On another leg of that whirlwind trip, Biden stopped in Phnom Penh for a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders and sat down with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for nearly 40 years and whose associates have been targeted by US sanctions.
Even as he rallied allies against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal war against Ukraine — culminating in a joint statement by G7 and NATO leaders as he wrapped up his trip — Biden also engaged with leaders he has criticized and views as anti-democratic.
Biden has repeatedly pledged to put human rights at the forefront of his foreign policy, but that pledge has occasionally met with geopolitical reality, and rarely more so on this trip. Biden prides himself on his personal relationships with foreign leaders, and it can be difficult to avoid meeting with leaders hosting a summit.
The courtship created contrasting images. The White House said that, during his meeting with Hun Sen, Biden “expressed appreciation for Cambodia’s leadership” of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – while urging the release of “activists detained on politically motivated charges”.
As a candidate, Biden called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan an “autocrat” and suggested the United States support his political opponents. After meeting with Erdogan on Tuesday, the White House said Biden had “made it clear that we stand with our NATO ally” after the recent attacks in Istanbul.
As the trip concluded, two events highlighted the contrast. Biden convened an emergency meeting of US allies on Wednesday to respond to a missile that fell in Poland as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war, his latest action leading a global coalition against Putin’s authoritarian regime.
And with former President Donald Trump announcing his third run for office in a bombastic speech on Tuesday night, it was a reminder that the main reason Biden ran for president was to challenge Trump’s habit of embracing authoritarian rulers and their anti-democratic policies.
As Trump was announcing his candidacy on Tuesday night, Biden traveled to a lush Indonesian jungle to plant a mangrove tree with other world leaders. He took time with the hoe, carefully moving the soil to ensure the tree had a solid foundation, a symbolic commitment to global harmony and to countering rising temperatures.
Altogether, this was one of the more significant and spinning foreign trips of the Biden presidency — at a time when control of Congress in the United States was ill-defined and Republicans were openly in revolt against their leaders.
Biden came out victorious, after his party’s stronger-than-expected midterm results in which Americans rejected election-deniers in every swing state. He cited the outcome to promote the strength of American democracy, saying the election results strengthened his hand diplomatically.
Biden aides had hoped his performance on the world stage would provide a positive contrast to the Republican squabbling, and he had a chance to show American leadership here Wednesday morning, when leaders awoke — or in some cases, were awakened — to learn that the missile attacks in Ukraine, and that a missile had It fell in Poland, a member of NATO.
Biden met the leaders in a conference room at his hotel, and while he later said the missile that killed two in Poland may not have originated in Russia — he stressed that the Russian aggressors must stop their attacks. “They were completely unreasonable, and what they are doing – absolutely unreasonable,” he told reporters.
“He is ruthless,” he added later while meeting newly appointed British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. “What he is doing is almost – in my words, not yours – barbaric.”
Biden ignored Trump’s campaign ad as he walked through a decrepit mangrove forest. After a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, Biden was asked if either man responded to Trump’s announcement. “Not really,” Biden said, as he and Macron exchanged faint smiles.
When asked why the president spends time with authoritarian leaders, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, said the president was simply meeting with the heads of host nations. When Biden arrived in Bali for the G20 summit of industrialized nations, for example, he met with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, whose government has yet to act on accusations of serious human rights abuses.
“He will have plenty of opportunities to engage deeply with core Democratic allies, but he will engage across the board to serve America’s interests and advance America’s strategic position and our values,” Sullivan said. “This is what guides his decision regarding each leader he chooses to deal with.”
Journalists traveling with Biden have also encountered officials from regimes that do not respect press freedom.
Egyptian officials guarding the doors to the room where Biden met Sisi attempted to physically block several American journalists. During the meeting with Xi, a member of the Chinese delegation grabbed the backpack of a TV producer who asked Biden about human rights, nearly knocking her to the ground.
Still, Biden drew the lines. He had no plans to meet the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. Biden came under fire this year after he traveled to Jeddah and fistfighted at the crown prince, whom he accused of being a brutal dictator and who US intelligence officials concluded was behind the 2018 killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Nor did he appear to interact with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister who attended the G-20 summit after Putin chose not to attend.
A senior administration official said a traditional group photo of leaders was unlikely, but did not say if that was related to any U.S. opposition to Biden appearing with Lavrov or other Russian leaders.
“I don’t think you’ll see any shortage of places having very frank, very frank discussions between leaders from the G20 in a variety of places,” the official said.
Some of Biden’s meetings during the trip appear to have yielded, if not breakthroughs, at least some movement. Dialogue between the US and China has been at a low point, but Biden and Xi appear to embrace the possibility of consensus on issues such as climate change.
“I haven’t found him more confrontational or more conciliatory,” Biden said during a news conference after meeting Xi. “I found him as always—straightforward and direct.”
Even as he appeared to warm publicly with Sisi — “I can listen to you a little longer,” Biden said as Sisi finished his introductory remarks — White House officials reported afterward that Biden confronted Sisi directly over the case of Alaa Abdel-Fattah, the Egyptian-British national. A political prisoner refuses food and water in an Egyptian prison.
Biden’s meeting with Erdogan on Tuesday was not on his schedule, and journalists traveling with Biden learned about it through Turkish media reports. Biden expressed condolences over the deadly terrorist attack in Istanbul, according to the White House account of the meeting, and the two leaders also discussed close coordination on NATO issues and the war in Ukraine.
“President Biden expressed his appreciation to President Erdogan for his efforts to renew the Black Sea Grains Initiative, which they agreed was critical to improving global food security amid the Russian war, and that the initiative must continue,” according to the White House.
Biden ended his world tour by showcasing perhaps the most important aspect of his foreign policy: his ability to keep Western nations aligned with Russia, even as the war in Ukraine causes economic turmoil, food shortages and soaring energy prices.
“We reaffirm our unwavering support for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in the face of Russia’s continued aggression,” the NATO and G-7 joint statement read, as well as our continued readiness to hold Russia accountable for its brazen attacks on Ukraine. Communities.”