Biden’s hopes for G7 foreign policy success undermined by Gaza war

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Joe Biden came to the G7 summit this week hoping to shore up his foreign policy record as he faces a gaping polling deficit with Donald Trump on his handling of international affairs.

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With less than five months left before the November election and the first televised debate against Trump set for later this month, the US president is running out of time to show success in an area of political weakness for him.

But while the summit gave him an opportunity to project American power, especially in efforts to push back Russian forces in Ukraine, it also highlighted his foreign policy challenges.

Chief among these has been the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. The scale of destruction has triggered a fierce backlash from some voters on the left of Biden’s own Democratic party, who have balked at the president’s support for Israel’s military campaign and are horrified at the level of Palestinian civilian casualties.

Earlier this month Biden threw his political weight behind a peace plan between Israel and Hamas that has gained little, if any, traction since then — and that difficulty continued to weigh on him in Italy.

“Whether it now comes to fruition remains to be seen,” Biden admitted at a press conference in Italy on Thursday night, after earlier in the day declaring he was not confident in a deal — although he had not lost hope either. “We’re going to continue to push. I don’t have a final answer for you,” he said.

Biden was able to show more decisive leadership on Ukraine, however. He moved to aggressively reboot US and allied support for Kyiv’s defence against Russia — including signing a sweeping 10-year security pact with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy — to make up for lost time after Congress delayed passage of a large aid package during the winter months. He also concluded a deal for G7 countries to lend up to $50bn to Ukraine using the future proceeds from Russian sovereign assets,

But while Biden considers his ability to rally the west to Ukraine’s side and stymie the Russian invasion one of his biggest foreign policy accomplishments, and a stark contrast to Trump’s scepticism around helping Ukraine and coziness with Russian president Vladimir Putin, the fact that the conflict has now dragged on for two-and-a-half years is weighing on his standing with voters.

Joe Biden moved to aggressively reboot US and allied support for Kyiv’s defence against Russia — including signing a sweeping 10-year security pact with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy © AFP via Getty Images
According to a NYT/Siena poll conducted in April, 35 per cent of registered voters in the US approved of Biden’s handling of foreign conflicts, whereas 49 per cent approved of Trump’s handling of foreign conflicts during his time in the White House.

Allison McManus, managing director for the National Security and International Policy department at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think-tank in Washington, said the G7 was a key event for Biden to project himself as a world leader devoted to democracy in the face of rising authoritarianism, ahead of a critical Nato summit in July and the election in November.

But she added his position on the Gaza conflict had “complicated” the effort.

“A values-based foreign policy agenda is the basis for the real investment that we’ve seen this administration put in supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression,” she said.

But she added: “That all becomes much more difficult to promote at a time when we’re also seeing the US continue to provide support to Israel while it’s carrying out human rights violations and violations of international law.”

Biden’s polling on foreign policy started to plummet after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, and never recovered. He did not get much credit for his handling of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and the Gaza war has made matters worse.

“There’s just a general perception that the world is more dangerous and more unstable since Trump left office. He was doing something right and Biden’s policies haven’t worked . . . they have been weak and frivolous,” says Fred Fleitz, vice-chair of the Center for American Security, a think-tank close to Trump.

The Trump campaign did not attack Biden on any of the substance of the G7 summit, but instead described him as a “brain-dead zombie”. “Our adversaries like China, Russia, and Iran are no doubt watching Biden’s obvious decline and plotting how they can continue to take advantage of our weak and incompetent Commander-in-Chief,” said Karoline Leavitt, a Trump campaign spokesperson.

Biden and his campaign have frequently reminded Americans of Trump’s tensions with US allies on trade and national security, including his questioning of Nato’s mutual defence pledge, and his admiration for authoritarian leaders including Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Xi Jinping of China. “Donald Trump’s bizarre and erratic leadership that is all about attacking our allies, cozying up to dictators, and getting laughed at on the world stage,” a Biden campaign spokesperson said.

After the commemorations of the 80th anniversary of D-Day in France earlier this month, Biden issued a plea for Americans to fight to preserve US democracy, indirectly taking aim at Trump. He said the “echoes” of the soldiers who stormed into Normandy to defeat Nazi troops were “asking us to do our job: to protect freedom in our time, to defend democracy, to stand up aggression abroad and at home, to be part of something bigger than ourselves”.

At the G7, Biden and senior White House officials steered clear of any references to Trump, though the campaign still loomed large. Biden was set to fly straight to California on Saturday for a Hollywood fundraising event, skipping a Ukraine peace conference in Switzerland that Zelenskyy had wanted him to attend.

Even as other G7 leaders — like Rishi Sunak of the UK and Emmanuel Macron of France — faced their own urgent political problems at home, the prospect of a Trump victory over Biden, in part fuelled by foreign policy issues, was on many minds.

“A palpable concern around the G7 table is which America shows up at the polls this November, ” said Dan Price, a former George W Bush administration official and a managing director at Rock Creek Global Advisors, a consultancy in Washington.

“Will it be the America that embraces the spirit of June 6, the D-Day landing to restore democracy, or will it be an America drawn to the darker spirit of January 6, the Trump-inspired assault on the Capitol to subvert democracy?”

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