Ahead of President Joe Biden's first foreign trip to the United Kingdom for a G-7 summit in June, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in London this week for the first face-to-face-meetings of G-7 foreign ministers in two years.
While the international entourages are limited and strict COVID-testing protocols are required, the gathering, beginning Tuesday, shows an eagerness among member nations to return to in-person diplomacy and get to work on major issues in a post-COVID world. Around the formal G7 conference table, Blinken and his counterparts have removed their masks, but they are separated by plexiglass dividers.
These G-7 meetings with friendly allies will provide a low stakes but high-profile opportunity for Biden's team to visibly reappear on the world stage, as the president has liked to talk about, and evaluate the country's position after four years of former President Donald Trump's "America First" doctrine.
In his first 100 days in office, Biden has emphasized that he sees an urgent need to mend relationships with allies that were complicated and strained under Trump and he has reentered global institutions his predecessor abandoned.
Biden's push for increased multilateralism, however, comes at an awkward time when so many citizens around the globe are still experiencing physical isolationism in the face of a global pandemic.
While the G-7 nations have applauded their information-sharing and collaborative work fighting the virus, each country has handled the health care crisis very differently and vaccine manufacturing and distribution are still extremely inequitable.
Beyond the pandemic, however, many Americans see the global community as having a fairly poor track record in solving global crises. From the fight against climate change, where emissions are far exceeding goals meant to reduce them, to wars in Syria and Yemen; the recent buildup of Russian troops on Ukraine's eastern border and allegations of human rights and trade violations by China -- the list of emergencies facing and frustrating the G-7 leaders has only grown.
Back home, both Blinken and Biden have a tough job ahead of them and will likely have to continue to make the case to skeptical Americans that multilateralism is worth the time.
"Not a single one of those challenges can be effectively met by any one country acting alone -- even the United States, even the United Kingdom. There is, I think, a stronger imperative that at any time since I've been involved in these issues to find ways for countries to cooperate, coordinate, to collaborate. That's the way we advance the interests of our citizens," Blinken said at a joint news conference with U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab Monday.
The Biden administration's argument is that U.S. leadership has been lacking and that international crises still require international cooperation. Much of the agenda for this G-7 is structured around threats and competition from Russia and China.
In the last few weeks, Biden has redoubled his focus on China, pitching his domestic agenda as a necessary step for competing with country and calling out Beijing for bad behavior. On Friday, the Biden administration specifically said China had failed to keep commitments to protect American intellectual property as outlined in their recent trade deal.
"It is not our purpose to try to contain China or to hold China down. What we are trying to do is to uphold the international rules-based order that our countries have invested so much in over so many decades," Blinken said Monday. "When any country, China or otherwise, takes actions that challenge or undermine or seek to erode that rules-based order and not make good on the commitments that they've made to that order, we will we will stand up and defend the order."
Several nations outside of the G-7 were invited to attend events and meetings this week, including South Korea, India, Australia and Brunei, which is chairing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Blinken conducted bilateral meetings with most of those visiting delegations Monday. The teams sat across from each other at long tables in cavernous and otherwise empty hotel conference rooms.
"They're all key partners for us. I think they're also a sign of the greater focus on the Indo-Pacific region, as the economic and strategic crucible for this century," Secretary Raab said at Monday's news conference.
Prior to the meetings this week, the Group of Seven wealthy industrialized nations also announced they planned to jointly invest $15 billion "in development finance over the next two years to help women in developing countries access jobs, build resilient businesses and respond to the devastating economic impacts of COVID-19."
The international work on girls' empowerment feels especially poignant at the moment with U.S. and NATO withdrawing of troops from Afghanistan this summer, causing many human rights experts to worry about the future of Afghan women in civil society should the Taliban increase their power there. Many of the G-7 countries supported the United States' Afghanistan coalition and have lost their own troops in the war that has lasted nearly 20 years.
This trip to London is Blinken's first as secretary of state and the U.K.'s first G-7 meeting since Brexit. Blinken did meet with Raab during a NATO meeting in Brussels in late March.
During their news conference Monday, the two secretaries talked liberally about their shared values, mutual agreement on foreign policy and close-knit cooperation.
"I think it's fair to say the Biden administration is barely 100 days old, but has already taken a huge number of bold and very welcomed steps on issues like climate change, global health and human rights. And that's really created momentum in efforts to tackle these pressing global issues," Raab said. When asked if the U.K. felt snubbed by America's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, he demurred.
In turn, when Raab was asked how the U.K. could lead on the global stage when it had decided dramatically recently to cut international aid, Blinken complimented the U.K. on its humanitarian work.
"The U.K. is our most vital partner including working around the world, in helping other countries, helping people fulfill their potential and deal with some of the challenges that have been brought on by many things but including by COVID-19 ... we share a commitment to and conviction about the importance of doing development work in different ways and amplifying, as Dominic said, both our respective contributions as well as bringing others along," Blinken said.
US looks to take leadership role at first in-person G-7 summit in 2 years