The itinerary included a NATO summit, a brief stop in the United Kingdom and a coda in the Finnish shoreline capital that included a news conference in the ornate Gothic Hall at the presidential palace.
The president was Donald Trump and the year was 2018. In July of that year, Trump had upended the annual gathering of the military alliance, criticized the British prime minister to the London tabloids and ultimately, in Helsinki, sided with Russian leader Vladimir Putin while casting doubt on his own intelligence community.
President Joe Biden’s journey through Europe this week was nearly identical, but every point of his three-country tour was an unsaid yet indelible rebuke of his predecessor who tore through the continent a half-decade ago. It was a portrait of a leader whose ardent belief in international alliances will be part of his case for reelection, particularly if Biden faces a rematch against Trump and his opposing worldviews next year.
During Biden’s concluding news conference in Helsinki, he took umbrage at a question about whether he could guarantee the United States would continue to be a reliable partner abroad, a query that conveyed allies’ concerns about Trump, whose foreign policy disdained the same alliances Biden cherishes.
“Nobody can guarantee the future, but this is the best bet that anyone can make,” Biden said of the U.S. commitment to the 74-year-old military alliance. When a Finnish journalist noted that Biden said no one could make guarantees, he testily responded: “Let me be clear, I didn’t say … we couldn’t guarantee the future. You can’t tell me whether you’re going to be able to go home tonight. No one can be sure what they’re going to do.”
Voice raised, he declared, “I’m saying, as sure as anything can possibly be said about American foreign policy, we will stay connected to NATO — connected to NATO, beginning, middle and end. We’re a transatlantic partnership. That’s what I’ve said.”
His five-day trip to Europe — which wound through the United Kingdom, Lithuania and Finland — was meant to demonstrate the force of the international coalition against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And Biden appeared confident he had accomplished that mission, proclaiming that he and other NATO leaders showed the military alliance “more united than ever.”
Trump, in contrast, has often been dismissive of NATO. And in his news conference in Helsinki five years ago, he took issue with his own intelligence agencies’ firm finding that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. election to his benefit, seeming to accept Russian President Putin’s insistence that Moscow’s hands were clean.
Though Ukraine’s demand for an explicit path to NATO membership remained elusive, Biden emphasized that agreements with countries in the alliance would support Kiev’s long-term security even without its formal entry. During a meeting with Finnish President Sauli Niinistö earlier Thursday, Biden insisted that Zelensky “ended up very happy” despite his expressed frustrations at the lack of a clear timetable for Ukraine to join the alliance.
Biden and other administration officials also held what aides said were pivotal conversations with Türkiye before that country this week dropped its objections to Sweden joining NATO. That paves the way for Sweden to become the 32nd member of the alliance, after Finland formally joined earlier this year.
During his brief stop in London, Biden repeatedly highlighted his close friendship with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, whom he has already met with six times despite Sunak assuming his position just last October. That relationship was a stark contrast to that of Trump, who arrived in London five years ago accused then-Prime Minister Theresa May of ruining what the United Kingdom stood to gain from the Brexit vote to leave the European Union, adding that her former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, would make an “excellent” prime minister.
And in Helsinki, standing in the same position where his predecessor stood five years ago, Biden delivered a sharp rebuke of the Russian leader with whom Trump aligned on denying election interference.
“Putin’s already lost the war. Putin has a real problem — how does he move from here? What does he do?” Biden said during the news conference. “There is no possibility of him winning the war in Ukraine. He’s already lost that war.”
Trump, who is leading other Republican presidential hopefuls in polling, as well as some other candidates have continued to criticize Biden’s actions abroad even as the incumbent president takes hawkish actions that have pleased other GOP officials.
For instance, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a radio interview Wednesday with conservative radio host Howie Carr that he opposed Biden’s controversial decision to send cluster bombs to Ukraine and said “right now you have an open-ended, blank check. There’s no clear objectives for victory. And this is kind of dragging on and on.”
But the contrast is the sharpest with Trump who accused Biden of “dragging us further toward World War III” with the president’s controversial decision to send cluster munitions to Ukraine and in May, said the Democrat had “cowered to NATO” as he outlined his foreign policy platform.
It’s a contrast that Biden is eager to make. While in office, he has heartily embraced the tenets of multilateralism that Trump shunned, speaking repeatedly of having to rebuild international coalitions after four tumultuous years led by his predecessor. The garrulous former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman is in his element at summits abroad, and speaks of how his background in international policy is proof positive that decades of experience on the world stage has mattered for the presidency.
Amid Biden’s reelection campaign next year, the United States will be the host of the NATO summit in Washington as the military alliances marks its 75th anniversary — giving the U.S. president a natural domestic backdrop to tout his foreign policy vision before voters.
To be sure, foreign policy issues tend to fall far lower on the public’s priority list than domestic and economic issues. In a December 2022 AP-NORC poll asking Americans to name up to five problems they think are most important for the government to be working on, only about 2 in 10 (18%) named at least one foreign policy related issue other than immigration, compared with large majorities naming at least one economic or domestic issue.
In the 2022 midterm election, just 2% of voters named foreign policy as the single most important issue facing the country when asked to choose from a list of nine issues.
Yet the conflict over competing visions of foreign policy are often dominating domestic politics. This week, the House is taking up a sweeping legislative package that sets defense policy for the Pentagon, and close Trump ally Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., proposed an amendment that would withdraw the U.S. from NATO.
Meanwhile, Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., joined together to introduce a bill that would explicitly bar any U.S. president from leaving the military alliance without assent from Capitol Hill.
“NATO serves as an essential military alliance that protects shared national interests and enhances America’s international presence,” said Rubio, who ran against Trump for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. “Any decision to leave the alliance should be rigorously debated and considered by the U.S. Congress with the input of the American people.”
Sweden’s clearer path to joining NATO this week was another foreign policy goal accomplished for Biden, whose administration steadily kept up their pressure and support for the move. Both Finland and Sweden abandoned a history of military nonalignment and sought to join NATO alliance after Russia invaded Ukraine last year, and in particular, Finland’s admittance to NATO effectively doubled the alliance’s border with Russia.
Sweden is poised to be admitted as NATO’s 32nd member country after it pledged more cooperation with Türkiye on counterterrorism efforts while backing Ankara’s bid to join the European Union.
Biden’s visit to Helsinki was unusual for another reason: Charly Salonius-Pasternak, senior researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, noted that the trip marked a U.S. president coming to Finland to honor the country itself, rather than as a neutral location for meeting Russian leaders or other similar reasons.
He is the sixth U.S president to visit Finland, a country of 5.5 million that has hosted several U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-Russia summits. The first involved President Gerald Ford, who would sign the so-called Helsinki Accords with more than 30 other nations in 1975.
“The fact that Biden has chosen to go specifically to Finland for Finland is symbolic and, in some ways, very concrete,” Salonius-Pasternak said. “It’s a kind of deterrence messaging that only the United States can do.”
In the Cold War era, Finland acted as a neutral buffer between Moscow and Washington, and its leaders played a balancing act between the East and West, maintaining good relations with both superpowers.
Finland and neighboring Sweden gave up their traditional political neutrality by joining the European Union in 1995 but both remained militarily nonaligned, with opinion polls showing a clear majority of their citizens opposed to joining NATO. That changed quickly after Feb. 24, 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine.