President Biden’s First Overseas Trip

June 17, 2021

In June 1961, President John F. Kennedy, on his first overseas trip, visited France. At the time France had not withdrawn from NATO’s integrated military command and the Alliance headquarters was still in Paris.

On June 1, 1961, President Kennedy addressed the North Atlantic Council. The following are from his remarks:

“I am grateful for your invitation to be here today. I consider it an honor and it does give me an opportunity to once again, restate the basic conviction of the people of the United States that our security inevitably tied up with the security of Europe. The United States cannot look forward to a free existence if Western Europe is not free. And we believe in my country, as I am happy to see the people of your country also believe, that this independence must continue and grow…

“In many ways, the experience of Europe last 10 years has confounded all of those who believed that the tide of history was running against us.  I think our problem is to give new life to the North Atlantic Council and to the organization, to transfer its attention and interests not only to the immediate security of this area, to which we are all committed, and will be in the future, but also to consider jointly how we can play a more significant role in those other areas of the world which are subjected to increasing pressure…

“… I do not look to the future with any degree of discouragement. What has happened here in the last 10 years shows what free men can do. restate again the strong commitment of my country to the defense of Western Europe. We believe it vital to the security of the United States and we intend to honor our commitments. We want to see this association become more intimate. We want to see it play an expanded and greater part throughout the world.”

He also said that the allies have an historic responsibility to concern themselves with the whole southern half of the globe where they were in danger, and where freedom was in danger, and where those who had placed themselves on the opposite side of the table from the allies were seeking to make their great advances.

Three days later, on June 4, 1961, he met Premier Khrushchev of the Soviet Union for a two-day summit in Vienna. By all accounts this was a summit that did not go well. Some said that Mr.  Kennedy was not properly prepared to take on the more experienced Khrushchev. Two months after the summit, the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall. On September 1-6 the first official summit of the Non-Aligned Movement was held in Belgrade, orchestrated by three key figures: Josip Broz Tito, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Jawaharlal Nehru. And in October 1962 came the Cuba missile crisis. On June 26, 1963, President Kennedy delivered his historic “Ich bin ein Berliner!” speech.

During the Kennedy years West’s arch-rival was the USSR.

Among the dangers in the southern half of the globe Mr. Kennedy referred to in his NATO speech were the communists’ advance in South Vietnam, and the fear that a communist government in one nation would quickly lead to communist takeovers in neighboring states, each falling like a row of “dominos”.

Times have changed. The world has changed. So have the challenges. But some messages remain in striking fashion, particularly those regarding the centrality of NATO to US security policy.

As for the threats, President Kennedy had referred to southeast Asia 60 years ago, and President Biden now seems to focus on China. 60 Years ago, it was ideology that mattered most, today it is economic and military power.

On June 13, in remarks to the press in Cornwall following the G7 summit President Biden said, “And now I’m going to be heading off to — to Brussels, to NATO. And the same — many of the same people are going to be at that table, and — in NATO — and to make the case we are back, as well. We do not view NATO as a sort of a protection racket. We believe that NATO is vital to our ability to maintain American security for the next — next — the remainder of the century….”

President Biden arrived in Brussels having mustered enough support from the G7 summit on Russia and China. His principal task at the NATO summit was to put the four troubling years with President Trump behind and rally NATO support in the strategic competition with Russia and China.

The 30-page, 79-paragraph Brussels Summit Communiqué, starts by saying that NATO remains the foundation of its members’ collective defense and the essential forum for security consultations and decisions among them. It then reiterates the firm commitment  to NATO’s founding Washington Treaty, including that an attack against one Ally shall be considered an attack against us all, as enshrined in Article 5. Among the shared values of the Allies it mentions individual liberty, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. 

As for the multifaceted threats, systemic competition from assertive and authoritarian powers, and growing security challenges to allied countries the Communiqué mentions:

•          Russia’s aggressive actions which constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security;

•          terrorism in all its forms and manifestations which remains a persistent threat to all;

•          State and non-state actors challenging the rules-based international order and seeking to undermine democracy across the globe; 

•          Instability beyond NATO borders which contribute to irregular migration and human trafficking; and, 

•          China’s growing influence and international policies which can present challenges which need to be addressed together, as an Alliance. 

