Summitry, unlike a former British prime minister, has nothing to do with tennis. The result is rarely “game, set and match”. By the wide-eyed standards of Joe Biden’s last four predecessors, who have all staged ill-fated summits with Vladimir Putin, Biden entered this one with low expectations.
There was no illusion about his meeting of minds with the Russian leader, let alone souls. The modesty of Biden’s goal – to stabilize relations with the main military adversary of the United States – reflected a realism that escaped previous presidents.
All of this is much less exciting for the global media. Biden did not praise Putin’s ability to restore Russian freedom and prosperity, as Bill Clinton did in 2000, soon after Putin was elected president. He also didn’t get a feel for Putin’s soul, as George W Bush claimed in 2001, and didn’t trust what he saw. He did not aim for an ambitious “reset” of US-Russian relations, as Barack Obama fatally did in 2009. More notoriously Biden’s tone was a million miles from the society of individual admiration that Donald Trump brought to Helsinki when he met Putin alone in 2018.
After more than two decades in power, this Russian bear was unlikely to change his ways. Biden’s goal is to coax and coax Putin into a moderately less dangerous position. This goal is more difficult than it looks. At home, Biden faces derision from Republicans and some foreign policy scholars for even meeting Putin. Sharing a scene with the US president is seen as an undeserved reward for an adversary who sponsors regular cyber attacks against the United States, let alone the information war on Western democracy.
“Our opponents can sense the fear on Biden,” Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff, told Fox News ahead of the summit. The fact that many of these critics fiercely defended Trump’s performance in Helsinki and his meditative love letters to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was not an inhibition. Consistency is probably the hobgoblin of lower minds.
Biden must also deal with the politics of impatience in the age of social media. If its “constant gardening” approach to diplomatic work, it could take years to bear fruit. There would be few moments of mission accomplished when it came to making a fissile US-Russian relationship less toxic.
Time also calls into question Biden’s ability to ensure America’s European allies stick to the script. Biden’s counterparts agreed on harsh statements at the G7 and NATO summits last week. But their drive to maintain Western unity with Russia is tempered by fears that Biden might be a single-term president. The era of US foreign policy continuity is over. Will Biden still be in office in three and a half years? Putin almost certainly will.
The biggest challenge, however, lies in Putin’s actions, which are inherently unpredictable. The overriding goal of Biden’s foreign policy is to push back an increasingly assertive China. A key part of Biden’s strategy is to define global issues between the United States and China (and Russia, as China’s autocratic lieutenant) in terms of democracy versus autocracy. This is all very well. But America’s friends are watching the direction of American policy with real apprehension. Far from banishing the forces of Trumpism, Biden’s victory accelerated their full takeover of the Republican Party. For European observers, the biggest democracy versus autocracy battle in the world may in fact be fought in the United States.
So how do you measure whether Biden is progressing with Putin? Mainly through things not happening, like further Russian forays into eastern Ukraine, support for international piracy, including the hijacking of the Ryanair flight last month to Minsk, and Alexei’s longevity Navalny, the jailed Russian opposition leader, whose name Putin still refuses to say. The absence of major cyber attacks against the United States, such as the Solar winds foray earlier this year would be another benchmark.
A more ambitious one would be the weakening of Russian-Chinese ties. The late Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US national security adviser, described it as “the alliance of the injured”. Less confrontational relations between the United States and Russia could loosen the Moscow-Beijing embrace, even if it would be a very long term. For now, Biden has to settle for modest contrasts. Compared to Putin’s 2018 press conference with Trump, when the Russian leader couldn’t contain his smirk, Putin’s solo press event in Geneva seemed particularly low-key.
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