Joe Biden has brought seriousness back into international affairs - Alyn Smith
Despite its somewhat glamourous reputation, the conduct of international affairs should be a necessarily boring undertaking. Predictability is good: trust is essential, and both are the foundational building blocks of summitry, with any sort of razzle dazzle reserved for the moments when agreements are required at the pinnacle. Leaders who use this stage for tweets and lols don’t tend to get things done.
And so, after a busy fortnight of that international summitry, President Biden continues to impress, me at least, having put together a team of people who are serious, competent, and above all don’t do their negotiating in dead of night on twitter. His three major meetings this week, with the G7, the EU and with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, were all well negotiated, sober and serious affairs, serious people for serious times.
There were umpteen meetings around these meetings, with the three Baltic States Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, with NATO states, business and others. All of them undoing the mess of the Trump years and rebuilding trust and predictability, the restatement of the US commitment to NATO’s Article 5 (that an attack on one is an attack on all) had sighs of relief across Central and Eastern Europe who were, rightly, deeply concerned that Trump would have abandoned them.As President Biden himself said in a Washington Post article previewing the trip: “In this moment of global uncertainty, as the world still grapples with a once-in-a-century pandemic, this trip is about realising America’s renewed commitment to our allies and partners, and demonstrating the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age.” Gaun yersel, Big Man, keep that coming.So what came of it all, and what does it mean for us? To my mind there were a few big takeaway items. Firstly, predictability and trust are back: process matters, law matters, integrity matters, giving your friends no surprises matters. This was crystal clear in discussions with the UK government over Brexit and Northern Ireland - the US has Ireland’s back, supports the EU position, and anything that undermines the Good Friday Agreement will have immediate consequences for the trade talks quietly underway between the US and UK. Talk of the UK signing international treaties then breaking them, as hapless Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis put it, in “limited and specific ways” went down as badly in Washington as it did in Brussels, Dublin and Edinburgh. That means the Northern Ireland Protocol stays and the already fractious DUP and loyalist communities will feel even more let down and angry at Johnson’s government because he has played them fast and loose.Secondly, the US is interested in alliances, not countries, however big or small. Biden talked about and focussed on NATO, the G7, the EU, not individual states. As the EU-US Summit Communique puts it: “The European Union and the United States represent 780 million people who share democratic values and the largest economic relationship in the world.“ No mention of the UK, why would there be?This pattern was followed in the resolution of the 17 year old Boeing EU-US dispute, to my mind a major milestone that proves the US leadership’s tone is essentially: Let’s get real, we can’t afford to be divided. There was a smaller bilateral US-UK agreement to end the UK dispute (as the UK had despite Brexit continued with exactly the same position as the EU), but only when the actual deal was agreed with the EU and in exactly the same terms, just smaller. This is what the future looks like for Global Britain.Crucially too, language on Russia and China has moved up a gear, with the G7 and EU making clear that the actions of both states internally against their own people as in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, or externally as in Belarus, Taiwan or the Indo-Pacific will have more consequences than they might expect. Language on global tax co-operation too will be significant as post-covid economic shocks necessitate a crackdown on companies playing one jurisdiction against another. This will cause unease in London given the UK is at the centre of trillions of tax avoidance schemes using the myriad of UK overseas territories.The meeting in Geneva with Russia is more difficult to read, given so much more of the discussion was essentially private. That it happened at all is progress, nobody was embarrassed and there were some commitments to work together. There was also blunt language on interference in infrastructure and on rule of law. “Tense but constructive” seems to be the summary, and given relations have been in the deep freeze for years that is probably progress enough for now. Because there are plenty issues where a more constructive Washington-Moscow relationship will be necessary: on Iran, Israel/Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to name only a few.On climate change though, I would have liked to see more on all fronts. We’re hosting in Glasgow in just a few months a make or break world summit to try and agree literally planet saving measures, and I don’t see that enough has gone into preparing the ground for it. We don’t just want to host COP in Glasgow, significant though that is, we need a Glasgow Agreement and a Glasgow Agreement of substance and ambition. I’m jaundiced, I was at the COP in Copenhagen in 2009 and it was a disaster that still causes winces when speaking to Danish diplomats.Glasgow and Scotland are hosting COP, but it is the UK that is in the chair. We’re doing our part to try bring about an agreement with ambition, but I have yet to see the UK make the serious push that will be necessary to deliver. There’s good reasons for some of it, Covid, Trump and the rest, but if the new US attitude is ‘we need to get real’ then so do the rest of us. Meetings and negotiations are good, but the planet needs results.
And so we come back to these foundational principles of international affairs. Do we think that a UK Government that has spend the last five years repudiating the international order can be the predictable steward of any climate agreement? And if the outlines of any agreement begin to emerge, will a Government that has ripped up commitments to international law on two notable occasions already this year be trusted by partners who may have to sign an agreement that would have serious domestic ramifications? I’m not holding my breath.
Alyn Smith is SNP MP for Stirling
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.