The 79-paragrap Summit Communiqué uses the word “Russia” 61 times, and the word “China” 10 times.

The Communiqué accuses Russia of continuing to breach the values, principles, trust, and commitments outlined in agreed documents that underpin the NATO-Russia relationship.  It says that until Russia demonstrates compliance with international law and its international obligations and responsibilities, there can be no return to “business as usual”. 

But it also says that Allies remain open to a periodic, focused, and meaningful dialogue with Russia to avoid misunderstanding, miscalculation, and unintended escalation, and to increase transparency and predictability. 

The two paragraphs dealing with China, the first time in a NATO communiqué, appear more carefully worded. They start by saying that China’s stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security. In this connection the Communique mentions:

•          China’s rapidly expanding  nuclear arsenal with more warheads and a larger number of sophisticated delivery systems; 

•          its opaqueness in implementing its military modernization and its publicly declared military-civil fusion strategy;

•          its militarily cooperation with Russia, including through participation in Russian exercises in the Euro-Atlantic area; and,

•          China’s “frequent lack of transparency and use of disinformation”. 

The Communique then says, “NATO maintains a constructive dialogue with China where possible.  Based on our interests, we welcome opportunities to engage with China on areas of relevance to the Alliance and on common challenges such as climate change… Allies urge China to engage meaningfully in dialogue, confidence-building, and transparency measures regarding its nuclear capabilities and doctrine.  Reciprocal transparency and understanding would benefit both NATO and China.”

It seems that China was luckier with the NATO Communiqué than the G7 one which called on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially in relation to Xinjiang and those rights, freedoms, and high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.

Looking at West’s relations with China, I cannot but remember the following paragraph from Robert K. Massie’s remarkable book “Dreadnought”. In this paragraph he was telling about China in the year 1900.

“Over six decades, the Western powers had been dismembering China, each scrambling for leases and concessions, tearing off pieces, dividing the vast country into spheres of influence. The Manchu government, nominally ruling the empire from the northern city of Peking, seemed powerless to halt this disintegration. Crippled by corruption, the Imperial Court lacked the will and power to galvanize and direct the political destiny of China’s 350 million people. The army possessed neither modern weapons, nor central command, nor reason the fight. Not since the Manchus had come down from the north to overthrow the Ming Dynasty in the sixteenth century had the Celestial Kingdom been so helpless.”[i] An incredible journey for China from the year 1900 to the present.

In brief, President Biden got most of what he wanted from its allies and partners on Russia and China at the two summits, but that does not mean that Washington and its European partners see eye to eye over the entire spectrum of relations with Moscow and Peking. Europeans remain more willing than the Biden administration to walk the extra mile towards cooperation.

The NATO Communiqué had three passages particularly relevant to Turkey.

Firstly, it says that terrorism in all its forms and manifestations remains a persistent threat to us all”.  This is a phrase Turkey always advocates. However, involvement in Middle East’s proxy war allows no country to claim a clean record in this respect. And this remains a major disagreement between Ankara and Washington.

Secondly, the Communiqué says  that NATO will provide transitional funding to ensure continued functioning of Hamid Karzai International Airport

And thirdly, it says that “Syria retains an inventory of short-range ballistic missiles whose range covers parts of NATO’s territory and some of our partners’ territories.  Syria has used these missiles extensively against its own population.  We remain vigilant over missile launches from Syria which could again hit or target Turkey.  We continue to monitor and assess the ballistic missile threat from Syria.”

This was no doubt a message to Syria but more so to Turkey, recalling that the Alliance has not failed to send its Patriot batteries to Turkey in time of need. In other words, the message is that Turkey does not need the S-400s to counter the missile threat from Syria.

On June 16, Presidents Biden and Putin met in Geneva, the last stop of Mr. Biden’s European trip.

President Kennedy was born on May 29, 1917, only months before the Bolshevik Revolution. When he met Premier Khrushchev, was only 44 years old. President Biden is 79.

President Putin recently said that Mr. Biden is radically different from Trump because President Biden is a career man who has spent virtually his entire adulthood in politics. “That’s a different kind of person, and it is my great hope that, yes, there are some advantages, some disadvantages, but there will not be any impulse-based movements on behalf of the sitting U.S. president,” he added.

