Two months after taking office, US President Joe Biden is revealing his diplomatic style – and he certainly has not minced words in the first dealings of his term with Washington’s top rivals.
He called Russian leader Vladimir Putin a “killer,” and his negotiators pelted a Chinese delegation with tough accusations in their first bilateral talks – revealing a take-no-prisoners approach to Moscow and Beijing.
Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump “had a personal affinity for strongman autocrats. He admired them,” said Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
But the administration of the veteran Democrat is “worried that authoritarianism has been on the march, and they believe that democracies need to work more closely together to push back.”
Experts certainly expected a more traditional approach to diplomacy under Biden – who long served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and then as vice president – than was seen under Trump, who favored statecraft by tweet.
But so far, and especially in the last few days, Biden’s forceful style has turned some heads.
When asked in an interview with ABC News if he believed Putin was a “killer,” the 78-year-old Biden agreed without hesitation.
And when his aides were asked if he’d gone too far, they insisted he did not regret his words.
It’s not the first time that Biden showed a bit of swagger in his dealings with Putin or Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
In early February, he warned of “advancing authoritarianism” in China and Russia.
On Putin, Biden said he had made it clear to his counterpart, “in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions – interfering in our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens – are over.”
He said Xi didn’t have a “democratic bone in his body” and warned after a call with the Chinese leader that if the United States doesn’t “get moving” on China policy, “they’re going to eat our lunch.”
While the language may seem to reflect Trump’s no-holds-barred style, the context is rather different.
“Trump actually had a bigger problem with US allies. Trump routinely got more angry at allies than he would at rivals,” Wright said.
Biden’s tough talk falls under his wish to combat authoritarianism and defend America’s values and concepts about human rights. The US president even wants to organize a “summit of democracies” at a date to be determined.
Perhaps even more surprising, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a seasoned diplomat not known for being a hothead in any way, blasted his Chinese peers from the get-go as their two days of talks in Alaska opened Thursday.
With the world’s news cameras rolling, Blinken said Beijing’s actions “threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability,” prompting a sharp response from the Chinese side.
“This is not supposed to be the way one should welcome his guests,” said Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
Wright called the exchanges “sporty, for sure,” but added: “At least it’s sort of in tune with what’s actually happening.”
“It sort of reveals to the world that this US-China relationship is defined by rivalry and competition,” he added.
James Carafano, a fellow at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, said Blinken was “absolutely right” to go out swinging.
The Biden administration has nothing to lose by taking a tough line, Carafano said.
“Being tough on Russia and China is bipartisan. Everybody wants to be tough,” he told AFP.
Carafano said Biden’s tactics reflect a certain consistency with those of the Trump administration, which took steps to counter Russia and China, even as the Republican touted his friendly ties with Putin and Xi.
But in the end, “rhetoric counts for nothing,” he said.
“Trump tried to speak to Putin very nicely, and Putin acted like Putin,” Carafano warned. “Biden claims he’s being tough with Putin, but Putin is going to act like Putin.”