WASHINGTON – A new-old ritual is taking shape in the Biden White House, one that starts with bulky briefing packages, war-gaming the “what-ifs,” and Oval Office discussions about how to talk to this or that particular U.S. ally or adversary.
Twelve times since he took office, President Joe Biden has dialed up a world leader after reinstituting what was a long-held White House standard mothballed by Donald Trump: vigorous preparation. Gone are unnecessary digressions and over-the-top cajoling or haranguing of fellow heads of state.
The changes to telephone diplomacy have been about both style and substance as Biden has sought to send the message to foreign leaders — many embittered by Trump's habit of berating his counterparts and conflating personal interests with U.S. national security — that Biden is determined to reset the U.S. relationship with the world.
“They've come cued in to the idea that they need to manage alliances really well right off the bat,” said Matthew Goodman, who served on the White House National Security Council staff during the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations. “It's a central organizing principle as they look to turn the page on Trump and get alliances back on track. The preparation for calls is part of that."
Biden's foreign policy will ultimately be judged on results more than form or preparation. But his approach so far is a marked change from Trump, who seemed to have better rapport with autocrats like Russia's Vladimir Putin and North Korea's Kim Jong Un than with many historic U.S. allies. The former president frequently strayed far from telephone talking points and advice his aides provided for his dialogue with world leaders.
Leaked conversation transcripts showed that days into his administration, Trump disposed with diplomatic niceties and hectored Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto against publicly saying that Mexico would never pay for a southern border wall, a signature call of the president's 2016 campaign. Trump also complained to Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that he was forcing Trump to endure the most “unpleasant call" and was “worse than I am" for detaining refugees on small islands off Australia.
Most notably, the Republican president’s 2019 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy led to Trump's impeachment after it was revealed that Trump had asked him to “do us a favor” and investigate Biden and his son Hunter’s activity in Ukraine.
As was the practice with past administrations, Biden advisers are typically preparing the president with a package of written background information, including summaries of recent developments in the country, a recap of previous interactions with the leader, talking points on issues to highlight, as well as “if asked” notes to help shape the president’s response to hot-button issues that his counterpart might raise.