In post-World War II American political tradition, foreign trips have become ways for a president to burnish his image and shore up authority at home.
In the 1950s, then-vice president Richard Nixon traveled a lot with an eye on running for president in 1960. Getting stoned by mobs in Venezuela and debating Nikita Khrushchev over the virtues of capitalism at a Moscow trade fair enhanced Nixon’s foreign policy reputation.
The 1960 presidential election winner John F Kennedy made his first trip to Europe and was greeted by rapturous crowds. (The masses were also eager to celebrate his wife). The scenes elevated him to a fresh symbol of American leadership.
Ronald Reagan sometimes turned his foreign visits into major diplomatic events: on a trip to then-divided Berlin, he famously commanded the Soviet Union to unify Germany, saying, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Presidential hopefuls, especially those with short foreign policy resumes, traveled abroad to project knowledge, even if in post-card style.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama visited US-occupied Iraq to show that he had enough credibility to take on his substantially more experienced Republican rival John McCain.
Donald Trump introduced a new combative style on foreign trips to please his “America First” home supporters. He notoriously upended diplomatic norms by upbraiding close allies.
Today, President Joe Biden is in Rome for the Group of 20 key economic powerhouses. It’s his second chance to show some sort of global leadership skills.
Just a few months ago, in a summit of Group of 7 democracies, he endeavored to persuade allies and the US public that, after the tumultuous and inward-looking Trump years, “America is back.”
That self-promotion fell apart with the clumsy exodus from Afghanistan, untoward diplomacy with allied France, consistent failure to get Russia to stop cyberattacks on American online networks and confusion over whether the US is committed to militarily defend Taiwan from a hypothetical Chinese invasion.
With those foreign bungles scorching his early record, Biden is currently reduced to persuading world leaders that he is, at least, in charge of running the United States and not leaving it adrift.
The challenge, in his own view, lies in getting the US Congress—which is in control of his own Democratic Party—to approve a US$1.75 trillion social welfare and climate change measure, along with a $1 trillion infrastructure package that Biden himself helped forge
On Thursday, Biden laid out what, in his mind, are the stakes: “We are at an inflection point. The rest of the world wonders whether we can function,” he said.
In meetings with Democratic legislators, he practically begged them to pass both measures. “The House and Senate majorities and the rest of my presidency will be determined by what happens over the next week,” he declared.
His chief National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan also suggested that foreign leaders are eyeing Biden’s domestic abilities. “They’ll say, ‘Is President Biden on track to deliver on what he said he’s going to deliver?’ ” Sullivan conjectured.
“Our allies are making their judgment,” Heather Conley, director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told Politico online journal.
“Can the president deliver? They’re not sure. They see the domestic agenda — very difficult — and they see the sporadic, uncoordinated processes that affect their security, and they’re not sure.”
So far, no good. His own party continued to wrangle over social programs that were excised from the original social spending package, which had been whittled down from $3.5 trillion. Biden got on a plane and left for Rome without a vote. He may not get one until next week—if at all.
For the G7 meeting, this means the likelihood of even less accomplishments than customary for this annual talk-fest.
For one thing, the leaders of two major countries—China and Russia—are not attending. That will weaken Biden’s efforts to discuss Iran’s nuclear program. Russia and China were original mediators along with the US and Europe of an Obama-era deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Trump canceled the accord and Biden wants to renew it.
Because the G20 summit will be followed immediately on November 1 by the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow, Biden had hoped to bring Congressional approval of more than $500 billion to speed the transition from oil and gas production to non-CO2 spewing sustainable energy.
The money is the biggest single sum within his $1.75 trillion social spending plan. With China burning more and more coal to overcome a power shortage and Russia unlikely to quickly damage its own vast fossil fuel economy, Biden may lose a chance to flaunt America’s climate change credentials.
In any case, hopes that this pair of foreign meetings will resolve Biden’s domestic political problems is probably folly. Surveys show his job approval ratings at dismal lows as talk of a mid-term election rout of the Democrats next year starts to make headlines.
The US suffers from a host of issues not on the agenda in either Rome or Glasgow: uncontrolled migration across the US southern border; rising inflation; a crime wave; continued inability to safely evacuate hundreds of Afghan allies stranded in the fundamentalist Taliban-ruled country.
Even a rapturous welcome in Rome—there won’t be one—and a meeting with Pope Frances—there is one scheduled–won’t relieve Biden’s multiple political headaches.