On 10 July, US President Joe Biden embarked on a whirlwind European tour that covered three nations in four days.
He stopped in London first to meet with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and King Charles III. Then he went to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius to attend the NATO Summit. His last stop was in Helsinki, Finland, for talks with several Nordic leaders.
At each stop, deliberations and give and take took place amongst the various players.
The aim behind Biden’s London visit was twofold. First, the meeting with Sunak ahead of the NATO Summit was to clear the air regarding an issue that Britain and the US do not see eye to eye on: the cluster bombs that the US is to send to Ukraine.
Despite the issue or because of it, Sunak welcomed Biden’s visit in a statement released by his office two days ahead saying that “as we face new and unprecedented challenges to our physical and economic security, our alliances are more important than ever.”
A cluster bomb scatters over a wide area causing massive collateral damage. Britain, among one hundred other nations, has banned cluster bombs as it is signatory to the Convention on Cluster Munitions that finds the harm done by such bombs unacceptable. The US is not a member of the Convention and neither is Russia. This means only one thing: once Ukraine uses cluster bombs, Russia will retaliate with the same.
One Tory member of the UK parliament, Tobias Ellwood, warned of the consequences of going along with the US in supplying cluster bombs to Ukraine, saying that it could “cost the ‘high moral ground’ for Ukraine’s backers”. He also said the international coalition of support for Ukraine could start to crumble, as many would fault the use of banned munitions.
Sunak may have quibbled about the cluster bomb issue fleetingly with Biden, but the US will not backtrack on the issue. Besides much more is at stake. According to the UK newspaper the Guardian, “Sunak – who said in careful comments on Saturday that Britain ‘discouraged’ the use of cluster munitions – has a choice about how much to make of the difference when Biden visits Downing Street on Monday, but it is likely to be limited.”
Biden then met King Charles to discuss climate issues, a topic close to the latter’s heart and one he has advocated for many decades.
In Vilnius, Biden attended the NATO Summit, the focus of his European trip. He reiterated the US solidarity with Ukraine to NATO members. However, that support focuses on providing Ukraine with weapons needed on the battlefield, while holding back on having Ukraine become a member of NATO during the war with Russia.
Several members of NATO want Ukraine’s membership ratified now. But this would expand the war between Russia and Ukraine even further, since NATO’s defence pact would call on NATO members to defend Ukraine.
One day ahead of the summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accepted Sweden’s membership in NATO. Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson had visited the US a few days ahead of the visit and met with Biden to keep up the pressure for Sweden’s membership. After Turkey’s announcement, a pleasantly surprised Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, said that “Sweden will become a full member of the alliance.”
Since Sweden has been too lenient towards groups that Turkey considers to be a threat to its security, Erdogan had stood out against its membership. However, Erdogan’s eventual approval meant that Biden did not need to pressure him on the issue, adding to the success of trip before it started. Turkey may now be supplied with US F-16 jets, which Biden had said were pending Sweden’s NATO membership.
Unfortunately, Sweden’s becoming a member of NATO in no way deescalates the war in Ukraine. On the contrary, it feeds the escalation.
Hungary, another obstacle to Sweden’s becoming a NATO member, remained on the fence, saying that Sweden had always had a hostile attitude towards Hungary. Even that obstacle was removed, however, since Hungary had vowed a few days earlier to back Sweden’s NATO entry if Turkey allowed it.
But more was at play during the summit. Biden wanted to share his vision with the alliance on how NATO must continue to provide support for Ukraine. He also wanted to convince certain NATO members, two-thirds of the membership to be exact, who oppose the use of cluster bombs and have banned them as to why the US will send such weapons to Ukraine.
The US has defended its intention to send the cluster bombs contingent on Ukraine’s formally agreeing to use them “carefully” – rather a tall order, one might add.
Biden also had to maintain his position on not allowing Ukraine to become a member of NATO until the war is over, while demonstrating how the US has assisted Ukraine in hindering Moscow’s expansionism. At the end of the summit, Stoltenberg confirmed what Biden had called for: NATO providing a clear path for Ukraine to become a member at some point but not yet.
After two nights in Vilnius, Biden visited Helsinki, sending another strong signal to Russia by affirming Finland’s joining of NATO and becoming the 31st member of the alliance and by welcoming Sweden’s clear path to join. As a result of Finland’s membership, NATO has doubled its border with Russia.
In Helsinki, Biden met with the leaders of Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland, with the White House calling Biden’s visit a “US-Nordic leaders summit.” It was a vital show of solidarity and an opportunity for the US to reach out to the Nordic countries.
* The writer is former professor of communication based in Vancouver, Canada.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly