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Biden focuses on France at the G20 economic summit

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

For the first time since the pandemic began, the leaders of the 20 biggest economies in the world are meeting in person. But two leaders are conspicuously absent from the G-20 summit.

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JAKE SULLIVAN: I think you'll see the U.S. and Europe front and center at this G-20 as we deal with the fact that neither the leaders of Russia nor China will be present in the room in Rome. So that dynamic will be interesting to watch unfold.

SIMON: That's Jake Sullivan, President Biden's national security adviser, speaking with reporters on Air Force One on their way to Italy NPR.

White House correspondent Scott Detrow is in Rome and joins us now. Scott, thanks so much for being with us.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: So when President Biden made his first foreign trip, he got a warm reception from G-7 leaders, who I think it's fair to say, it had some difficulties with getting along with his predecessor. How is President Biden now being received?

DETROW: Right. Let's remember back in June that feeling was best summed up by French President Emmanuel Macron embracing Biden and saying it was good to have an American president that was, quote, "part of the club again." Of course, then in September, Biden and Macron had a major conflict over a new defense deal with the U.K. and Australia. Not only was France left out of that deal, it led to the cancellation of an enormous contract to build submarines for Australia. Macron, remember, was so mad that he recalled France's ambassador to the United States.

So yesterday, before the summit began, there was a big make-up chat after that fight. I was standing there as Biden's limo pulled up to the French Embassy to the Vatican. Macron was standing on the steps, smiling. He said, Mr. President, Joe, how are you? So it was off to a good start. And then inside, Biden was pretty contrite in honestly a way you do not see that often from a U.S. president.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I was under the impression that France had been formed long before that the deal was not going through. I honest to God did not know you had not been.

DETROW: So Biden conceded the whole thing was clumsy. That was the word he used. He and Macron both seemed very eager to move forward.

SIMON: And what about the two major figures who are missing? - obviously, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

DETROW: Right. These summits have agendas, but a lot of the value for leaders is just to get face to face. And this time that's not going to happen with those two countries. Biden has centered so much of his foreign policy around confronting China. And there's been a major rise in tensions between the countries lately. And, you know, we saw yesterday how much Biden does value one-on-one, face-to-face relationships. And that's really going to matter more the next summit on this trip, that big U.N. climate summit in Glasgow. China is the only country more important than the United States when it comes to reducing global emissions to get climate change under control.

SIMON: What are you watching for, absent the kind of drama of personalities?

DETROW: Well, I mean, the G-20 focus is on the economy. And there is so much to talk about. The pandemic is lingering. We have seen enormous problems in supply chains. Energy prices are now surging around the world. So the leaders are talking about all of those things. And in this trip, Biden is also trying to finalize a major push that he has led to get most countries to agree to a new global minimum tax on corporations. If that went into effect, it would be a big deal. And it would cut back on companies dodging taxes by shifting operations from one country to another, at least nominally.

SIMON: And I understand President Biden will meet at least once more with President Macron, right?

DETROW: Yeah. There's going to be a side meeting today with the U.S., France, the U.K. and Germany. These are the key countries, if you'll recall, in the Iran nuclear deal, which the Trump administration pulled out of. Iran's negotiator has recently expressed interest in restarting that. So Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, says this is a meeting where those four leaders are just going to talk it over and see how they feel about this. They're all pretty skeptical. But they think it's worth at least having an open mind about.

SIMON: NPR's Scott Detrow in Rome - Scott, thank you - safe travels.

DETROW: Ciao, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.