Few breakthroughs on EU-US strains as Biden-Putin meeting dominates US news

America Letter: It remains unclear if special envoy to Northern Ireland will be appointed

Joe Biden may have met a host of allies and dignitaries during his eight-day visit to Europe, which concluded this week, but stateside there was only one real story. The US president's meeting with Vladimir Putin dominated news coverage, with travelling journalists focusing their questions on Russia at virtually every press opportunity.

But the president's meetings in Brussels – first with Nato on Monday and then with European Union leaders on Tuesday – were equally significant in terms of setting the tone and agenda for Biden's interactions with his European partners.

While Russia featured heavily during the Nato summit, leaders also warned about "systemic challenges" coming from China, signalling a potential fundamental shift in an organisation that was set up to protect the transatlantic alliance against the Soviet Union – not Asia. At EU headquarters, the main takeaway was a five-year truce on the Boeing-Airbus trade dispute.

But there were few other breakthroughs on matters that have strained EU-US relations since Donald Trump's presidency. The Biden administration did not lift steel and aluminium tariffs imposed in June 2018 on the grounds of national security, instead enlisting Europe to help the US confront the competitive challenge posed by China – a prospect not welcomed by all EU countries. Similarly, Biden left the travel ban imposed by Donald Trump in place, even as the EU officially lifted restrictions on Americans entering Europe.


Biden’s engagement with EU leaders illustrated his incremental approach to foreign policy. Rather than seeking a reset in relations post-Trump, he deliberately set the bar low ahead of his meetings this week. Deliverables were modest, with the US delegation leaving a trail of “working groups” tasked with advancing discussions in its wake.

Ambassador appointments

The other issue that remained unresolved following Biden’s first overseas trip as president was the appointment of ambassadors.

It had been expected he would have ambassadors in place in key European countries in time for his June visit, or make an announcement during the trip. But the vast majority of senior diplomatic posts remain unfilled.

Trump was rightly criticised for delaying the appointment of ambassadors during his term, but Biden has also dragged his heels. There had been speculation that the president would unveil a slew of announcements together – perhaps in May – but this did not come to pass.

This week, the White House did announce some appointments on the penultimate day of Biden's visit: as expected Julie Smith was named permanent representative to Nato while Thomas Nides will be ambassador to Israel, a crucially important role. Nominees to serve in several other countries including Paraguay, Guinea and Sri Lanka were also announced, but the pick for the US's biggest allies continues to be kept under wraps.

Washington is feverish with speculation about who will make the cut for the top European posts, as well as strategically-important posts such as China. Former diplomat Nicholas Burns is widely tipped for Beijing, while former Chicago mayor and White House chief of staff in the Obama administration Rahm Emanuel is expected to head to Tokyo.

Lobbying for the position of ambassador to Ireland is fierce in Washington, with several Irish-Americans putting themselves in the frame. Among the names that have been mentioned are Thomas O'Neill, son of the former House of Representatives speaker Tip O'Neill, Irish-American lawyer Brian O'Dwyer and Chicago attorney John Cooney. While the early favourite was former senator Chris Dodd, who is believed to have taken himself out of contention, the frontrunner is now Claire Cronin, the majority leader of the Massachusetts state assembly.

The former lawyer was an early supporter of Biden when he announced his run for president and led fundraising efforts in the early days of his campaign.

The selection process is nearing an end, with candidates being vetted.

Unlike with most other countries, American presidents typically choose friends, donors or political allies for top diplomatic posts rather than career diplomats, who are often given less sought-after positions. But ambassadors are also often expected to help finance their entertainment budgets themselves.

While the appointments of Irish and British ambassadors are imminent, it is unclear if the state department will appoint a special envoy to Northern Ireland. Among the challenges is finding a candidate who will meet the British as well as the Irish Government’s approval. If Biden’s deliberative approach to decision-making so far in his presidency is anything to go by, the appointment of a Northern Ireland envoy could be some time off.