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'All politics is personal': Biden leans on existing relationships in first global test

Asked how the president was preparing for his first trip abroad since taking office, White House press secretary Jen Psaki joked: “He's been getting ready for 50 years.”
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ST. IVES, England — The first time then-Vice President Joe Biden met Justin Trudeau, he shared story after story of his encounters as a young senator in the 1970s with the prime minister’s father, also a Canadian premier.

During one of his last meetings with Angela Merkel, Biden reminded the German chancellor of one of his early visits to Berlin two decades earlier, taking his sons through Checkpoint Charlie.

As part of the first high-level meetings of any world leader with China’s Xi Jinping in China a decade ago, Biden was accompanied by his granddaughter, a “budding Chinese speaker,” joking that it was “more appropriate to say Naomi brought me along with her.”

As now-President Biden now kicks off days of face-to-face meetings with world leaders Thursday in Cornwall, he brings with him what administration officials consider a secret weapon to high-stakes discussions: decades of work building connections with ally and adversary alike.

“In international relations, all politics is personal,” Biden said during a visit to South Korea in 2013. “Because it’s all ultimately based on trust. And trust only flows from personal — not friendly — personal, candid relationships with your counterpart, so you don’t have to wonder about intentions.”

For so many new presidents making an inaugural trip overseas, days packed with bilateral meetings and multilateral summits are often about introductions and laying the groundwork for a new relationship. Former President Donald Trump’s first visit to Europe four years ago was an especially sensitive one, as allies warily took the measure of a brash new American leader with little foreign policy record.

But when asked this week how Biden was preparing for his first trip abroad as president, White House press secretary Jen Psaki joked: “He's been getting ready for 50 years.”

During his time as a senator and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden’s office began cataloging his travels. A version of that document has survived to this day, handed down from staffer to staffer and allowing them to refresh their, or Biden’s, recollection of potential past encounters.

“I have traveled over 1.3 million miles for the president, meeting with heads of state, most of whom I’ve known most of my career,” Biden said on his last foreign trip as vice president in 2017, just 48 hours before Trump’s inauguration.

Just after touching down in the U.K. Wednesday, Biden told service members at a Royal Air Force station in Mildenhall that he’d visited “well over 100 countries” as a senator and vice president.

The depth of relationships particularly with U.S. adversaries is especially valuable at what Biden himself has termed an “inflection point'' in world history, with democracies and autocracies jockeying for influence in the 21st century.

During his 2020 campaign, Biden punctuated many of his speeches by recounting his initial conversations with Xi, in which his Chinese counterpart asked him to describe America in one word. Biden offered: “Possibilities.”

“Personal relationships are the only vehicle by which you build trust,” Biden told Xi two years later when he returned for more meetings in Beijing. “It doesn’t mean you agree, but trust to know that the man or woman on the other side of the table is telling you precisely what they mean, even if you don’t want to hear it.”

“Because our relationship is so complex, getting it right isn’t going to be easy, and it’s going to require direct straightforwardness with one another about our interests, our concerns and, quite frankly, our expectations,” Biden added.

Ahead of Biden's first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladmir Putin next week, advisers have stressed the value of him being able to speak bluntly and directly without the need to take the measure of his counterpart.

“Bottom line: He believes you need to be clear, direct, and straightforward in every aspect of the engagement with Vladimir Putin, and that's what he intends to do,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Wednesday.

There’s a risk, though, of focusing on the personal at the expense of the substance. But Biden has often told the story of his last-known face-to-face meeting with Putin, telling him bluntly that he “has no soul.”

“We understand each other,” Biden says Putin replied.

Ted Kaufman, Biden’s longtime chief of staff and successor as Delaware senator, said that even the president is keeping expectations in check for whether he will be able to move Putin on any major issue.

“But he knows how to get there. He knows how to put the ball in play,” Kaufman told MSNBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin. “I think one of the things that’s really striking about his presidency is that he’s the first president in years and years who has any real experience of being president. … He’s known Putin for 20, 30 years. He knows how to negotiate.”

Another U.S. official said that Biden’s strong personal connections may prove even more valuable with allies who have begun to question the durability of their partnership with the United States after the Trump presidency.

“He’s got to credibly show that he’s doing what he needs to do and that that’s going to not only bring the U.S. back economically, but it’s going to sort of in some way normalize our political dysfunction or address that,” said Matthew Goodman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “That’s a tough message, especially this early in the administration.”