President Biden embarked on his first foreign trip Wednesday hoping to revamp transatlantic ties, forge a vaccine strategy for the COVID-19 fight and unite the world’s most economically advanced democracies to fight Russian and Chinese geopolitical provocations and a rising menace in cyberspace.
Administration officials will push the unity theme repeatedly for nearly a week of high-level summitry, starting with the three-day G-7 summit in England, followed by a gathering of NATO allies and then a one-day meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin Wednesday in Switzerland.
The G-7 summit will be the first since 2019 between the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan. Mr. Biden has made no secret of his desire to seize on it to send a clear message of togetherness and revive a forum that suffered badly in influence under former President Trump.
A central goal of the G-7 and of the overall trip will be “strengthening the alliance” among powerful democracies and “making it clear to Putin and China that Europe and the United States are tight,” the president said upon departing Washington on Wednesday.
“This is my first overseas trip as president of the United States. I’m heading to the G-7, then to the NATO ministerial and then to meet with Mr. Putin to let him know what I want him to know,” Mr. Biden told U.S. Air Force personnel upon landing in the U.K. “At every point along the way we’re going to make it clear that the United States is back and the democracies of the world are standing together to tackle the toughest challenges and the issues that matter most to our future.”
Mr. Biden has said he wants to restore alliances and multilateralism in a sharp break from his predecessor. Mr. Trump preferred bilateral dealmaking, questioned the value of the European Union and NATO, sparked trade wars and often criticized NATO partners as free riders who didn’t pay enough in defense costs relative to the U.S.
Transatlantic experts say this weekend’s G-7 has the potential to be highly consequential. The group, which was formerly called the G-8, has held head-of-state gatherings only a handful of times since 2014, when Russia was purged from the group after annexing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.
The group, which was formed in the 1970s to give industrial democracies a stabilizing influence over the global economy amid oil and energy crises at the time, has more recently been held up as a vehicle for free-market unity in the face of rising Chinese economic power.
“This could be the most consequential G-7 summit since the aftermath of September 11th,” Matthew P. Goodman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in reference to the manner in which the group, which had Russia as a member at the time, came together behind the George W. Bush administration’s global war on terror.
The public agenda of this weekend’s G-7 focuses increasing global COVID-19 vaccine production and distribution, reforming tax policy relating to multinational corporations, combating climate change and spurring investment in tech-based industrial growth.
However, Mr. Goodman told a conference call this week that he believes there will also “be lots of private conversations and those will be dominated by China and Russia.”
G-7 leaders are hoping to develop global investment subsidies and vehicles capable of countering the billions of dollars China is pumping into its Belt and Road Initiative to finance infrastructure projects in countries across Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America.
In private, G-7 members are likely to talk about things “like subsidies and response to the Belt and Road Initiative, corruption [and] other values-related issues,” said Mr. Goodman, who added that there are also likely “to be pretty pointed discussions about shared concerns about maritime security, [and] about Taiwan.”
China has ramped up its military aggression in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait in recent years, increasingly menacing the tiny island democracy that is aligned with the United States and others in the G-7.
Biden administration officials have suggested talks during the trip will focus just as heavily on Russia, with Mr. Biden slated to pursue an “action plan” at the G-7 to deal with increasing ransomware cyberattacks on U.S. government agencies and companies.
U.S. intelligence sources say such attacks have been supported by the Kremlin, with the issue getting fresh attention after criminal organizations tied to Russia struck the Colonial Pipeline, a critical fuel artery, and JBS Foods, a major meat-processing company.
Hackers have also recently hit transportation systems in the Northeast and the Irish health service. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said ahead of Mr. Biden‘s departure for Europe that Western allies must develop norms for repelling hacks and responding to countries that harbor rogue actors.
In comments Monday, Mr. Sullivan said cryptocurrency “lies at the core” of how ransomware transactions play out, so that will be a core part of the talks at the G-7. “We will also speak in the NATO context about cyber threats, particularly as they relate to critical infrastructure, of being a different order of magnitude,” the national security advisor said of a meeting slated to occur with treaty partners in Brussels on June 14.
“It’s got to become a priority,” Mr. Sullivan said. “We will treat it as such in the G-7, we will treat it as such in every stop of the way on this trip.”
The White House has said Mr. Biden will raise the issue when he sits down with Mr. Putin on June 16 in Switzerland.
That meeting will come in the wake of a faced-paced G-7 agenda, which is also slated to feature discussions among leaders on the sensitive issue of a coordinated plan to tax multinational corporations at a minimum rate of least 15%, as well as ways to spur vaccination for COVID-19 in developing countries.
Mr. Biden told reporters upon departure on Wednesday that he plans during the coming days to announce a vaccine strategy for the world. The president has backed a plan to ease vaccine patent protections to speed the production of vaccines, but many Europeans are cool to the idea and have offered a counterproposal before the World Trade Organization that would safeguard drugmakers’ intellectual property.
White House officials were reluctant to get ahead of the president, but a source familiar with the plan said the administration will buy 500 million doses to donate to the rest of the world — 200 million doses will be donated this year and 300 million in the first half of 2022.
“By announcing it ahead of the G-7 summit, it hopefully raises the bar for other G-7 members and [European Union] to also step up,” said Krishna Udayakumar, the founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.
He said fellow experts project that the G-7 nations and E.U. will have enough supply to donate at least 1 billion doses by the end of this year, potentially up to 2 billion, while still meeting domestic needs.
“Hopefully this 500 million is the ‘ante’ from which the pot will grow substantially,” Dr. Udayakumar told The Washington Times.
The president also has backed a plan to ease vaccine patent protections to speed the production of vaccines, but many Europeans are cool to the idea and have offered a counterproposal before the World Trade Organization that would safeguard drugmakers’ intellectual property.
More broadly, administration officials say the main thrust of the trip will be to rally allies who have managed to achieve little collective action in recent years. “The trip, at its core, will advance the fundamental thrust of Joe Biden‘s foreign policy to rally the world’s democracies to tackle the greatest challenges of our time,” said Mr. Sullivan.
The president is being accompanied on the trip by first lady Jill Biden. The first couple arrived at Royal Air Force Mildenhall in the U.K. close to 8 p.m., local time, and stuck around to address U.S. Air Force personnel at the base — the only permanent American refueling wing in Europe — before heading to the G-7 venue in Cornwall.
“Thank you for everything you do, for everything that you are,” Mr. Biden told the servicemen and women. “There nothing that Jill and I enjoy more than spending time with our troops and their families wherever we go in the world.”
One highlight of the trip for the new U.S. president: a meeting with Queen Elizabeth Sunday as Buckingham Palace prepares for the national celebrations next year of the queen’s 70th year on the throne.