Trump’s shadow looms over Biden’s latest return to global stage

When Joe Biden arrived to his very first G7 summit in Cornwall, England, the newly inaugurated American president — in the telling of some US officials who were in attendance — was greeted by his fellow world leaders with enthusiasm – and relief.

The heads of the world’s wealthiest countries could see with their own eyes that summer the chaotic four years of Donald Trump were over. The unpredictable, celebrity-turned-president who had alienated the US in so many ways had been replaced by a familiar American statesman, and he was pledging to restore and strengthen American alliances and its leadership on the world stage.

When Biden touches down in Brindisi, Italy, on Wednesday almost exactly three years later to the day to attend the final G7 meeting of his first term, the shadow of his predecessor will once again loom large.

“There was a real sense of relief in the room that America was back, and actually leading at the table. And that’s still more true now than ever,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday. “The President’s message at that G7 in Cornwall was that we need to step up in solidarity and demonstrate that democracies can still deliver for our people, and for people all over the world. And for the past few years, we’ve done that.”

Trump’s potential return to the White House adds weight to the question of how much Biden’s bet on repairing America’s alliances abroad has paid off. Anxiety has set in in world capitals as some governments look beyond Biden and instead work to curry favor with the presumptive Republican nominee.

Biden and his fellow group of world leaders – huddled for three days in a luxury resort in Puglia on the Mediterranean coastline that has been frequented by Hollywood celebrities and diplomats alike – will tackle questions of war and peace, a fragile economic recovery and competing against China.

Trump’s isolation from his fellow leaders was on display the last time Italy hosted the G7 summit, in 2017. Perched on a cliffside resort in Sicily, Trump resisted entreaties to remain in the Paris climate accord. An enduring memory from the gathering was Trump trailing behind the leaders in a golf cart as the rest of the group toured a small piazza on foot.

As the highly anticipated summit kicks off this year, Russia’s assault on Ukraine that began in early 2022 is showing no signs of letting up. With the conflict grinding on, Biden’s rallying cry championing Ukraine’s fight for its survival has fallen on increasingly unsympathetic ears – and even growing resistance – in some corners of Washington.

A big enough contingent of Republicans lawmakers, balking in no small part at the growing price tag of US security assistance to Ukraine, delayed the approval of the last American aid package for months. US officials have publicly lamented the delay, claiming it hamstrung Ukrainian forces at a pivotal moment in the war, allowing Russia to make key advances on the battlefield.

“Biden has been trying to allay concerns of allies for the last four years. The message that he ran on and the message of his presidency has been: ‘America is back,’” said Rachel Rizzo, a senior fellow at the Europe Center. “And I think the question a lot of leaders are asking themselves is: Is it really? Because what we’re seeing in the United States is a serious fight on Capitol Hill in terms of Ukraine funding.”

Visiting France last week to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day, Biden drew parallels between the US and its allies standing up against Russia’s tyranny over Ukraine and the fight against Nazi Germany in World War II.

“Isolation was not the answer 80 years ago and is not the answer today,” Biden said, as he vowed: “We will not walk away.”

He also issued a public apology to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for the latest delay in US security assistance to the country. Biden and Zelensky will participate in a news conference together in Italy during the G7 summit, according to Kirby.

“We will take bold steps to show Mr. Putin that time is not on his side and that he cannot outlast us as we support Ukraine’s fight for freedom,” Kirby said.

As frequently as Biden has pointed to the war in Ukraine as having so far proven the strength and value of the NATO alliance, the conflict has tested not only Biden, but a number of his counterparts, back in their home countries. Among the G7 leaders that gather in Italy this week include French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who both suffered political losses to the far-right in European Parliament elections this weekend.

Even despite some of those headwinds at home, the leaders of the seven nations are racing against the clock to approve a $50 billion loan for Ukraine. The Biden administration has been leading a campaign to persuade leaders of the fellow G7 nations to sign off on a plan that it views as vital to giving Ukraine a shot at turning around its prospects on the battlefield.

The ultimate goal is to iron out some of the thorniest financing details in the coming days so that an agreement can be announced as part of the G7 leaders’ communiqué at the end of the week. But questions about the modalities of such a program – including the precise form of disbursement and repayment assurances, among others – are still in the process of being worked out.

One source familiar with planning for the summit said that the leaders were expected to speak in unison about their concerns about a “resurgence” of the Russian military – and the threat that poses not only to Ukraine’s future, but more broadly, European, NATO and transatlantic security.

Leaders also plan to discuss what the US views as Chinese manufacturing overcapacity and concerns about Beijing flooding the global market beyond existing demand – echoing what was a significant focus of last year’s G7 gathering. US officials have consistently expressed concern about economies across the world being over-reliant on Chinese goods, and reducing China’s economic dominance has been a key feature of Biden’s first-term foreign policy.

Josh Lipsky, senior director of the GeoEconomics Center, told reporters on a call previewing this year’s summit that the world leaders invited who are not officially a member of the G7 alliance speaks volumes about the stakes of the moment.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, newly sworn in for a third term; Pope Francis; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; Argentinian President Javier Milei; and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva are all expected to participate in this week’s meeting.

“It’s not just the G7 meeting, it’s actually the top 10 largest economies in the world minus China,” Lipsky said. “It all conveys a sense of urgency and the stakes around this G7. And it has a feeling to me of last chance to do something big before things may change significantly.”

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