Jeanne Shaheen has had a tough start to the summer. A few weeks before US President Joe Biden set off on his European tour in mid-June, the Senator traveled to Europe. Little did she anticipate the president’s trip to Cornwall, Brussels and Geneva. Instead, she went east.
Together with Senators Chris Murphy from Connecticut and Rob Portman from Ohio, Shaheen – the only woman on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and chair of its subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation – visited Lithuania, Ukraine and Georgia.
The original plan was to only visit Ukraine and Georgia, she told me in a phone interview last week. But “after the hijacking of the Ryanair jet, we wanted to go to Lithuania to meet the opposition leader from Belarus”. They met Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and the Lithuanian Foreign Minister.
“Our message was really the meaning of what is happening in Belarus,” she said, adding that they not only wanted to express their support for Tsikhanouskaya and the opposition, but also their interest in taking action against Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko, known for a long time as the last dictator in Europe, continued to take action against dissent after protests following his alleged election victory last year. Belarus is believed to have crashed a Ryanair flight in May to arrest a Belarusian journalist on board.
In Ukraine, the senators reiterated bipartisan support for the US Congress, but added that it was important that the country continue on its path for the rule of law and against corruption. They shared a similar message with Georgia, which had its own democratic troubles earlier this year when the opposition boycotted parliament for months. The United States supports Georgia, Shaheen said, but it needs to keep implementing reforms.
“I think it was really important for us to be there at the time we were there,” said Shaheen, referring to her arrival in Eastern Europe ahead of Biden’s trip, which included the NATO summit and the Biden and Biden meeting the Russian President included. Wladimir Putin.
Shaheen, 74, who has served as the Democratic Senator from New Hampshire since 2009 and also sits on the Senate Armed Forces Committee, has long used her position to advocate democracy, the rule of law and transatlantic relations. Together with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina, for example, she led efforts to get American pastor Andrew Brunson out of prison and house arrest in Turkey. And together with Thom Tillis, a Republican Senator from North Carolina, she revived the Senate NATO observer group, which in the Trump years, when the President cracked down on the Alliance, demonstrated the US commitment to European diplomats in Washington NATO. (The observer group hasn’t pretended to be Trump, either; she and Tillis are still trying to use them to make sure the senators understand what’s going on in the interstate military alliance.)
But the Trump years tested all the concepts – democracy, rule of law, America’s alliances – that Shaheen seeks to strengthen and protect. And some, both in the U.S. and abroad, fear that a new president in 2024 could rush to swing the pendulum back once Biden re-committed to all of the above. Is that noticed, I asked, in your conversations with allies and partners? And what does she say about it?
“It’s like asking, ‘What does it mean if Germany elects a new leader this fall?'” She said. “In a democracy you cannot control who the leaders are. You have to rely on the good intuition of the people in every country. ”
“I’ve only heard this from the media,” she added on whether partners raise concerns like the one I just had. In the meetings she had with various European interlocutors, she was told that Biden’s journey was a strong beginning to restore relationships. “That doesn’t mean that we will agree on everything. I think everyone understands that. But it does mean that we share the same values and recognize the importance of our connectedness as we consider the future challenges we face. In the USA and in Europe. ”
Of Biden’s meeting with Putin, Shaheen said Biden “came from a position of strength, with all that support from our allies. And Putin was really alone there. ”
She was particularly impressed by the US President’s visit to the UK that Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to a new Atlantic Charter that included a renewed declaration of American and British goals (the first was by former Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the former President Franklin D. Roosevelt). “I thought that was a statement …[that] Even if the UK is no longer a member of the EU, the relationship – a special relationship that the US and the UK have – is very important. I think this announcement should point that out and make that clear. ”
And what about those on the right and left who consider NATO to be an outdated alliance?
“That’s just wrong,” she said. “So many of us said when Donald Trump was President, America is stronger when we work with our allies. We have heard that from practically every general who has come before the Armed Services Committee. ”
“This is especially important because our main opponents don’t have many allies. As I said, Putin came to the meeting with President Biden all by himself, with no support from other countries. The same goes for China. […] The difference is the USA and the EU and our NATO partners: We not only share security interests, we also share values. ”
I had one last question; one that wasn’t about NATO or the EU or the transatlantic alliance, but in a way about how we live our values.
“You’re still the only woman on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee,” I said. “Are there any issues that you think deserve special attention?”
“It is disappointing,” she said, “that I am still the only woman on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Because half of the world’s population are women. I think there are issues that I bring up – for example, a few weeks ago I raised the challenge facing women and girls in Afghanistan. ”Shaheen had highlighted the need for a committee decision on this matter, even though it was“ out various bureaucratic reasons “took time to get through (it eventually became clear).”
“Another [such issue] is the global gag rule and why it is harmful to women and children around the world, ”she said. The global gag rule, also known as Mexico City Politics, requires foreign NGOs receiving health aid from the United States to confirm that they will not perform abortions, advise patients on abortion, or advocate abortion laws.
And with that she had to sign out and continue her busy summer. She was fed up with talking to me – but not with representatives from NATO countries; or Europeans looking to the United States; or for women and girls around the world.