Feb 18, 2021 - World

What to make of the Biden administration's first overseas calls

Countries that have received a call from top Biden administration officials

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to wait a month for a call from President Biden, and while Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman got a call Thursday, it came not from Biden but from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

The big picture: Biden, Austin, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and national security adviser Jake Sullivan have together called officials from at least 43 countries, with Blinken alone calling 39 (there’s considerable overlap between their call lists).

  • The administration’s first calls generally went to America’s neighbors, Canada and Mexico, followed by the U.K., France, Germany as well as leaders from the EU and NATO.
  • Major U.S. partners in the Pacific (Australia, India, Japan and South Korea) have also taken priority, while Biden and Blinken have both spoken with their “great power” counterparts in China and Russia.
  • Biden’s 12th and most recent call went to Netanyahu, but he otherwise hasn’t spoken with any U.S. partners in the Middle East. And while Blinken has spoken with officials in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, there has yet to be a single call announced with Egypt.

Between the lines: While Netanyahu had to wait a few weeks for a call, Blinken, Austin and Sullivan all held early calls with their Israeli counterparts. If any longtime U.S. partner should be wary of a “snub,” it’s probably the Egyptians.

  • The Biden administration has already raised concerns about human rights abuses by the Egyptian government, in a clear break from Trump’s “my favorite dictator” approach to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. However, the State Department still approved a big arms deal with Egypt this week.

Why it matters: The calls give some sense of Biden’s early priorities.

  • Excluding Israel, there have been fewer calls to the Middle East (seven total to Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE) than to Southeast Asia (eight calls to Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam).
  • The administration’s focus on the Indo-Pacific was further underlined by Blinken’s participation Thursday in discussions with his counterparts from the “Quad” strategic dialogue: Australia, India and Japan.
  • Blinken also met virtually Thursday with officials from France, Germany and the U.K. to discuss issues including Iran, the administration’s one genuine priority in the Middle East.

Worth noting: There have been relatively few calls thus far to Latin America or Africa. Leaders in both regions are hoping for more attention from Biden than they received from Trump.

What to watch: Biden will address the Munich Security Conference on Friday and also take part in the virtual G7 summit, two of his first “international” engagements as president.

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