Joe Biden's G-7 charm offensive draws line under Trump era

(From left) Mr Joe Biden, Mr Boris Johnson, Queen Elizabeth II and Mr Emmanuel Macron arrive for a family phtotograph during a reception at The Eden Project in south west England, on June 11, 2021.
(From left) Mr Joe Biden, Mr Boris Johnson, Queen Elizabeth II and Mr Emmanuel Macron arrive for a family phtotograph during a reception at The Eden Project in south west England, on June 11, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

CARBIS BAY, ENGLAND (AFP) - "Everybody in the water!" United States President Joe Biden joked to his fellow Group of Seven (G-7) leaders at a group photo on the beach, underlining an assured transformation in tone from the antagonistic Mr Donald Trump.

Where Mr Trump alienated and exasperated, undermining the Western alliance at every turn, Mr Biden declared that "America is back!" after starting his first foreign tour as US president in Britain.

US service personnel were standing stiffly to attention in respect for their commander-in-chief as Mr Biden addressed them on Wednesday (June 9) at an air force base in eastern England.

"Please, at ease," he said, urging them to relax. "I keep forgetting I'm President."

It was hard to imagine such an avuncular line ever coming from Mr Trump, and G-7 leaders have been equally at ease in the company of the 78-year-old former senator and vice-president.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, one of the few foreign leaders praised by Mr Trump, called Mr Biden "a big breath of fresh air".

French President Emmanuel Macron, after contesting a years-long battle of wills with Mr Trump, eagerly grabbed Mr Biden by the arm for a good-natured chat after Friday's G-7 photo at Carbis Bay in south-west England.

With Britain going ahead with the elite club's first in-person summit in nearly two years, Mr Biden is back in his element having amassed decades of foreign policy experience: glad-handing on the world stage.

The oldest president yet, he has sometimes stumbled over his words in the initial stages of a gruelling eight-day tour that will climax in showdown talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Switzerland.

But while mocked by Mr Trump as "Sleepy Joe", Mr Biden has shown no lack of vim in his public appearances at the G-7.

"He has been getting ready for 50 years," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

"He's known a number of these leaders for decades... and there's nothing like face-to-face engagement in diplomacy," she said, as Mr Biden corrals Western leaders into a tougher line on China and Russia.

Rebuilding brand America

He is on solid ground at the G-7. The leaders of Canada, France and Germany all endured tongue-lashings from Mr Trump, and there is palpable relief at the reversion to traditional diplomatic modes.

It is a stark contrast to Mr Trump's first presidential trip to Europe, in May 2017, for a Nato summit in Brussels and a G-7 in Sicily.

At one point, he unceremoniously shoved aside Montenegro's leader at a group photo.

But while the mood music has turned more harmonious, Mr Biden's tour will be judged on results, according to Mr Stephen Pomper, interim chief of policy at the International Crisis Group.

"Of course the G-7 crowd will prefer 'America is back' and 'Democracy delivers' to Trump's tirades and shakedowns," he said.

"The big question is whether this meeting can help generate the kind of energy, vision and unity that Washington wants to project given the competitive challenges it now faces."

Looming large among those challenges is confronting Mr Putin at next Wednesday's lakeside summit in Geneva, and the G-7's European members are not quite as gung-ho in taking on either Russia or China.

Mr Joe Biden and Mr Justin Trudeau attend the summit at the Carbis Bay Hotel in Carbis Bay, England, on June 11, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

But for the time being, Mr Biden can boast of having restored some of America's popularity abroad after it plunged to historic lows during the Trump years.

According to a survey carried out in 16 countries by the Pew Research Centre, 62 per cent of people now have a "favourable image" of the world's leading power, compared with only 34 per cent in 2020.

Mr Biden's rapid moves to take the United States back into the World Health Organisation and the Paris climate accord met with strong approval among those surveyed in Canada, Europe and the Asia-Pacific.

But the scale of the rebuilding task faced by Mr Biden after Mr Trump is also apparent: A majority of those polled no longer see America as a model democracy.