President Biden faces thorny challenges on a major overseas trip that begins Friday at a major climate summit in Egypt, where he will walk a tightrope calling for global fossil fuel reductions even though his administration has been pushing for months for increased oil production from difficult Middle Eastern allies such as Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Biden will be under pressure to show international leadership in Egypt and then at summits over the weekend and early next week in Southeast Asia.
He is expected to come face-to-face with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali at the Group of 20 annual gathering of leaders from the world’s leading rich and developing nations.
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 G-20 summit Nov. 13-16 in Indonesia, the first since Moscow launched a 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 — that have been hedging their bets as great power rivalries heat up.
Even if Mr. Putin doesn’t attend, analysts said, the stakes of global leadership posturing will be high. International trips for the first two years of Mr. Biden’s presidency have been sharply curtailed as the world dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Foreign policy challenges have plagued his first two years in office, and world leaders wonder whether the U.S. president, who turns 80 this month, 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 the political weather at home is increasingly cloudy, as is the case for Mr. Biden.
“It’s about Biden going to a major platform to demonstrate leadership, that America is leading once again on the global stage,” Mr. Jain recently told a virtual panel hosted by the think tank. “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 Asian powers of sustained U.S. commitments to democracy and free markets while the region faces increasing military and economic pressure from China.
China is not a member of ASEAN, but it 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 as Beijing threatens to overtake the island democracy, possibly by military invasion.
Before the ASEAN gathering, the president will try 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 a recently enacted law that supporters say will deliver the biggest investment in U.S. history to battle climate change.
Mr. Biden’s message at COP27 might be overshadowed by his struggles with wider Middle East policy, particularly his failure to renew nuclear diplomacy with Iran and his administration’s sticky relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Administration officials thought they had struck a deal with the Saudis to pump more oil to lower gasoline prices ahead of the midterm elections. Riyadh instead aligned with Russia to reduce global crude production and keep prices high.
At all three summits over the coming week, Mr. Biden will likely describe a global struggle between autocracies and democracies. He says the U.S. is working with democracies to steer the world away from the malign influences of autocratic governments such as those in Riyadh, Moscow, Tehran and Beijing.
Despite such messaging, the president increasingly needs to rely on less-democratic leaders to further U.S. interests, including Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who is hosting the climate conference, and 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 give Mr. Biden a chance to meet with new partners in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni.
The centerpiece is likely to be a meeting between Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi. U.S. officials are still working out the logistics after emphasizing for years that China has become America’s most prominent military and economic rival on the world stage.
Despite speculation that Mr. Xi may skip the G-20 summit because of COVID-19 outbreaks in China, an in-person meeting would be the first for Mr. Biden as president.
The diplomacy surrounding the meeting is likely to be delicate. While Mr. Biden struggled to limit the electoral damage to fellow Democrats in the midterm elections, Mr. Xi consolidated his power in China during the Communist Party congress.
Russia’s war in Ukraine will loom over the G-20 summit, with increased challenges to U.S. efforts to isolate Moscow.
Elevated energy and food prices — and European concerns 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 portray 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 has left the door open if Mr. Putin wants to discuss a deal to free Americans imprisoned in Russia.
Some analysts say the G-20 summit gives Mr. Biden 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 committed more than $52 billion, compared with just $3.3 billion from Germany, Europe’s largest economy.
“The Germans have been a big problem in terms of financing,” said Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. She said at the 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 appears to be setting the tone and dominating the narrative.
“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 article is based in part on wire service reports.