Sep 20, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden's communication headaches

President Biden is seen with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron.

President Biden stands with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron at the G7 summit in June. Photo: Patrick Semansky/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Boris Johnson told reporters on his way to the U.N. General Assembly on Sunday night he didn't believe it was likely that the U.S. would agree to lift its ban on vaccinated foreign travelers this week. Hours later, the White House did exactly that.

Why it matters: For the second time in less than a week, a major U.S. foreign policy decision by the Biden administration appears to have caught one of its closest allies by surprise. And neither was the first time, either.

  • "Yes, we have done it faster than we expected," the British prime minister acknowledged when pressed later by a reporter about why he seemed out of the loop on the pending U.S. announcement, which will go into effect in November.
  • A senior Biden administration official told Axios the British government was "absolutely" informed ahead of the announcement.
  • The official pointed to a U.S.-U.K. joint task force that had been working on restarting travel between the two countries since the G7.

France was already angry about being surprised when the administration scuttled its massive submarine contract with Australia as part of a new security U.S./U.K./Australia security agreement.

  • The French are showing no signs of easing up on reprisals after top French officials said they first learned of the deal through the media.
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that France was aware of the AUKUS deal before the announcement, but that appears only to be true by a matter of hours.

It's also déjà vu for the European Union, which was blindsided when the White House announced in May that it would waive certain patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines.

  • And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in June he had to listen to a White House press briefing to get an explanation for why Biden decided to stop trying to block construction of Russia's Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which Ukraine views as a dire national security threat.
  • In several of these cases, media leaks — including to Axios, in the case of Ukraine — were to blame for allies learning about key decisions from someone other than their American counterparts.

The big picture: Biden will use his address before UNGA on Tuesday to herald a new chapter of "intensive diplomacy" to confront the challenges of the 21st century. But he will do so while facing a serious credibility test.

  • The president's decisions on the Afghanistan withdrawal and AUKUS showed "a clear lack of transparency and loyalty, loyalty and loyalty," EU Council President Charles Michel told reporters on Monday.
  • “I’m not putting in question this alliance,” Michel said. "But I’m asking, is there a doubt in the United States about the importance of this alliance with Europe?”
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