Mr. Biden’s comments on Mr. Putin have been more controversial. His calling him ““a worthy adversary” in Brussels last week was an improvement.

When looking at the prospects for improved relations between Russia and the West, many observers have referred to the Reagan-Gorbachev summits towards the end of the Cold War saying that the Russia-US relations are at their lowest point since then.

So, it is worth remembering that during the Yeltsin years (1991-1997) following the demise of the USSR, Russia implemented a radical privatization program encouraged by the West. The fall in oil prices added to Russia’s economic woes. GNP fell by 43%. Inflation reached record levels leading to social problems. All of that may help explain Russia’s frustration with the West and President Putin’s failure to positively respond to President Obama’s call for a reset in relations during his visit to Russia in July 2009.

Russia was never a democratic country. President Putin is not a democratic leader. Yet, one has to admit that Russia has regained its world power status under his leadership. Yes, he has seized upon the opportunities in Georgia and Ukraine. But those opportunities were at least partly created by the West. And while he has been criticized for his policies in Syria and Libya, but those failed regime change projects, flagrant violations of the so-called “rules-based international order”, were launched by the West.

A “reset” in international relations can either be realized by solemn commitments at the highest level or by working together on issues where interests converge. If the former approach is not possible then the latter needs to be given a chance. Compartmentalization of issues can help overcome difficulties involved in reaching broad understandings.

During Mr. Obama’s presidency, Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov often raised hopes of cooperation between Washington and Moscow on international issues; they referred to their countries’ ability to “make a difference”, “make things happen”. Unfortunately, they could not.

Nonetheless, on July 14, 2015, President Obama making his case on the Iran nuclear deal told Thomas Friedman of The New York Times:

“Russia was a help on this. I’ll be honest with you. I was not sure given the strong differences we are having with Russia right now around Ukraine, whether this would sustain itself. Putin and the Russian government compartmentalized on this in a way that surprised me, and we would have not achieved this agreement had it not been for Russia’s willingness to stick with us and the other P5-Plus members in insisting on a strong deal.”

Expectations for the Biden-Putin summit were not high. But the two Presidents were able to agree on the “U.S.-Russia Presidential Joint Statement on Strategic Stability” which says, “the United States and Russia will embark together on an integrated bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue in the near future that will be deliberate and robust.”

During his press conference after the meeting, President Putin, in characterizing the summit talks said, “I believe there was no hostility at all. Quite the contrary. Our meeting was, of course, a principled one, and our positions diverge on many issues, but I still think that both of us showed a willingness to understand each other and look for ways of bringing our positions closer together. The conversation was quite constructive.”

He responded to many provocative questions with his usual calm.

President Biden, in remarks to the press, made it clear that he had  raised every issue related to Moscow’s human rights performance and every issue where interests clashed. But he also said that he was pleased that the two countries agreed to launch a bilateral strategic stability dialogue. “We’ll find out within the next six months to a year whether or not we actually have a strategic dialogue that matters,” he added. 

On Afghanistan Mr. Biden said they discussed how the two powers could contribute to the shared effort of preventing a resurgence of terrorism in Afghanistan.  He said Mr. Putin,  “asked us about Afghanistan.  He said that he hopes that we’re able to maintain some peace and security, and I said, “That has a lot to do with you.”  He indicated that he was prepared to, quote, “help” on Afghanistan — I won’t go into detail now; and help on — on Iran; and help on — and, in return, we told him what we wanted to do relative to bringing some stability and economic security or physical security to the people of Syria and Libya.”

Considering the hostile statements before the summit, the press conferences represented progress. From now on, it would be up to the senior officials on both sides to build on what was agreed.

President Biden looked exuberant throughout his first overseas trip. He took every occasion to stress that “America is back”. Washington’s European allies are no doubt happy to see him at the helm on the other side of the Atlantic. Whether they feel assured enough that Trumpism will not come back is another matter. And this may influence their behavior towards Russia and China in the years ahead.

Barring miraculous developments in relations with Russia and China, the trip could prove the diplomatic highlight of his four years at the White House.


[i]   Robert K. Massie, Dreadnought, Vintage Books, 2007, page 275.

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