Biden’s big overseas trip, but where’s the beef?

President Joe Biden attended two summits with other world leaders and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time.  There’s no question the style and tone marked a radical departure from former President Trump.  The real question is whether or not he accomplished anything except talk.

President Joe Biden has had a busy week, traveling overseas to meet with foreign leaders and even the Queen of England for the first time, and amazingly the mainstream media is covering it, replacing headlines bashing Trump and Republicans with those praising Biden.  CNN, for example, has been awash in glowing portraits for days, “Biden causes sigh of relief among world leaders even as G7 divisions linger,” “Biden’s symbolism-packed international debut,” “Biden preparing intensely for Putin’s tactics with aides and allies,” and “Biden’s meeting with Putin carries historic echoes.”  Of course, they couldn’t leave Trump out of the discussion, dredging up impeachment witness Fiona Hill to decry the “terrible spectacle” of Trump meeting with Putin three years ago.

President Biden’s trip began with the G7 summit at Carbis Bay in the United Kingdom, the 47th of its kind.  The “Group of Seven” represents the world’s largest advanced economies and liberal democracies, including the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the European Union.  All in, these countries have significant power and wealth, accounting for about 60% of the globe’s net wealth and somewhere around 40% of GDP.  The G7 meeting was dominated by two, related issues:  The global coronavirus pandemic and the rise of an increasingly out of control China.

On the pandemic itself, I believe Biden acquitted himself reasonably well, especially considering he struggled to correctly name the COVAX program, referring to it as the COVID project to the point where the White House Press Office edited the transcript.  President Biden said, “And we — I committed that we would provide a half a billion — a half a billion beyond the 80 million we’ve already done — half a billion doses of Pfizer vaccine, which we contracted to pay for, in addition to money we put into the COVID [COVAX] project, which is that COVID [COVAX] is — and I know you all know, but a lot of people may not know what COVID [COVAX] is — that is a system whereby they’re going to provide funding for states to be able to get access to vaccines on their own, as well.”  The President’s problems with elocution aside, problems that would almost certainly have dominated the headlines were Trump still in office, a commitment of 870 million doses for less wealthy countries is a reasonably substantial achievement.  “Equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines represents the clearest pathway out of this pandemic for all of us — children included, and commitments announced by G7 members…are an important step in this direction”, the Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund, Henrietta Fore, offered her support in a statement. 

Unfortunately, he didn’t fare nearly as well on the China question. This was not surprising when reports of a disconnect between the United States and other G7 countries over China dominated the headlines even before the meeting.  Germany, France, and Italy, apparently, wanted to tread lightly.   German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that “China is our rival in many questions but also our partner in many aspects,” stressing “balance.” According to CNN, French President Emmanuel Macron “said the G7 wanted to work with Beijing on climate, trade, development and other issues despite disagreements.” “I will be very clear: The G7 is not a club hostile to China,” he stated.  At issue were three major topics:  China’s Belt and Road Initiative to fund infrastructure projects in some 70 countries, China’s actions in its home region, and China’s role in starting the pandemic.

Ultimately, President Biden was only able to secure a typically mealy-mouthed, government speak statement likely worth less than the copious amounts of paper required to distribute copies to the press.  The G7 urged China to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms,” something everyone knows they will never do while a million Uyghrs and other Muslims rot in concentration camps right now, insisted Hong Kong retain “a high degree of autonomy,” something China has made clear it will not allow, and stressing the “importance of peace and stability” across the Taiwan Strait, another topic China has absolutely no interest in given it wants to topple the Taiwanese government.  In addition, the G7 demanded a second investigation into the origin of the pandemic, albeit one almost certainly to be no more successful than the last.

This time, they claim there will be “transparent, expert-led Phase 2 COVID-19 Origins study including China, to be convened by the World Health Organization.”  Unfortunately, the claim is either satire or tragic farce or both, given that the WHO already completely botched the first investigation and is believed to be largely in China’s pocket.  Even CNN said the first report, issued less than three months ago, “was supposed to offer insight into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. But since its release on Tuesday [March 31, 2021], the long-awaited World Health Organization investigation has drawn criticism from governments around the world over accusations it is incomplete and lacks transparency.”

The United States and thirteen other countries complained that there was no access to “complete, original data and samples.”  The farce continued when the head of the WHO, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus admitted their access was limited and said the world should follow up on the lab-leak theory, then just a kooky conspiracy theory, even though his own organizations report claimed it was “extremely unlikely.”  At the G7, President Biden himself noted the obvious, “We haven’t had access to the laboratories,” reiterating that we don’t know if it was “a bat interfacing with animals and the environment… caused this COVID-19, or whether it was an experiment gone awry in a laboratory.”  Someone should tell the G7 leaders that the pandemic was unleashed in October 2019, over a year and a half ago now, and we will never, ever have access to the laboratories, assuming all of the information hasn’t already been destroyed.

The situation is so ripe for satire that even comics are in on the act.  Earlier this week, Jon Stewart appeared on Stephen Colbert’s show and noted, “Science has, in many ways, helped ease the suffering of this pandemic … which was more than likely caused by science.”  Colbert, apparently, didn’t get the memo that the lab-leak theory was now considered acceptable to discuss, asking, “Do you mean perhaps there’s a chance that this was created in a lab? If there’s evidence, I’d love to hear it.”  On a side note, what evidence did anyone present that it didn’t come from a lab?  Stewart was on his game only a year late, however, replying with “A chance? Oh my God! There’s a novel respiratory coronavirus overtaking Wuhan, China, what do we do? Oh, you know who we could ask? The Wuhan novel respiratory coronavirus lab.”  All kidding aside, what does access to China’s laboratory have to do with anything?  It’s the  year 2021:  We can figure out where the virus came from based on it’s genome, and as we’ve known since at least February 2021, the genome of this virus looks suspiciously manipulated.

