Amid Crises, Biden Offers the World a Choice: My Way, or Trump’s

BALI, Indonesia — President Biden returns home from a week of diplomacy and crisis management in the Middle East and Asia strengthened in his faith that this period of war and economic turmoil calls for his brand of coalition-building politics — reinforcing the leadership differences with his predecessor, Donald J. Trump, just as he announced another White House run on Tuesday.

Mr. Biden’s swing through Egypt, Cambodia and Indonesia was buoyed by a cascade of better-than-expected news for Democrats in the midterm elections and punctuated by a nearly three-hour meeting with China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, that appeared to ease the rancorous rhetoric between the two increasingly rivalrous economies, the world’s largest.

As reports emerged of Russian-made rockets killing two people in Poland, Mr. Biden convened an emergency meeting with NATO and Group of 7 leaders over the latest missile strikes in Russia’s war in Ukraine, declining to speculate on the source until more facts were known.

The week’s events epitomize, Mr. Biden’s aides and allies say, the president’s approach to governing, which preaches cooling tempers and restoring the sort of alliances that his predecessor ignored or rended. Over the course of his trip to Asia, he effectively offered global leaders the same choice he campaigned on in the closing days of the midterms: Do you want Mr. Trump’s brand of American leadership, or mine?

During Mr. Trump’s time in office, his style differed sharply, aligning America with strongmen and dictators at the expense of traditional democratic allies. Mr. Trump was friendlier than Mr. Biden has been in office with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia; the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un; and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. With Mr. Xi, Mr. Trump vacillated between syrupy compliments and harsh language, depending on the issue.

As Mr. Trump announced on Tuesday that he would run for president again, he called the coronavirus the “China virus” yet also called Mr. Xi, who moved last month to extend his reign and consolidate his power, a “king.”

“Trump indulged in personal diplomacy, thinking he could resolve problems by dealing directly with various authoritarian leaders,” said Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Biden tends to see authoritarians for what they are and sets his sights lower.”

With Mr. Trump’s declaration looming in the global backdrop, Mr. Biden appeared uninterested in discussing the former president’s candidacy. As Mr. Trump was speaking, Mr. Biden arrived at a mangrove forest in Bali to meet with other leaders, including President Emmanuel Macron of France, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, for a ceremonial planting to signal a commitment to climate initiatives.

Among the mangroves, Mr. Biden was asked if he had any reaction to Mr. Trump’s run. The president shared a look with Mr. Macron and continued walking. “No. Not really,” he said, turning his attention back to the plants.

At other times during the week, the president’s message about Mr. Trump was implicit. “On my first trip overseas last year, I said that America was back — back at home, back at the table, and back to leading the world,” Mr. Biden said at a news conference on Monday, shortly after his meeting with Mr. Xi. “In the year and a half that’s followed, we’ve shown exactly what that means.”

“America is keeping its commitments. America is investing in our strength at home. America is working alongside our allies and partners to deliver real, meaningful progress around the world,” he said. “And at this critical moment, no nation is better positioned to help build the future we want than the United States of America.”

Mr. Trump offered a more confrontational and nationalist message on Tuesday evening, as he announced his 2024 campaign at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

“When I left office, the United States stood ready for its golden age,” he said. “Our nation was at the pinnacle of its power, prosperity and prestige, towering above all rivals, vanquishing all enemies, and striding into the future confident and strong.”

“For the first time in memory,” he added, “China was reeling and back on its heels.”

Under his presidency, the United States did take a markedly tougher approach to China, including over trade, Taiwan and Beijing’s influence abroad.

After the coronavirus spread from China in 2020, the Trump administration’s antagonism toward Beijing had an increasingly ideological hue, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declaring that “securing our freedoms from the Chinese Communist Party is the mission of our time.”

