Biden is going to Rome for the G20 summit. Here's what we're watching

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President Joe Biden waves as he boards Air Force One, Friday, July 9, 2021, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. Biden is spending the weekend at his home in Delaware. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
President Biden waves as he boards Air Force One earlier this year. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

President Biden is jetting off to Rome on Thursday to attend the annual G20 summit, a gathering of leaders from the world's most powerful nations.

The Times is along for the ride and we'll be covering Biden in Rome and during a second stop in Glasgow, Scotland, where he's attending a United Nations conference on climate change.

Here are some matters that we'll be keeping an eye on.

First, what is the G20?

The name stands for the "Group of 20," referring to 20 governments that attend the annual forum, which went virtual last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The members include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, India, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union.

These are the heavy hitters on the international stage. Combined, they have 60% of the world's population and more than 80% of its economic output. Although various ministers and senior officials have been meeting since 1999, the first gathering of the countries' top leaders occurred in 2008, when they were drawn into closer cooperation to withstand the global financial crisis.

It's a less exclusive group than the G7, which met earlier this year and includes only the world's most prosperous democracies. The G20 is much more unwieldy too; its countries have disparate economic goals and radically different political systems. Finding common ground may prove increasingly difficult if the U.S. and China continue to settle into their roles as opposing superpowers.

What is the G20 going to do about COVID-19?

When vaccines became available in December, international organizations pledged to equitably distribute them around the globe. The hope was to vaccinate 40% of the population of each country by the end of this year. With a little more than two months to go, it's clear that goal won't be met.

“Science has played its part by delivering powerful, life-saving tools faster than for any outbreak in history,” World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said earlier this month. “But the concentration of those tools in the hands of a few countries and companies has led to a global catastrophe, with the rich protected while the poor remain exposed to a deadly virus."

The U.S. has donated 200 million vaccine doses so far and plans to deliver more than 1 billion by next fall. Public health advocates and developing nations will be watching the summit for any commitments to hasten the production or distribution of vaccine.

Rich countries are under pressure to do more, especially because some are distributing booster shots. J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there's fear that's "going to lead to another cycle in which the wealthiest and most powerful countries consume most of the vaccines and hoard those and hold back."

The uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus anywhere on the planet could generate more deadly variants. The Delta variant, which was first detected in India, has already proved devastating in the U.S., causing a surge in deaths at a time when many Americans had hoped the crisis would be over.

Dr. Kathleen Neuzil, director of the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said there's no way to end the pandemic without worldwide inoculations.

"You can't keep throwing water on half the fire," she said. "You've got to get the water on the other half of the fire."

An image of last year's virtual G20 summit
This image provided by the G20 Riyadh Summit shows the virtual gathering of world leaders during last year's summit on Nov. 21, 2020. (Associated Press)

Can the U.S. patch things up with France?

There were some hard feelings last month when the U.S., United Kingdom and Australia announced a new security partnership called AUKUS, an acronym of the three countries' names. As part of the deal, Australia plans to work with the U.S. on nuclear-powered submarines, and it canceled a lucrative contract for diesel-powered submarines from France.

What followed was an extended diplomatic tantrum from America's oldest ally. France recalled its ambassador to the U.S., canceled a gala in Washington, D.C., and issued a string of scathing statements about suffering a "stab in the back." It was the kind of rupture that European leaders had hoped would be a thing of the past once Biden replaced President Trump, who delighted in offending transatlantic partners.

The U.S. has been trying to make things up to France. During a visit to Paris earlier this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. "could have communicated better" and "sometimes tend to take for granted" the relationship with France. Now Biden is expected to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of the G20.

Philippe Le Corre, a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who previously worked for the French Ministry of Defense, said the U.S. had fumbled an important relationship. Out of all the European powers, he said, France has one of the strongest commitments to the Pacific region — precisely where Biden has been emphasizing alliances to counter China.

"You can't say China is a strategic competitor and, at the same time, neglect your European allies," Le Corre said.

Will there be any new climate commitments?

The G20 forum is taking place right before a major United Nations summit on climate change in Glasgow, Scotland. It's known as COP26, meaning it's the 26th "conference of the parties" since countries started meeting annually to address global warming in 1995.

The Glasgow event is intended to build on the Paris agreement from 2015, and countries are being pushed to announce more ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Biden already did that in April.

A clear sign of whether Glasgow will be successful could come in Rome. If the world's richest nations make a strong statement about the need to address climate change, or if some announce aggressive plans to shift toward clean energy, that provides some hope that humanity can prevent global temperatures from reaching catastrophic levels.

However, expectations aren't high. The meeting is taking place amid an energy crunch that has made electricity and fuel more expensive around the world, putting pressure on countries to increase their burning of fossil fuels.

“We face real big headwinds at the moment," said Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Smoke and steam rise from a coal processing plant in China, the world's top emitter of greenhouse gases.
Smoke and steam rise from a coal processing plant in China, the world's top emitter of greenhouse gases. (Olivia Zhang / Associated Press)

How will things go with China?

Several leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, won't be attending this year's G20 in person.

The most notable absence, however, will be that of Chinese President Xi. He hasn't left China since the pandemic began but plans to participate virtually.

Depending on whom you ask, this is either a lost opportunity for dialogue or an advantage for the U.S.

Daniel Russel, a former top State Department official focused on Asia, called it a "very substantial geopolitical plus." A two-dimensional Xi on a computer screen will struggle to compete with a "lapel grabbing, hair- tousling, back-slapping Joe Biden" at the summit, Russel predicted.

The White House seems to view the situation the same way. Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security advisor, told reporters Tuesday that the U.S. and Europe will show up in Rome "energized and united" and "driving the agenda, shaping the agenda."

China and the U.S. have been increasingly at odds over trade, maritime access in the South China Sea and Beijing's aggression toward Taiwan. Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, said tension between the two countries will make it harder for the G20 to reach consensus.

"Can these organizations still function?" he said. "Can they still make progress on pressing challenges?"

Biden and Xi are expected to get some face time before the end of the year — they plan on holding a virtual meeting.

How does Biden portray the politics back home?

Biden has always strived to frame domestic and international policy as being interwoven. He pitches his economic agenda as a way to keep the U.S. competitive with other countries, and he describes his work with allies as delivering dividends for the American people.

That overlap will be on display in Europe, where Biden will showcase "what foreign policy for the middle class is all about," Sullivan said. The president, he added, will be focused on supply chain problems and rising energy prices.

Biden is leaving Washington during a critical stage of congressional negotiations over expanding safety net programs and investing in infrastructure. If he has a deal by the time he steps aboard Air Force One, it will be a show of political strength before meeting with his counterparts at the summit.

"Biden wants to go into this meeting saying, the U.S. is making the investments it needs to at home to build back better and we want others to join us," said Matthew P. Goodman, senior vice president for economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But if he doesn't reach a deal, Goodman said, Biden will have a hard time convincing people that "the U.S. is back."

Biden is working to pare down his proposals to satisfy Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Nathaniel Keohane, the president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said if environmental policies are gutted from the legislation, "that would be a serious setback on U.S. leadership on climate, and frankly its leadership in the world."

"No one in the international community wants to hear that 'politics is tough in the U.S. and there's polarization and we only have 50 votes,'" he said.

Sullivan downplayed the importance of nailing down an agreement before Biden attends the G20, and he claimed world leaders will appreciate Biden's objectives.

"Whether there is a bill this week or whether the negotiations continue, there will be a lot of energy and enthusiasm for the efforts the president is undertaking right now," he said.

Times staff writers Alice Su, in Beijing, and Tracy Wilkinson, in Washington, contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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