Biden's virtual climate summit: Diplomacy sans human touch

In this April 15, 2021, photo, President Joe Biden speaks about Russia in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Biden is being forced to go virtual for many of his leader-to-leader talks during the pandemic and the resulting Zoom meetings just aren't a natural fit for the back-slapping politician. Biden's big climate summit this week with dozens of world leaders is a moment for him to play cheerleader in the fight against global warming.  (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
In this April 15, 2021, photo, President Joe Biden speaks about Russia in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Biden is being forced to go virtual for many of his leader-to-leader talks during the pandemic and the resulting Zoom meetings just aren't a natural fit for the back-slapping politician. Biden's big climate summit this week with dozens of world leaders is a moment for him to play cheerleader in the fight against global warming. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON – There will be no hands to shake or backs to slap, no way to look a foreign leader in the eye. The small human moments that define statecraft will be reduced to images on a screen.

President Joe Biden, a most hands-on politician, this week will host a major climate summit with dozens of world leaders — all of them stuck on Zoom.

Biden has made clear that he wants to reassert U.S. leadership on the world stage, including on climate change, after four tumultuous, often inward-looking years of President Donald Trump. But as much as the White House staff has tried to dress up the remote meetings he has held so far, while eyeing the climate summit Thursday and Friday as an important moment, the president has made no secret of how much he misses diplomacy with a more personal touch.

“There’s no substitute for face-to-face discussions,” Biden said Friday as he welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to the White House for his first in-person world leader meeting.

“I greatly appreciate the chance to spend time with you in person and to exchange our ideas face to face,” he added.

Biden has expressed to aides and advisers how much he misses the in-person interactions and friendly asides that typically happen on the sidelines of international meetings, moments that can often lead to foreign policy breakthroughs, according to three White House officials not authorized to speak publicly about private discussions. He was disappointed, at times, with the stilted nature of his first remote bilateral meeting, held with Canada’s Justin Trudeau in February.

The White House has announced that South Korea’s Moon Jae-in will travel to Washington in May for Biden's second in-person foreign leader meeting. And there are hopes the president will make his own overseas trip in June. But until then, expectations for major diplomatic developments have been reined in — and the climate summit is no exception.

Streamed 100% live with no backroom give-and-take, the summit will be more geared to sending a message about America’s return to the climate fight and nudging the world toward a greener planet than about specific deals or action.