President Biden faces thorny challenges on a major overseas trip that begins Friday at a major climate summit in Egypt, where he’ll walk a tightrope calling for global fossil fuel reductions even though his administration has spent recent months pushing for increased oil production from such difficult Mideast allies as Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Biden will be under pressure to show international leadership in Egypt and then at key summits over the weekend and early next week in Southeast Asia, where he is expected to come face-to-face with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 annual gathering of leaders from the world’s largest economies in Bali. Sandwiched in between will be Mr. Biden’s first in-person trip as president to the annual gathering of leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Saturday and Sunday.
It’s uncertain whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend the Nov. 13-16 G-20 summit in Indonesia, the first since Moscow launched its more than 8-month-old war in Ukraine. The U.S., Russia and China are all members, as are a slew of U.S. allies and a number of major countries — including India, Brazil and Saudi Arabia — who have been hedging their bets as the great power rivalries heat up.
Even if Mr. Putin doesn’t show, analysts say the stakes of global leader-level posturing at the summit will be high from Mr. Biden, whose international trips for the first two years of his presidency have been sharply curtailed as the globe dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The trip comes against a backdrop of near-constant foreign policy challenges that have plagued his first two years in office, as well as questions among world leaders about whether the president, who turns 80 later this month, still has the energy to control the narrative at major international gatherings.
The G-20 is “mainly a summit that is about optics,” said Ash Jain of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security in Washington. Presidents have historically turned to foreign policy when — as is the case for Mr. Biden these days — the political weather at home is increasingly cloudy.
“It’s about Biden going to a major platform to demonstrate leadership, that America is leading once again on the global stage,” Mr. Jain told a virtual panel hosted by the think tank this week. “There will be some visuals that can be helpful for Biden to show that he’s leading.”
Foreign policy insiders say the president’s goal at the ASEAN summit will be to assure Southeast Asia powers of sustained U.S. commitment to democracy and free markets at a moment when the region faces increasing military and economic pressure from China.
China is not a member of ASEAN, but is the largest trading partner of the 10-nation bloc. What remains to be seen is whether Mr. Biden will openly call on the group to support Taiwan amid rising threats by Beijing to overtake the island democracy, possibly by military invasion.
Prior to the ASEAN summit, the president will attempt to tout his record as a global environmentalist during the U.N.-organized COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. He is likely to highlight his administration’s recent law that will backers say will deliver the biggest investment in U.S. history to battle climate change.
But Mr. Biden’s message at COP27 risks being overshadowed by his struggles in wider Mideast policy, particularly his failure to come through on efforts to renew nuclear diplomacy with Iran over the past two years and his administration’s sticky relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Administration officials believed they had struck a deal with the Saudis to pump more oil in a bid to lower spiking gasoline prices ahead of the midterm elections, only to be undercut by Riyadh, which has instead aligned with Russia in a push to reduce global crude production and keep prices high
At all three summits over the coming week, Mr. Biden will likely make reference to what he has previously described as a global struggle between autocracies and democracies, asserting that America is working with democracies to steer the world away from the malign influences of such autocratic governments as those in Riyadh, Moscow, Tehran and Beijing.
Despite such messaging, the president increasingly finds himself having to rely on less-democratic leaders to further U.S. interests, from Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who is hosting the climate conference, to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has resisted U.S. pleas to curtail purchases of Russian oil.
A summit and a war
The G-20 summit will present Mr. Biden with his first chance to meet with key new partners in the response to Russia’s war in Ukraine: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni.
But the centerpiece is likely to be a Biden-Xi meeting, the logistics of which are still being worked out by U.S. officials, who have spent recent years emphasizing that China is now America’s most prominent military and economic rival on the world stage.
While there is speculation Mr. Xi may skip the G-20 amid ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks in China, a Xi-Biden meeting would be the first to have occurred in person between the two during Mr. Biden’s presidency.
The diplomacy surrounding the meeting is likely to be delicate though. While Mr. Biden has struggled to limit the electoral damage to fellow Democrats in the midterm elections, the increasingly powerful Mr. Xi has recently been elevated in China, where he consolidated his power during the Communist Party congress that concluded last month.
At the same time, Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine will loom over the G-20 summit, with Mr. Biden heading into the gathering at a moment of increased challenges to U.S. efforts to isolate Moscow.
Elevated energy and food prices — and concerns in Europe about supplies of those vital commodities heading into the winter — are testing the global alliance Mr. Biden helped build to support Ukraine’s defense and paint Russia as the aggressor in the fight.
Mr. Putin, whose decision to invade has badly failed to pay off militarily so far, has not made public whether he plans to participate in the summit. Mr. Biden has said he has no plans to meet with the Russian leader, but left the door open to a conversation if Mr. Putin wants to discuss a deal to free Americans imprisoned in Russia.
Some analysts say the G-20 presents Mr. Biden with a key opportunity to push behind the scenes for other nations to increase their aid to Ukraine.
The Germany-based Kiel Institute for the World Economy has documented that total U.S. commitments for financial, humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine outstrip those of any other nation in the ad-hoc alliance of democratic countries supporting Kyiv, including NATO member states. Washington has, for instance, committed more than $52 billion, compared to just $3.3 billion from Germany, Europe’s largest economy.
“The Germans have been a big problem in terms of financing,” according to Melinda Haring of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. She said during this week’s panel discussion that the G-20 presents “a great opportunity for President Biden to have private conversations and, [if] those conversations don’t work, then to make them public.”
The public narrative around the G-20 will also be key, particularly with regard to who is seen as setting the tone and dominating the narrative as the leaders gather.
“It’s really about who is leading, who is dominating the conversation, whose issues are dominating the conversation,” said Josh Lipsky, who heads the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center.
“Are the issues that are talked about Russia’s responsibility? Russia’s liability? Russia’s causing food insecurity around the world? Is that what dominates the conversation? Or does it become more in the back and forth of assigning blame?” said Mr. Lipsky. “If the U.S. issues on Russia, on energy and climate, on food security, on pandemic relief — if those issues are the ones that dominate the conversation coming out of the G-20 [and] if President Biden appears strong in his meeting with President Xi, that to me feels like a success from the White House perspective.”
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.