This weekend sees U.S. President Joe Biden embark on his first overseas trip since his election 6 months ago.
No stranger to Air Force One, Biden will however be sitting in the VIP front section where the Commander in Chief’s chair takes pride of place rather than back in economy where the former VP and travelling press pack used to hang out on his trips during the Obama days.
The last occupant of seat 1A used his air miles in the super luxury jumbo to visit rogue leaders in North Korea, pals in Russia and Central Asia as well as frequent trips to global golf destinations. Trump’s trips abroad tended to result in America distancing itself from long standing allies and trading groups.
Biden was elected, in no small part, on America’s wish to normalize relationships with the rest of the world and to take its seat at the top table again.
Biden has made many such noises since his election, pledging to re-join environmental and social justice discussions his predecessor ditched but this G7 Conference is the first time he will meet face-to-face with the leaders of the largest economies for public and private conversations.
America’s interest in being ‘back in the game’ so to speak, is not just a diplomatic flexing of the world’s largest super-power muscle – it also makes enormous economic and commercial sense for the world’s number one economy, especially as China is proving a master at constructing side deals with growing economies in Africa, South-East Asia and increasingly Latin America.
That the G7 Conference is in Cornwall will also shine a bright light on the old ‘special relationship’ between U.S. and UK. This will be interesting to follow as there are a few simmering sub-texts and distracting plots which – without proper management – could explode over the coming days.
It is a sad fact, but Biden is not especially a big fan of UK.
He doesn’t have that Anglophile streak so many of us Brits fortunately encounter in our daily dealings here in America. Biden is understandably proud of his Irish ancestory but sees that as having to be at the expense of any warm feelings towards the UK.
He has let this personal perception cloud the coverage before. His ‘I’m Irish’ comments to the BBC earlier in the year were crass, misguided and unbecoming of the world’s most powerful man. While I don’t know the depth of his personal feelings about the tricky topic of reunification on the island of Ireland, all his utterances to date seem to suggest the powerful Irish-American lobby have his ear and eye.
So perhaps it wasn’t such a surprise when, though the Summit’s focus is on COVID and Climate Crisis, he chose to use his pre-conference briefings to express the view that he sees the Northern Ireland Protocol as central to the continued peace in Ireland, and that anything which he considers tests this will be frowned upon.
But Biden then upped the ante and rattled the UK by the way he did this; playing a diplomatic card – the ‘Demarche’ – which formally expresses one government’s thoughts and opinions on another government’s policy positions.
Normally, especially between close friends, one privately tells the other what they are thinking and offers an alternative view but sending his trade ambassador to deliver the formal notice days before he meets PM Johnson elevates the issue and the tension going into the Conference.
Biden is an old school politician. Perhaps it was just brinkmanship, playing to his supporters and backers or an issue getting inflated by others with a vested interest, but the President won’t want this sideshow to get in the way of the bigger challenge and opportunity G7 presents – his debut on stage as a genuine world leader.
After 50 years in public office, he knows how the US media works and how it will cover these talks – good and bad.
Every handshake, who he stands next to, what his body language suggests, will be pored over by Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and others. There will also be plenty of Red Bull on hand to avoid any images which suggest he is snoozing or ‘drifting off’ – this, the snappers tell me, is the ‘money shot’ for ‘Sleepy Joe’.
The optics are everything at these events. As we know, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Joe will be looking to define how he wants to be portrayed. Trump gambled that being pictured with the Queen, lots of pomp and ceremony and as much military might as we could muster would burnish his buttons as a world leader with adoring fans at home.
Biden’s plan must be to look strong and statesmanlike – America is still ‘Number 1’ in the eyes of his audience back home. But he will also want to appear suitably conciliatory and engaged on global issues in contrast to the dis-interest of Trump on such matters, and he will be looking to do this by providing bountiful amounts of positive coverage, social media content and images for his voters and supporters.
Sat on the plane, surrounded by his people, he will be preparing his comments on the most important topics under discussion this weekend – Climate Change and COVID 19 and the need for more equitable access to vaccines for the World’s poorest nations.
As the plane departs U.S. airspace, I think Team Biden will start to shy away from further public utterances on Northern Ireland and the Protocol, focusing his keynote moments on the topics in hand, like the COVID vaccine roll out, and the important role and opportunity that presents for U.S. big pharma companies.
They will also be urging him to look at ease and comradely with other world leaders. They will be praying he can appear relaxed around Boris Johnson – a man Biden detests on many levels – and through careful positioning make it abundantly clear to all – when it comes to who is sat at the top table of political and economic affairs – America is Back.
He isn’t going to let a parochial feud get in the way of that is he?
Martin Liptrot is a writer and commentator on public affairs and politics based in Florida.