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Half a world apart, Biden counters Russia by touting the alliances that Trump mocks

The crisis in Poland spawned a split-screen moment highlighting two starkly different approaches between the current and former presidents.
From left, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and European Council President Charles Michel during a meeting of G7 and NATO leaders in Bali, Indonesia, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022. (Doug Mills/The New York Times via AP, Pool)
President Joe Biden, center, at a meeting of G-7 and NATO leaders in Bali, Indonesia, on Wednesday.Doug Mills / Pool/The New York Times via AP

BALI, Indonesia — Surrounded by America’s closest allies, President Joe Biden plotted a response to reports that a Russian-made missile had hit Poland near the border with Ukraine — immediately causing alarm about possible escalation in the region.

Biden, speaking Wednesday local time, emerged to vow that the U.S. and its allies would “collectively determine our next steps and proceed.”

Minutes later and half a world away, former President Donald Trump announced he’s running again, while implying that some of the countries Biden wants to help deter Russia aren’t so much allies as thieves.

“I used to fight like cats and dogs with the leaders of other countries because they were stealing from us,” Trump said.

The crisis in Poland spawned a split-screen moment highlighting two starkly different approaches to advancing America’s basic foreign policy interests — between two men who could be heading for a rematch in 2024.

Attending a summit meeting in Bali when the missile hit Poland, Biden quickly arranged the meeting with the leaders of France, Germany, Canada and other allies. He also consulted by phone with NATO, the military alliance built to check Russian aggression after World War II. 

Meanwhile, at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, Trump opened his third presidential campaign by again touting a policy that belittles collective multinational action.

“We will again put America first,” he said.

One of Biden’s aims since he took office has been to repair America’s network of alliances, which had fractured under Trump. He left for the trip a few days after the midterm elections, strengthened by Democratic successes that he argued sent a message to the world that Trumpism is in retreat. The crisis in Poland amounted to a chilling demonstration of why Biden feels those alliances are necessary.

Biden and the U.S. delegation have privately pressed foreign leaders in Bali at the Group of 20 conference of leading rich and developing countries to issue a joint statement condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The idea is to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin and show him that his war is unwinnable. Most of the leaders in attendance have agreed to sign on, a Biden administration official said.

As Biden aides worked to round up support, reports appeared that a Russian missile might have landed in Poland, killing two people.

Polish leaders convened an emergency meeting as U.S. officials scrambled to learn more details. A Russian strike against Poland would widen a war that, until this point, has been confined to Ukraine. Poland is a member of NATO, whose Article 5 deems an attack on one to be an attack on all. Biden has pledged that the U.S. will defend “every single inch” of NATO territory. 

“We, of course, are ready to stand with our NATO allies and partners,” Vedant Patel, a State Department spokesman, told reporters.

Not long ago, it was an open question whether the U.S. would defend even one inch of NATO territory.

NATO, and the mutual defense obligation that underlies it, was nearly a casualty of the Trump administration. Trump often complained that members were freeloading: failing to pay the cost while expecting the U.S. to come to their defense if they were attacked (the only time Article 5 has been invoked was by the U.S. after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001).

During his presidency, Trump wanted to pull the U.S. out of NATO, which would have effectively caused the alliance to unravel. He didn’t follow through; NATO endured. For how long may depend on the next election. Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton believes that had Trump won re-election in 2020 he would have withdrawn from NATO. If Trump wins in 2024, he’ll get another shot.

Trump still looms large in the minds of America’s allies, who wonder whether he and his isolationist foreign policy approach might one day be back, Biden administration officials said.

An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more freely, said, “Some [U.S. allies] fear that we’re the aberration, and not the other way around.”

In meetings with foreign counterparts in Egypt, Cambodia and Indonesia over the past week, Biden has sought to reassure allies and demonstrate that America’s commitments are ironclad. Shoring up alliances is a way to expand U.S. power in the face of threats from Russia and China.

“There’s no question that the network of American allies is a huge multiplier of American power,” said Danny Russel, a vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, who was a State Department official in the Obama administration. “And it’s one of the reasons that the U.S. is so effective as a global actor, because we have allies and partners who believe in us and are willing to stand by us.”

Meeting with Southeast Asian leaders in Cambodia, the White House announced a wide-ranging $860 million package that will be used to promote clean energy, public health and education in the region.

At the G-20 in Bali, Biden and his foreign counterparts announced plans to expand renewable energy in Indonesia, support a solar power project in Honduras and improve public health in India, among many other projects.

“A big difference between the way this administration handles itself overseas and the previous one is our reliance on alliances and partnerships,” a second senior administration official said. “We don’t denigrate them, and we don’t abuse them. We don’t starve them of resources and attention.”

Others aren’t persuaded. The show-stopping event of Biden’s trip wasn’t any of the meetings he held with allies but rather the face-to-face meeting he had with the leader of a competitor and adversary: China. Biden’s three-hour meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping may have signaled U.S. allies that as far as Biden is concerned, America’s relationship with China dwarfs all else, critics contend. 

Biden’s meeting with Xi “does in form and substance diminish the value of alliances and partnerships,” said Steve Yates, a former aide to ex-Vice President Dick Cheney, a Republican, who is now a China expert at the America First Policy Institute, a nonprofit group led by a number of former Trump administration officials. “It gives the impression that the major powers are getting together, and that gives China unearned status.”

In his announcement, Trump faulted Biden for skipping a gala dinner of G-20 leaders. “Everyone flew over to wherever they flew over, and guess what?” Trump said. “He never showed up. They’re still looking for him.” Left unsaid was that as president, Trump skipped summit meetings with Asian leaders in 2018, sending Vice President Mike Pence in his place.

Biden wasn’t gone for long. The next day, after his emergency meeting on Poland, he attended a tree-planting ceremony, wearing his aviator sunglasses and chatting amiably with the global counterparts he’ll need to pressure Russia to end the war.

Later, at a meeting with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the two leaders discussed Russia’s missile strikes in Ukraine and the explosion in Poland as well as the challenges posed by China, climate change and securing energy supplies, the White House said.

“You’re our closest ally and our closest friend,” Biden told the prime minister, "and we appreciate that."