The G7 Summit was followed by a NATO Summit, the 31st of its kind in Brussels.  In addition to rehashing some topics from the G7, the NATO Summit focused on Russia, highlighting it as a “threat” with Biden himself insisting he’d draw “red lines” in his upcoming meeting with Putin, plus increasing cyber attacks originating from the former Soviet Union.  Once again, strong statements were followed with no action.  The 30 countries participating in NATO agreed “that the impact of significant malicious cumulative cyber activities might, in certain circumstances, be considered as amounting to an armed attack.” Then, they completely punted, saying they would only invoke the mutual defense clause, where an attack on one is an attack on all, on a case-by-case basis.  They “(reaffirmed) that a decision as to when a cyber attack would lead to the invocation of Article 5 would be taken by the North Atlantic Council on a case-by-case basis,” meaning they will continue to do nothing in the face of an ever increasing threat, one which, of course, we have known about for decades.

The NATO summit also offered two odd moments.  First, for inexplicable reasons, President Biden decided to take a veiled shot at former-President Trump and his supporters, despite a long-standing democratic norm to leave domestic politics at home, urging leaders to stand up to “phony populism.”  He said democratic leaders needed “to prove to the world and to our own people that democracy can still prevail against the challenges of our time and deliver the needs of our people” and to strengthen presumably progressive institutions “that underpin and safeguard our cherished democratic values.”  Second, Biden met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and refused to allow the press pool to participate, thereby violating yet another cherished democratic norm.  After the meeting, Biden said, “We had a very good meeting,” and then promptly said he didn’t say anything, literally, “Because I didn’t say anything.”

The incident prompted a rare moment of unrest for the mainstream media.  Believe it or not, they stopped waxing eloquent about how Biden looked in his aviators (CNN’s Jim Acosta compared it to Tom Cruise in Top Gun, seriously), and noted “Biden is abroad doing a big push on democracy v autocracy. BUT the U.S. press — a key part of any functioning democracy — has gotten less access than under previous administrations. And is now forced to resort to updates on from…the Turkish government Twitter account.”  That was Washington Post White House Bureau Chief Ashley Parker.  CBS’s Ed O’Keefe said, “The U.S. press pool has been holding for more than hour outside this meeting with limited access yet again today at @POTUS — after significant access issues over the weekend at the G-7.  Meanwhile, the Turkish president quickly posted photos from their ongoing meeting.”  CNN and others weren’t happy either.  The only question is why they seem surprised:  When you position yourselves propagandists and bootlickers, comparing a frail 78-year old man to the world’s biggest action star in his prime, a kick in the face shouldn’t be surprising.

Afterwards, Biden headed to Geneva where his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin was a subject of much speculation throughout the entire trip, US-Russia relations looming over everything else like the massive Russian military maneuvers that occurred, purely coincidentally, right before their meeting.  Alas, like most of the trip itself, words passed for wisdom and action when the two leaders finally met.  Mr. Putin referred to the meeting as “constructive” and “productive,” two terms that mean absolutely nothing as far as I can tell, especially given the aforementioned military exercises that hadn’t been performed in years.  Ambassadors were supposed to return to their posts for more presumably “constructive” and “productive” dialogues, and they would begin a dialogue on cybersecurity.  Yes, that’s a lot of dialogue.

Biden said the US would respond to attacks in the future, without saying how, “He knows it. He doesn’t know exactly what it is, but he knows it’s significant,” the President said. “If in fact they violate his basic norms, we will respond.”  In addition, he tried to say something about international norms, as if Putin cared in the least.  See if you can make sense of this statement: “All foreign policy is a logical extension of personal relationships. It’s the way human nature functions. And understand, when you run a country that does not abide by international norms — and yet you need those international norms to be somehow managed so you can participate in the benefits that flow from that — it hurts you.”  Oh, and Mr. Biden gave Mr. Putin some custom aviator sunglasses and Putin gave Biden a crystal bison.  Touching, though probably less significant than those military maneuvers!

In a frighteningly real sense, that sort of sums up the trip:  Global leaders hobnobbing together, stroking themselves for their munificence, spouting platitudes in the face of real threats, while the media nods approvingly at their obvious genius.  Many have said “America’s back” or something similar because the leaders appeared to get along better personally than they did when Donald Trump was America’s representative at these gatherings, but such statements miss the point:  It’s easy for everyone to get along when no one is doing anything except talking.  Changing actual behavior, on the other hand, is a much more difficult task, and in that regard Biden’s first big trip has no beef.

The only remotely substantive commitment was for global vaccine distribution, and even then we’re forking over the great majority of the vaccines ourselves.  Otherwise, nothing of any note was accomplished.  Perhaps even more frightening, it’s unclear to me that anyone actually wants to accomplish anything of note:  Confronting China on the origins of coronavirus and their other unacceptable behavior isn’t going to be easy, just ask former-President Trump.  It’s not even clear what we can do that won’t cost us big time given how tightly our economies are entwined.  A few measly tariffs under the previous Administration were considered economic Armageddon.  Anything substantive would be far costlier and riskier, and I doubt we have the stomach for it anymore.  We’d much rather talk about all the great stuff we’re doing.

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