When I boarded Air Force Two for Vice President Joe Biden’s final overseas mission, he had four days left in office. His leverage was diminishing by the hour, with every new question at a Trump nominee confirmation hearing, with every new @RealDonaldTrump tweet.
There was no chance of a miracle at that point, a few days away from Vice President-elect Mike Pence getting Biden’s keys to Air Force Two—to somehow rid Ukraine of its debilitating corruption, pull off a Cyprus deal, or stand between Kosovo and Serbia and neutralize the tension between them for good. It’s hard to shame Russian President Vladimir Putin or to inspire him to spiff up his behavior if the president-elect seems to accept Putin just as he is. And of course, there’s Iraq.
I’ve taken trips with the vice president before, and at the start of this last one, I suspected the mission was motored more by inertia than achieving real goals. Most journalist types, in fact, thought this would be a dud journey and were focused ahead of the inauguration on power ascendant, not power quickly fading away. I was the only one there. Biden though, treated the trip as a big deal—he was wound up, energized, shaking hands with those he is leaving, like he had just mastered the craft and was showing off, bounding up the steps to the plane, waving to the crowd as if to promise all of this is going to matter. Really. It will.
Nearing the end of a 45-year career in public service, the vice president kept trying to pack in just one more call, one more crisis, as the clock ticked down. I’ve described Biden in The Atlantic as a kind of “geopolitical therapist;” he’s the one who gets the difficult, unglamorous foreign-policy problems—Iraq and its several parts, Cyprus, Ukraine, sometimes Brazil and a slew of Latin American countries that don’t always rank particularly high in DC. Japan and South Korea with their unresolved tensions over wrongs done long ago. Turkey.
And Biden diplomacy is about relationships, about getting personal with leaders and knowing them and their motivations well enough, in detail and over time, that you know where you can move a leader and where you can’t. It was clear in these last few meetings, with, among others, Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko, whom he calls “Petro;” with China’s powerful and ascending Xi Jinping, whom he introduced to his granddaughter Finnegan in an effort to break new ground when the Chinese leader first took office; and with his old friend who sits at the nexus of many overlaid conflicts, Kurdistan’s Masoud Barzani.
Ukraine could be one test case of whether all of this really did matter. As we neared landing in Kiev in the early darkness of Monday morning, when America was remembering the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Joe Biden was working to help the country survive another day—despite Donald Trump’s nearly simultaneous calls that he might waive America’s sanctions on Russia over its annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in exchange for a nuclear deal. He and his team spent hours discussing the way for Ukraine to stay in the game, presumably despite Trump coming to office.
The vice president, though, looked as if he was there to show the Trump Team, and the world, that carving through the sovereign borders of a nation demands a unified response from civilized nations. (While some including Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain had argued that such a response should include weapons in addition to greater financial resources to buck Russian aggression, Obama had wagered on military restraint.) In Kiev, Biden couldn’t convey that all would be well as the Obama team leaves their positions, but he could convey—through his sixth trip to Ukraine as vice president, the fifth since the revolution on the Maidan helped overthrow a pro-Russian leader in 2014—that the problems there are of the highest order in the world.
He issued that reminder in a joint presser with Petro Poroshenko, a chocolate tycoon who now leads Ukraine as president:
Russia’s continued attempts to undermine your success, your security, your sovereignty, and your territorial integrity are manifold. False propaganda attacks. Attempts to destabilize your economy. Ukraine, like every country in Europe, has a right to determine its own path. Yet Russia seeks to deny that choice. And the international community must continue to stand as one against Russian aggression and coercion.
There are over 1.7 million internally displaced people. Oppression of Crimean Tatars continues. More than 9,600 Ukrainians have been killed in the fighting in the east and more than 22,000 wounded in the conflict. And fully one-fifth of those victims have been civilians.
And while he also reminded about Russia and its destabilizing aggression and called out his friendship with “Petro,” he spoke directly to the Ukrainian people, invoking John Kennedy’s line explaining why Americans had decided to go to the moon: “we are no longer willing to ‘postpone.’” The Ukrainian people, he said, “are no longer willing to postpone a free, open, democratic, and prosperous Ukraine.” He went on:
I strongly urge the people of Ukraine: Keep demonstrating your commitment to the rule of law; keep fighting corruption; insist on transparency; investigate and prosecute government officials who siphon off public funds for their own enrichment. Russia over the last decade or so has used another foreign policy weapon. It uses corruption as a tool of coercion to keep Ukraine vulnerable and dependent. So pursue those reforms to root out corruption. It’s not just about good governance. It’s about self-preservation. It’s about your very national security.
Perhaps a deal to pause the fighting that Biden and Poroshenko helped cobble together with Russian Foreign Ministers Sergei Lavrov and even Vladimir Putin, following the collapse of a previous one in 2014, may survive the next U.S. president. Biden thinks the effort worth it.
He exits office in a world that looks different from when he started. The trip included a stop in Davos—where he raced through other outstanding issues, through meetings with, among others, Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and the Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani. Even as he did so, however, the conference was being owned by Chinese President Xi Jinping who, on the first occasion Xi or any Chinese president has spoken at Davos, gave a strong defense of globalization and the world liberal economic order.
That speech, combined with Donald Trump’s attacks on Europe, NATO, and seeming admiration for Russia and Vladimir Putin, dominated the chatter among the world’s annual flock fest of billionaires, major CEOs, and those who love them. Biden held a no press bilateral meeting with President Xi, whom he had worked hard to get to know. It was Biden who had laid the groundwork for Xi’s first meeting with President Obama at the famous Sunnylands visit.
Biden’s own address in Davos, on America’s and every nation’s stakes in a more ordered and just world, hammered a different point, one that touched on the human reality of those who haven’t shared in the wealth creation so evident at these meetings. He said:
Here in this exclusive Alpine tower, where CEOs of multinational corporations rub elbows with leaders of nations, it is easy to embrace the intellectual benefits of a more open and integrated world. But it is at our own peril that we ignore or dismiss the legitimate fears and anxieties that exist in communities all across the developed world.
The concern mothers and fathers feel about losing the factory job that has always allowed them to provide for their families. Parents who don’t believe that they can give their children a better life than the one they have. These are the pressures that are undermining support for the liberal international order from the inside. Globalization has not been an unalloyed good.
Shortly after that, the vice president wrapped up his last trip in that office—one he hoped was consequential—worth the plane, the effort, the jet lag and stress with the constant reminder from everyone around, every leader he met and every audience he spoke to, every soldier to whom he handed his vice presidential medal, that his hours with this power were winding down.
As President Obama remarked when awarding Joe Biden the most distinguished of all American civilian awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction, Biden has a habit of quoting his mother or father with some folksy aphorism. He’s told me, for example, “My dad used to say to me: ‘Champ, if everything is equally important to you, nothing is important to you.’” I imagined another Bidenesque aphorism for the moment, that sounded like something his parents might say. “Joey, there’s always a chance to do good and be good. Always a chance, even at the very last moment, to do good.”
As Air Force Two approached Andrews Joint Base, the airport the President and Vice President use to fly in and out of Washington, Biden told me he’d spent the last several hours making calls to and having long conversations with five major world leaders.
Squeezing it in. Always a chance to do good.