Somewhere in the United Kingdom there is a giant rug. And under that rug can be found the remnants of the recent spying scandal involving the United States and Denmark. The person holding the broom and therefore responsible for sweeping the scandal under the rug and out of sight? Almost certainly U.S. president Joe Biden.
During the G7 summit, which ended on Sunday, the leaders of the attending nations were mum, at least in public, about the scandal. Remember, it was only a couple weeks ago that headlines — especially in Europe — screamed that the U.S. had worked with Danish intelligence to spy on multiple Western European leaders. That spying took place between 2012 and 2014, when Biden was the vice president. Without a doubt, Biden should have expected some kind of public reminder from at least one of those leaders about that scandal, right? And certainly at least one U.S. journalist would find it impossible to resist demanding the president say something substantive about the scandal, right?
We can speculate whether any of those European leaders said anything about it to Biden in private. But in public, it was all smiles under the generally sunny skies in the United Kingdom. Photographs sent all over the world saw French president Emmanuel Macron and Biden with a hand on the other’s back as they walked from one event to another. Likewise, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Biden were shown enjoying a warm conversation about some issue.
Those were the images the White House wanted; they offered assurances that after four years of the wild roller coaster ride that was Donald Trump’s presidency, the United States again had a leader who could be respected across the globe and who was motivated by reason and not bombast. Any talk about spying on each other would have wrecked that narrative.
Therefore, during the G7, it was as if the spying had never happened and whatever controversy there might have been had been forgotten.
Of course, something did happen at the summit: China was bashed, although there are indications the attack could have been worse.
Biden was certainly the strongest advocate for criticizing Beijing. The Washington Post summarized the president’s position well, telling its readers: “President Biden said democratic governments face a defining challenge: to show they can meet tests such as global health crises and climate change better than autocracies such as China and Russia.”
And although Biden told the reporters covering his trip that the G7 was concerned with autocracy around the world, the reality is China was the one nation he was determined to criticize. Adding Russia allowed for the appearance of other nations being under scrutiny.
The U.S. pushed hard for a strong final statement criticizing China during the otherwise symbolically rich but substantively plain meeting. The White House did get some push back, which was to be expected, but Biden should have left the summit happy with the results.
Italy was identified as one country especially hesitant to deliver a forceful rebuke of China in part because it will co-host a climate conference later this year. The Italians want to enter that gathering with China an eager participant, as it has indicated it will be. Moreover, Italy is a major European player in the Belt and Road Initiative.
As expected, the final statement called significant attention to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and demanded a “timely, transparent, expert-led, and science-based WHO-convened Phase 2 COVID-19 Origins study” in China. The not-at-all subtle hint to that mouthful of words: The U.S. believes China continues to cover up what might have happened inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab, which allows for the “lab leak” theory to remain in people’s minds. The White House continues to drum up interest in that idea, despite comments from multiple experts doubting its potential. Recognizing that British prime minister Boris Johnson also remains skeptical about that theory, Biden might have swept possible controversy about that topic under the rug, as well.
In the statement, the leaders also acknowledged they were not happy that China had designs on undermining “the fair and transparent operation of the global economy.” And the statement also demanded China “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Biden met with the Queen before heading off to Brussels, where he will attend two days of meetings with NATO and other European Union leaders. Johnson was left to face the critics who argued the G7 leaders talked tough about China but offered no hints how they would sanction the country if it did not do what the G7 wanted. Johnson seemed to struggle for the right words to blunt those criticisms.
Perhaps he should have asked Biden for that broom.