What awaits Biden at 2 major summits as he's struggled for climate change credibility

Oct 26, 2021
Originally published on October 26, 2021 2:23 pm
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President Biden travels to Europe this week for a pair of major summits. Between his struggle to get a climate plan through Congress and the chaos in Afghanistan, allies may be giving him a chillier reception than he got during his last visit. NPR's Scott Detrow reports.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Rewind to June. Biden and key allies held what amounted to a love fest at G7 and NATO meetings after the turbulent Trump years.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: America is back.

DETROW: The trip's mood was symbolized by a warm, friendly seaside meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron.

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PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: And for all these issues, what we need is cooperation. And I think it's great to have the U.S. president part of the club and very willing to cooperate.

DETROW: Ever since then, though...

HEATHER CONLEY: Europeans have certainly witnessed a series of very poorly executed policy decisions that required strong, allied consultation and engagement but yet were completely lacking.

DETROW: Heather Conley is a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Heading into this weekend's G20 summit, she points to three key tension points stemming from Biden administration policies. First...

CONLEY: It was the visa ban, which quite frankly was the first really serious irritant in the U.S.-European relationship.

DETROW: The U.S. was much slower than Europe in fully reopening borders due to COVID concerns. Next and most important was the chaos and violence that stemmed from the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. NATO allies with a presence in the country had to scramble to get their citizens out. High-ranking officials in Germany, the United Kingdom and other NATO allies blasted the decision, though Biden insisted everything was just fine.

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BIDEN: I have seen no question of our credibility from our allies around the world.

DETROW: Then a surprise deal with the U.K. and Australia to share highly secret nuclear submarine technology, a move seen as a way to counter growing Chinese power in the Pacific. The problem - it led to Australia cancelling a massive submarine contract with France and caught America's oldest ally completely by surprise. France's ambassador to the U.S., Philippe Etienne, could have been talking about the Trump administration when he criticized Biden's move on NPR's Morning Edition.

PHILIPPE ETIENNE: There is a lack of transparency. There is a breach of trust. There is unpredictability, but there is also inconsistency.

DETROW: Biden has worked to patch things up with France and will hold a one-on-one meeting with Macron in Rome Friday. But Conley says it's all led European allies to wonder how much they can count on the U.S. anymore.

CONLEY: One problem is recoverable. I say two begins to become a pattern. And then the third strike - then countries begin to make some different decisions about how they are going to cooperate with the United States. And I think that's where we are.

DETROW: And that leads to the second half of the trip - a major climate conference in Scotland aimed at speeding up the emissions goals first set in Paris six years ago. Biden has promised major greenhouse gas cuts by the end of the decade. Scientists agree the world is running out of time fast to head off the worst of global warming. But the legislative package that would have achieved most of Biden's goals has been massively scaled back and is still being negotiated.

Biden's climate envoy, John Kerry, warned that showing up in Scotland with no deal would be devastating for American credibility, especially after decades of broken promises. He later walked that back, as did Biden. And national security adviser Jake Sullivan insists allies aren't doubting Biden's commitment to tackling climate change.

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JAKE SULLIVAN: I don't think that world leaders will look at this as a binary issue. Is it done? Is it not done? They'll say, is President Biden on track to deliver on what he's said he's going to deliver? And we believe one way or the other, he will be on track to do that.

DETROW: What that track looks like remains unclear without the clean electricity plan that's now out of the bill. Still, Todd Stern, who negotiated major climate deals for the Obama administration, takes Sullivan's view for the most part.

TODD STERN: I don't think that countries are going to think, oh, my God, the U.S. isn't doing anything. I think they'll be worried for sure.

DETROW: So the most important part of Biden's trip will probably be striking some sort of agreement before he even leaves.

Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington.

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