Mr. Biden has continued many of those policies, even if he smoothed their more abrasive edges, while laying out new restrictions on China’s access to technology. In effect, he has sought to use a more open dialogue with Mr. Xi to defuse Beijing’s criticism of America’s increasingly confrontational economic policies toward China.

Mr. Biden’s approach has won praise in Asia. Thomas Lembong, a former trade minister in Indonesia, said Mr. Biden’s “constructive posture is clearly more conducive for the region and the world than Trump’s hostile actions combined with his hostile rhetoric.”

But Robert Ross, a political science professor at Boston College and a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, said that Mr. Biden’s more amicable approach also belied his administration’s effort to impede China’s access to technologies that could advance its computing abilities or bolster its military.

“This is a policy designed to maintain American supremacy and that requires countering the rise of China,” Mr. Ross said. “Certainly the president is very confident in America’s ability to contend with the rise of China. But this has to be sustained through numerous presidents, not just the Biden administration.”

Mr. Biden left Washington for a weeklong trip two days after the midterm elections. He took aim at Mr. Trump in his first stop, apologizing at a climate summit in Egypt for Mr. Trump’s decision to pull out of an agreement to limit catastrophic levels of global warming.

But as the trip progressed, Mr. Biden spoke less about his predecessor and more about what the outcome of the midterms said about Mr. Trump and candidates who falsely claimed that the 2020 election was stolen.

Midway through his stop in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, at a summit of Southeast Asian leaders, news outlets declared that Democrats had retained control of the Senate. By the time he reached Bali, for a meeting of the Group of 20 nations, it was clear Mr. Biden’s party had suffered relatively small losses in the House for an incumbent party in a midterm.

An ebullient Mr. Biden claimed momentum on the international stage from those domestic results. “It’s been clear just how closely the world and our allies and our competitors as well have been following our elections at home,” Mr. Biden said at his news conference. “And what these elections showed is that there is a deep and unwavering commitment in America to preserving and protecting and defending democracy.”

Mr. Biden did not script the split-screen drama that played out on Wednesday morning in Bali — Tuesday night in Florida — but it illustrated exactly the contrast that White House advisers had hoped to draw at the time of Mr. Trump’s entry into the 2024 campaign.

A few days before the midterms, one Biden adviser told reporters that the likely timing of Mr. Trump’s announcement would give Mr. Biden a chance to show himself as “the president of the United States leading the free world in a way only he can.”

Mr. Biden had planned to spend the moments surrounding Mr. Trump’s speech engaged in photo-opportunity diplomacy, planting mangrove trees with fellow leaders and receiving a personal tour of the forest from President Joko Widodo of Indonesia.

But he woke early to news that Russian-made missiles had exploded in Poland. He delayed the tree planting and called an emergency meeting of allies. Afterward, he addressed reporters, pledging full support for an investigation and condemning Moscow’s latest round of missile attacks across Ukraine, even as he suggested the explosion in Poland may not have been the fault of Russia.

“They’ve been totally unconscionable, what they’re doing. Totally unconscionable,” Mr. Biden said. “At the moment when the world came together at the G20 to urge de-escalation, Russia has chosen to escalate in Ukraine, while we’re meeting.”

A few moments later, Mr. Trump began an hourlong campaign kickoff at his home in Palm Beach, Fla., rehashing a familiar pitch that America is declining and only he can turn it around, peppered with provocative claims often detached from facts. He claimed without evidence that the invasion of Ukraine “would never have happened if I were your president,” and he mocked Mr. Biden over the Polish explosions.

“A missile was sent in probably by Russia to Poland, 50 miles into Poland,” Mr. Trump said. “And people are going absolutely wild and crazy, and they are not happy. They are very angry. And we have a president who falls asleep at global conferences.”

Some 10,000 miles away, Mr. Biden, whose first call of the day had been completed by 5:30 that morning, walked among the mangroves with other world leaders.

Christopher Buckley Muktita Suhartono and Sui-Lee Wee contributed reporting from Bali.


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