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Blinken reaffirms America’s focus on rebuilding partnerships

Blinken says Washington is focused on rebuilding damaged transatlantic partnerships

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During his March 22-25 trip to Brussels, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized repeatedly that the Biden administration will work to rebuild America’s important transatlantic relationships damaged under former President Donald Trump, with Washington’s top priority being work on revitalizing the NATO alliance.
Blinken’s extended Brussels trip was divided into two separate segments, one built around the NATO Foreign Ministerial sessions normally attended by the US Secretary of State on March 23-24, and a second segment devoted to US-EU relations on March 24. 
In addition, Blinken met with Belgian leaders and spent practically every free moment in separate bilateral and group meetings designed to acquaint him with many European counterparts he had not yet met in person.  
In support of Blinken’s efforts to revitalize transatlantic ties, US President Joe Biden briefly participated as a special guest (through video link) in the programed March 25 virtual meeting of EU heads of state and government.
Taking NATO forward together 
The North Atlantic Council (NAC) meeting at the level of Ministers of Foreign Affairs was held (in person) on March 23-24, 2021.  NATO’s membership is now up to 30 countries with the accession of North Macedonia.  The primary focus of the NAC session was the NATO 2030 Initiative Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg launched last year, the planned NATO pull out from Afghanistan this spring, and assessments of the threats from China and Russia.  

Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, in Brussels on March 23, 2021. SOURCE: State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/Public Domain

Nevertheless, the key takeaway from the session and Blinken’s attendance was really about America’s commitment to the reconstruction of pre-Trump transatlantic relationships.  Blinken summed it up in a press conference crisply “The US wants to rebuild our partnerships, first and foremost with our NATO allies. We want to revitalize the alliance.” After four years of wildly alternating cycles of NATO-bashing by Donald Trump, Blinken explicitly stated that the “last thing the US could afford to do was to take this alliance for granted.” 
So, you want a bilateral?  Call my scheduler….
For American officials, the bilateral and multilateral side meetings on the sidelines of a NATO ministerial meeting are nothing new but are nonetheless far less commonplace than the frequent face-to-face interactions between senior EU leaders and foreign ministers.  They are of course far easier to program that reciprocal visits to capital cities by senior officials, making them Washington’s preferred way to do business even if rarer these days due to the COVID-19 crisis.  
Blinken’s exhaustive list of Brussels side meetings is a testimony to both his stamina and the skills of his schedulers, coming just a week after a long trip to key Asian countries together with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.    
Although not really a side meeting, Blinken’s meeting with Secretary-General Stoltenberg at NATO was a high priority bilateral session.  They consulted on NATO reform and modernization, on Afghanistan, on Russia and China’s malign activity and disinformation efforts and also discussed arms control, climate change and regional security matters.  Washington’s deep opposition to the Nord-Stream II pipeline project also featured prominently. 
Blinken’s meeting with Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio focused on regional issues and shared global topics but especially on how best to support political reform in Libya, according to a State Department readout.   
In a format Washington has preferred for years, Blinken met with the Visegrad Group foreign ministers (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) on March 23.  The State Department reported that Blinken noted his appreciation for the Visegrad Group’s leadership in addressing European energy security and its economic recovery and indicated that the meeting also covered the importance of reforming and adapting NATO to address threats and challenges from a more assertive Russia as well as China.
In another group session, Blinken met his counterparts from France, Germany, and the United Kingdom on March 23.  He underscored the US’ commitment to coordinated action to address common challenges, as well as threats posed by Russia and China. The group also discussed the situation in Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, and Yemen.
Blinken also met separately with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas late on March 23, specifically to discuss ways to counter Russian efforts to undermine NATO’s collective security.  In that connection, Blinken again emphasized American opposition to the Kremlin’s Nord-Stream II pipeline.  The ministers also discussed the next steps in regard to Afghanistan. 
In another group session on March 24, Blinken met with his counterparts from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.  They discussed the situations in Belarus and Russia, as well as China’s challenges to the international system, according to the State Department. Blinken noted Washington’s appreciation for the Baltic countries’ commitment to revitalizing NATO and for their contributions to the Alliance through robust defense spending and troop deployments to operations abroad, always an eye-opener in Washington.
In what was clearly Blinken’s most contentious bilateral session, he met with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu early on March 24.  In a carefully worded readout, the State Department noted that both ministers emphasized the longstanding importance of security cooperation between the United States and Turkey, including shared interests in Syria and Afghanistan. Blinken also voiced support for ongoing exploratory talks between Turkey and Greece.  Blinken’s media team did not hesitate to reveal publicly that the Secretary urged Turkey not to retain the Russian S-400 air defense system it has already purchased over the United States’ objections and expressed the American public’s concerns over Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence.  Blinken also emphasized the importance of democratic institutions and respect for human rights. 
Reaffirming US-EU cooperation, especially on China
On March 24, Secretary Blinken shifted focus from NATO towards the EU.  In his meeting with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the State Department noted that he emphasized the Biden administration’s desire to work with the Commission to resolve difficult issues and establish an ambitious affirmative agenda on priorities such as COVID-19, climate change, Russia, Iran, China, and others.  According to State’s readout, the two leaders also agreed that the US-EU partnership must play a critical role in addressing these pressing issues facing the global community.
Secretary Blinken’s March 24 extended meeting with Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, covered the globe in terms of issues. After the meeting, Borrell noted that the meeting opened “a new chapter in relations marked by stronger cooperation on key foreign policy and security issues.”  Blinken explained that he focused on describing “how the United States is recommitting to our alliances and our partnerships, because, simply, they are vital to our foreign policy, they’re a core source of strength, and again, they make a difference in the lives of our citizens.” 
Secretary of State Blinken meets with the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission Josep Borrell, in Brussels on March 24, 2021. SOURCE: State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/Public Domain

In terms of action items, the most important was an agreement by both sides to re-launch the bilateral dialogue on China. This will include dialogue at senior official and expert levels on topics such as reciprocity, including economic issues; resilience; human rights; security; multilateralism; and areas for constructive engagement with China, such as climate change.
The full text of the agreed US-EU bilateral statement is here:  https://www.state.gov/joint-statement-by-the-secretary-of-state-of-the-united-states-of-america-and-the-eu-high-representative-for-foreign-affairs-and-security-policy-vice-president-of-the-european-commission/
President Biden joins scheduled EU video meeting 
President Biden participated as a special guest (through transatlantic video link) in the programed March 25 virtual meeting of EU heads of state and government, at the invitation of EU Council President Charles Michel. While the meeting was largely focused on the EU’s faltering response to the current COVID-19 “third wave,” Biden addressed US-EU relations and proposed expanded coordination on key global issues. Former President Barack Obama was the last American leader to join an EU summit, in 2009.  Despite the positive tone set by Biden’s brief online appearance, there has been no announcement of any plans for the US President to travel to Europe in the coming months for further consultations.
Biden also released a pre-recorded video message earlier March 25 addressed to the Greek people on the occasion of the celebrations in Greece covering the 200th anniversary of the launch of the Greek struggle for independence from the Turks in 1821, attended in person by senior representatives from the UK, France and Russia, the countries which supported the liberation of Greece with military units at that time. Biden also made a congratulatory call to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

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CEO/Editor-in-Chief.  Former US diplomat with previous assignments in Eastern Europe, the UN, SE Asia, Greece, across the Balkans, as well as Washington DC.

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