PLYMOUTH, England – Call it the welcome death of Zoom diplomacy.
President Biden and six heads of state or government from the world’s richest nations meet face-to-face in a picturesque seaside resort in Cornwall on the south-west coast of England. It will be the first personal global summit since the coronavirus pandemic suspended travel and forced presidents and prime ministers to reach for the “raise hand” button like everyone else.
So far, the proximity seems to favor the cooperation.
Summit meetings are always full of ready-made deliverables, but stage management always works better when there is an actual stage. As the summit opened on Friday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who not only hosted the meeting but also drew most of the royal family to a formal dinner, announced that the group of seven nations would collect one billion doses of the coronavirus – The third world will donate vaccine.
It was a very deliberate attempt to show that the world’s richest democracies can catch up with China’s efforts to establish themselves as leaders in the fight against the coronavirus. The G7 promise includes Mr Biden’s promise to deliver 500 million doses of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine.
But when leaders gathered in hastily built meeting rooms just a few feet from a sandy bank, they realized that there was a major geopolitical move behind the humanitarian gesture, given that more than 260 million doses of China’s Covid-19 vaccine at 95. countries were sent, according to Bridge Consulting, a consulting firm based in Beijing.
The heads of state and government gathered in Carbis Bay in Cornwall have at least conceptually approved Mr Biden’s proposal for a global minimum tax of 15 percent in order to discourage companies from getting involved in a race to bottom the tax burden. And the group seems ready to unanimously adopt stricter emissions targets ahead of a major climate summit this year.
But the real sign that personal diplomacy is back was Friday dinner with many kings, from Queen Elizabeth to Prince Charles, Prince William and Kate Middleton, who met first lady Jill Biden earlier in the day at a British meeting met school. They dined at the Eden Project, an environmental organization that includes rainforests along the Cornwell coast covered by several large biomes.
It was balm for Mr Biden, who loved nothing more than to fly around the world as Chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee and then as Vice President – a man who actually enjoyed roaming the halls of the famous Hotel Bayerischer Hof, where the Munich Security Authorities Conference takes place every year. He could be seen, two hands on the shoulder of a diplomat, how he took his position, convinced, posed for pictures.
Then such trips came to a crashing halt. He fought from his basement. After his election, his aides had strict rules that no more than five people could be in a White House office at a time. Four months ago, Mr Biden held his first home meeting with a world leader and, during a pandemic, consulted the only practicable way with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada: a video call from the Roosevelt Room at the White House.
More calls from Zoom followed: a virtual meeting of a group known as Quad, which includes the president and the leaders of Australia, India and Japan; and then a global climate summit “hosted” by Mr. Biden but conducted in the “Brady Bunch” style, with the guides stacked in video squares on large screens.
Walking on tiptoe for real, human visits, he invited Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan and then President Moon Jae-in of South Korea for brief visits to the White House. (Chancellor Angela Merkel is next, the White House said on Friday and is coming for a farewell visit on July 15, just before she resigns.)
This week the individual sessions ended.
Mr. Biden flew across the Atlantic for an eight day personal round of global setbacks and private confrontations. On Friday he attended the first day of a meeting of the Group of 7 with the leaders of the world’s richest nations. This is followed by a full meeting of NATO leaders and the European Union ahead of the main event of the trip: a face-to-face duel with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.
“I don’t think the importance of personal diplomacy can be overstated,” said Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton.
June 11, 2021 at 12:31 p.m. ET
“On the zoom you have no sense of their movements and how they sit and various things that show what kind of person you are dealing with,” she said. “You can’t judge what’s going through your head.” (The Munich conference, she noted, was “a perfect setting for him,” which refers to Mr. Biden.)
Richard Haass, a lifelong diplomat and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed that face-to-face meetings are better than the alternative. “I leave it to others to judge the diplomatic implications of Zoom, who only require executives to be formally dressed from the waist up,” he said.
But Mr Haass cautioned against reading too much in “face-to-face meetings or personal diplomacy in general”.
“Leaders are motivated by what they consider to be their own interests and the interests of their country,” he said. “Diplomacy is a tool to advance these interests, not to give favors.”
Haass noted that “a face-to-face encounter can also give a leader too much confidence. Khrushchev was wrong when he concluded too much from his first meeting with JFK and later dubbed his hand as he brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Of course, not all presidents loved a summit as much as Mr Biden did. President Barack Obama disliked the endless pomp of the formal summits he attended during his eight years in the White House, especially the insubstantial moments like the “family photo” in which world leaders stand stiffly while photographers their pictures snap shots. (There was one at the water’s edge on Friday.)
And there’s always the possibility that a meeting pissed off leaders, as President Donald J. Trump demonstrated during his tenure.
His presence at global meetings, including the G7, sparked dismay and confrontation when he clashed with America’s allies. At the G7 in Quebec City in 2018, Mr. Trump refused to sign the statement by the heads of state or government, called Mr. Trudeau “very dishonest and weak” and was consistently grumpy – as if in a picture that was held in front of his chest showing clasped hands. with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who leans over a table while the other heads of state and government stand by.
But it’s different for Mr. Biden.
Ms. Merkel, Mr. Trudeau and the other leaders of the world get along with Mr. Biden, even if their nations sometimes quarrel over problems. (Mr Biden and Mrs Merkel disagree on the need for a Russian natural gas pipeline; Mr Trudeau and others are not happy with the president’s stance on trade and tariffs.)
Mr. Biden appeared relaxed and happy in Carbis Bay. On Thursday evening as the sun went down, he gave a formal address about the 500 million vaccines and then showed up with his wife Jill in sneakers without socks at the tables outside a small cafe overlooking the water. He made small talk with those who were a little shocked to see him. And the mood was bright when the guides gathered outside for the required photo.
“Everyone in the water,” he said – probably joking.