Leave aside what Joe Biden’s absence means for the commitment to the Quad or the relative importance of Asia and the Pacific to the United States. Because if the US economy crashed as a consequence the debt ceiling stand-off in Congress, those sorts of questions would be moot.
The immediate aftermath to the US President cancelling the Australia and Papua New Guinea legs of his trip next week should be a chance to think hard about the modern emphasis on the role of leaders in diplomacy.
Put bluntly, leaders are too busy, with too many demands on their valuable time, to persist with the present schedule of summiteering. The outcomes on offer with repetitive communiques, if they can be agreed at all, are rarely enough to justify putting leaders on a podium to wave in front of a line of flags.
Think on it. Biden will attend the G-7 in Hiroshima. As well as the Quad, in any given year he would also be expected to be at the G-20, the APEC leaders’ meeting, the East Asia Summit – and that’s before adding in NATO gatherings, the UN General Assembly, hosting Pacific or ASEAN leaders at the White House, a climate change meeting or an AUKUS-style announcement, bilaterals and more.
And scheduling is not just a challenge for the United States. Every leader has a calendar stuffed full of domestic burdens. Clashes of priorities inevitably arise. Trying to cram in more foreign visits just for the sake of signalling the importance of a particular challenge or region is bound to create disappointment.
The White House has already offered Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese an official state visit to make up for Biden’s late cancellation, which usually involves a formal red carpet dinner as well. What happens with PNG beyond a professed desire for “finding other ways to engage” is not yet clear. In a statement the administration said: “The President’s team engaged with the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea’s team to inform them as well.”
The shame in this instance will be reaction in the Pacific. Having set the stage for the first US President to visit a Pacific Island country, and what was only going to be a flying trip of a few hours regardless, there will inevitably be a lingering sense of “snub”. But had Biden skipped the G-7 instead, hardly anyone would remember in a year.