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In Britain, Biden called diplomacy and alliances vital to the world’s future

  • >>David E Sanger and Michael D Shear, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-06-10 18:29:16 BdST

President Joe Biden walks to board Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, in Maryland after speaking with reporters Wednesday, June 9, 2021, as he departs for Europe for a series of scheduled meetings with leaders from NATO, the European Union, and the Group of 7. (Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Joe Biden began his first overseas trip Wednesday by telling US troops in Britain that the future of the world depends on restoring the long-standing alliances with European countries that have been “hardened in the fire of war” and built by “generations of Americans.”

Speaking to troops at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, he called his weeklong diplomatic overture “essential,” saying that no nation acting alone can meet the world’s challenges. But he also vowed to stand up to adversaries like China and Russia, pledging to tell President Vladimir Putin of Russia “what I want him to know.”

On the eve of meeting with European leaders rattled by Russia’s aggressive movement of troops along Ukraine’s borders, Biden pledged to “respond in a robust and meaningful way” to what he called “harmful activities” conducted by Putin.

Biden also cast his trip in broader terms, as an effort to rally the United States and its allies in an existential battle between democracy and autocracy.

“I believe we’re in an inflection point in world history,” Biden said, “a moment where it falls to us to prove that democracies will not just endure, but they will excel as we rise to seize enormous opportunities in the new age.”

Biden called out autocrats like Putin for promoting false stories about the failings of democracies.

“We have to discredit those who believe that the age of democracy is over, as some of our fellow nations believe,” he said.

The RAF base at Mildenhall is used almost exclusively by US forces and is a critical air refuelling wing. Its history reaches back into World War II, and it was a key base in the Cold War for the United States’ Strategic Air Command, which maintained its nuclear deterrent. In the ’70s and ’80s, it was also a frequent site of anti-war and anti-nuclear protests.

But those are largely gone, and in 2015 it seemed like the base would be closed. Two years ago, it got a reprieve, and remains one of the strongholds of US forces in Britain.

After speaking at the RAF base at Mildenhall, Biden travelled to Cornwall, the southwestern tip of England, where the annual summit meeting of the Group of 7 large, wealthy democracies will be held from Friday through Sunday. Beginning Thursday, he will hold his first face-to-face meeting of the trip with Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain before holding one-on-one meetings with other G7 leaders, and on Sunday he will visit Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle.

On Monday, Biden will attend the NATO summit in Brussels and have bilateral meetings with NATO heads of government, and on Tuesday, he will meet there with leaders of the European Union, many of whose member countries are also in NATO.

He will meet with Putin on Wednesday in Geneva, and then return to Washington.

China and global warming rank high on Biden’s list of long-range global concerns, and U.S. allies wonder if they are being asked to sign up for a China containment policy, and whether Biden can deliver on climate?

While growing more repressive at home, China is expanding its commercial, military and political reach abroad — and its greenhouse gas emissions. The Europeans largely do not see China as the kind of rising threat that Washington does, but it is an argument where the United States is making headway.

Johnson has signed on to an effort by Washington to ensure that Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications company, does not win new contracts to install 5G cellular networks in Britain. US officials have raised concerns that Huawei equipment could become a back door to Chinese government surveillance or control of communications.

Some in Europe are following suit, but Biden’s aides said they felt blindsided when the European Union announced an investment agreement with China days before Biden’s inauguration. It reflected fears that if the continent got sucked into the US-China rivalry, European companies would suffer.

Biden is going in the other direction: Last week he signed an executive order barring Americans from investing in Chinese companies that are linked to the country’s military or that sell technology used to repress dissent inside and outside China.

For the move to be effective, though, the allies would have to join. So far, few have expressed enthusiasm for the effort.

China, which now emits more climate-heating gases than the United States, Europe and Japan combined, is key to reaching ambitious goals to fight climate change. Peter Betts, the former lead climate negotiator for Britain and the European Union, said the test for Biden was whether he could lead other nations in a successful campaign to pressure Beijing.

Four years ago, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the 2016 Paris climate agreement.

Biden is reversing that stance, pledging to cut US emissions 50% to 52% below 2005 levels by the end of the decade. He also wrote in an opinion essay in The Washington Post before the summit that with the United States back at the table, countries “have an opportunity to deliver ambitious progress.”

But world leaders remained leery of the United States’ willingness to enact serious emissions legislation and deliver on financial promises to poorer countries.

One of the toughest issues Biden is expected to take up with Johnson is the status of Northern Ireland, where Brexit-fueled tensions threaten the return of lethal sectarian violence.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended the Troubles, the 30-year guerrilla war between Catholic nationalists seeking unification with the Republic of Ireland and predominantly Protestant unionists, who want to stay in the United Kingdom. The border between Ireland and Northern Ireland virtually disappeared, allowing unfettered movement of people and commerce.

But now, a part of London’s Brexit deal with Brussels is inflaming resentment among the unionists. To avoid resurrecting a hard border with Ireland — an unpopular idea on both sides of the boundary — the Northern Ireland Protocol requires checks on goods flowing between the North and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Creating a commercial border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country violates promises made by the British government, and imposes an economic and psychological cost. Northern Irish people who want to remain in Britain feel betrayed, and there have been violent protests against the protocol.

“It has hit the community here like a ton of bricks that this is a separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom,” said David Campbell, chairman of the Loyalist Communities Council, which represents paramilitary groups that some say are stirring up unrest.

Biden has warned Johnson, who campaigned for Brexit and negotiated the deal with Brussels, not to do anything to undermine the Good Friday Agreement. He is also mulling the appointment of a presidential envoy for Northern Ireland.

“That agreement must be protected, and any steps that imperil or undermine it will not be welcomed by the United States,” Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, told reporters on Air Force One on Wednesday.

Asked if Johnson had taken steps to imperil the agreement, Sullivan added: “President Biden is going to make statements in principle on this front. He’s not issuing threats or ultimatums.”

Trump embraced Johnson and Brexit, but Biden has been cooler to both. The new president is also a Roman Catholic and devoted Irish American, fuelling speculation that he would be more favourable to the Irish nationalist cause.

Among loyalists there has been blowback against the Democratic Unionists, a Northern Irish party that supported Brexit. That, in turn, could create an opening for Sinn Fein, the leading republican party, which opposed Brexit.

If Sinn Fein were to win next year’s elections for the Northern Irish Assembly, that would put unification with the Republic squarely on the agenda, enraging unionists.

“You have a very stark choice,” Michelle O’Neill, the party’s leader, said. “Do you want to be part of inward-looking Brexit Britain or outward-looking, inclusive Ireland?”

© 2021 New York Times News Service