assume that middle Americans support our engagement in the world," said Coons. "He knows he has to persuade and engage middle America in supporting the investments we're making at home and around the world."

Confronting authoritarianism

Biden has also emphasized a more lofty and big-picture goal: confronting a global rise of authoritarianism.

"We must demonstrate that democracy still can deliver for people in this changed world. That, in my view, is our galvanizing mission," Biden told the Munich conference.

The administration is alarmed by China's increased clout around the world, as well as the staying power demonstrated by far-right parties in Europe and elsewhere.

At the same time, Biden's team also understands that other countries have deep concerns about the health of democracy within the U.S. — particularly after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken conceded as much during a February interview with NPR. "People have been pretty gentle about it," he said. "But certainly there's the occasional dig from someone on the other end of the line whom we are raising concerns with about something going on in their country."

National Economic Council Director Brian Deese was even more blunt inan interview with Ezra Klein of The New York Times, arguing Biden's efforts to restore allies' faith in the U.S. relies, in large part, on whether the White House can actually pass its economic agenda.

"Among our allies and among our global counterparts, there is a big question about can the United States deliver for its own citizens? Can the United States competently govern?" Deese said.

One uncertainty that hung over Biden's climate summit: whether any major legislation to regulate greenhouse gas emissions could pass a closely-divided Congress.

Looking forward to the next hundred days and beyond, Ben-Yehuda pointed to climate diplomacy as a key test for whether the U.S. can fully regain its previous international clout.

She also said it's in Biden's interest to make sure other countries have the resources to vaccinate their populations. If not, Ben-Yehuda said, "It weakens their economies. It stresses their national limits of infrastructure. And it makes it much more likely that we have a series of weak and failing states that the U.S. will have to support in far more costly and extensive ways in the future."

Biden has been slow to help vaccinate the rest of the world, instead focusing on getting shots in American arms.

It may be the biggest conflict between Biden's two top foreign policy goals: restoring the country's global reputation, while also making sure Americans think he's acting on the international stage with their best interests in mind.

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Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.