US President Joe Biden waves from Air Force One as he departs Washington for Dover, Delaware at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, July 7, 2023.
Kevin Wurm | Reuters
President Joe Biden leaves Sunday for Europe, where he will spend time in three countries tending to alliances tested by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
After arriving in London overnight, Biden will meet King Charles III the next day for the first time since his coronation. Next is the travel hub, the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. Alliance leaders will debate the war and revise plans for dealing with Russian aggression.
The final stop is in Helsinki, where Biden is expected on Thursday to celebrate the expanding alliance, with Finland as NATO’s newest member.
His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the trip would “showcase the president’s leadership on the world stage.”
A look at Biden’s agenda and the issues he will face:
Biden will arrive in London on Sunday evening and is expected to have a full schedule of meetings on Monday.
“There’s always a lot to talk about in the UK,” said Max Bergmann, a former State Department official who heads the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Biden will speak with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at 10 Downing St. Sunak faces an election at the end of next year. His Conservative Party is lagging well behind the opposition in opinion polls.
Despite Sunak’s shaky political status, he has cultivated a close relationship with Biden and this will be their sixth meeting since Sunak took office in October.
Bergmann said Sunak’s tenure has been a nice change of pace after “there were some concerns about Boris Johnson,” one of Sunak’s predecessors, “being a loose cannon.”
Biden is visiting the king at Windsor Castle, a royal residence outside London. Biden did not attend Charles’ coronation — first lady Jill Biden took his place — so this will be their first meeting since then.
They are expected to discuss climate change, an issue that has been a focus for both leaders, and how to finance initiatives to address the problem.
Biden will spend two days in the Lithuanian capital, which hosts the annual NATO summit. He will participate in meetings with leaders and give a speech from Vilnius University.
The alliance has been reinvigorated by the war in Ukraine, and members have poured military hardware into the country to help repel Russian aggression.
Biden on Friday defended what he called a “difficult decision” to provide cluster munitions to Ukraine, a move his administration said was key to the fight and backed by Ukraine’s commitment to put the controversial bombs to good use. Biden is likely to face questions from allies about why the US would send a weapon to Ukraine that more than two-thirds of NATO members have banned because it has a track record for causing many civilian casualties.
For Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, the summit “will send a clear message: NATO stands united, and Russian aggression will not pay.”
But NATO has also struggled to bridge divisions on key issues. Finland was accepted into the alliance this year, but Sweden’s membership was held up by Turkey and Hungary.
There are also disagreements over how quickly to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join NATO.
Eastern NATO countries want to move quickly, seeing it as a way to deter Russian aggression. The US and others advocate a more cautious approach.
One issue has been fixed, at least temporarily. Stoltenberg’s term was extended by a year because members could not agree on a new leader.
Sen. Thom Tillis, who will attend the summit, likened the alliance to a gathering of dozens of family members who bicker and bicker but nevertheless remain united.
“At the end of the day, you know you’re family,” said Tillis, RN.C.
Tillis leads a bipartisan delegation with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, DN.H., who said NATO is more powerful than ever.
“This is the strongest military alliance in our history, and I think it only got stronger as a result of US leadership, as a result of Stoltenberg’s leadership and as a result of Vladimir Putin’s threat to all NATO allies and other countries. in Europe and around the world and in the international order,” he said.
After two nights in Vilnius, Biden visited Helsinki. The stop is a bit of a victory lap, but can also be a reminder of unfinished business.
The Nordic country in April became NATO’s 31st member, ending its history of non-alignment and showing how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has backfired in Europe.
Finland is supposed to join alongside its neighbor Sweden, whose entry has been stalled by Turkey and Hungary. NATO requires the unanimous consent of all its members to expand.
Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson visited the White House on Wednesday and met with Biden to keep up the pressure for membership. But there is little hope that the issue will be resolved in Vilnius.
The White House is billing Biden’s visit to Helsinki as a “US-Nordic Leaders Summit.”
This is a different time from the last time a US president visited Helsinki five years ago.
During that trip, Donald Trump held a news conference with Putin and dismissed concerns about Russian interference in Trump’s election victory.
Now Biden is heading to the city to show how his administration is holding the line against Moscow and expanding the West’s defenses.