It’s always a risk to judge the early outcome of a summit between the United States and Russia. But the meetings in Geneva between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin are close enough to qualify as a success – for both sides.
Both Biden and Putin had their say in front of the press. Neither side attempted either to placate or to humiliate the other, which is normal when adults and professionals are conducting diplomacy. Each president returned home able to declare that he had not budged on any substantive issues – because both sides, apparently, chose not to try to unravel any such issues in this first meeting on neutral ground.
And yet, the utter normality of the proceedings represented a significant advance for American interests and the U.S. position in the world. After four years in which Donald Trump was openly hostile to America’s NATO allies and slavishly (and personally) fearful of Vladimir Putin, it was a relief to see Biden return to the role every American president is obligated to fulfill: the leader of a democratic alliance of free nations.
Vow against nuclear war affirmed
Biden went to Geneva prepared, as one might expect from a president with a foreign policy résumé that goes back decades. He began his trip not by alienating our allies but by visiting and consulting with them – a reminder to Moscow that the president of the United States represents a gigantic alliance of nearly a billion people, and that the Kremlin fronts for a ragtag conglomeration of unsavory clients, unreliable partners and unwilling subjects.
Biden had very few of his trademark unguarded moments, although his assertion that “all foreign policy is a logical extension of personal relationships” was, if not a gaffe, the sort of throwaway, folksy aphorism that Biden himself knows is not true. But Biden was at ease and in command, undoubtedly confounding his critics at home who have tried to portray him as too addled to be much of a match for Putin.
Indeed, Putin himself seemed relieved to be facing Biden at the summit. The two presidents are opponents, but Putin knows Biden and seems to consider him a more serious man – as he certainly sees himself – then either Trump or Barack Obama, whom he personally loathed. While Putin might have enjoyed Trump’s obvious fear, stupidity and unpredictability in a U.S. president are dangerous, and the Russians might well be relieved to know that the Americans are once again capable of holding normal conversations about important matters.
The Biden team has wisely tried to lower expectations about whether Russian-American relations will improve anytime soon. But there were good signs. During the Cold War, summits were judged by relatively clear metrics, such as progress on arms control, resolution of regional conflicts and agreements on trade. The greatest metric of all – and still the most important – was the preservation of nuclear peace between two of the most heavily armed nations in the world.
President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 16, 2021. (Photo: Patrick Semansky, AP)
At least on this score, Biden and Putin took positive steps. Whatever Putin’s other vices, he has no interest in a nuclear exchange, accidental or otherwise, with the United States, and both reaffirmed the joint vow, first taken by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in the long-ago world of the late 1980s, that a nuclear war is unwinnable and must never be fought.
Biden and Putin have agreed at least to consider steps on enhancing strategic stability, a goal in which the Russians have an obvious interest. Both sides agreed to resume the normal exchange of ambassadors, which is still vitally important to the preservation of peace, even in the age of instant personal communications.
No humiliation this time: Joe Biden didn’t shame America in Geneva like Trump did in Helsinki
It seems strange to say it, but reaffirming the importance of nuclear war might be the easy part of a Cold War summit. Issues like cybersecurity are far more difficult, in part because the wily Russian president has no compunction about lying when it comes to his regime’s mischief in cyberspace. Biden, interestingly, seems intent on creating something like a Cold War-era deterrent structure around cyber issues, ruling certain targets out of bounds and declaring an American right to inflict serious damage in return should those targets be attacked.
This is where “wait and see” – or, to take Reagan’s famous invocation of a Russian phrase, “trust but verify” – might be a better guide than optimism. But Biden, at least, has laid down markers of American priorities. Instead of betraying U.S. intelligence agencies in public, as Trump did in the shameful Helsinki summit of 2018, Biden warned Putin that those agencies could be fearful opponents if the Russians chose to take the path of more mayhem.
Democratic values and human rights
Most important, Biden reminded Putin – and the world – what was really at stake in Geneva. The democracies are facing a dedicated offensive from autocracies in Russia, China, Iran and other nations. For too long, the democratic coalition has been without a leader; worse, the most powerful state among them was led by a man who himself was openly hostile to democracy.
That time is over. Biden told Putin that “no president of the United States could keep faith with the American people if they did not speak out to defend our democratic values,” and that human rights are “always going to be on the table.”
Moscow’s most meddlesome man: Biden needs to get tough with Putin and inflict a higher cost on Russia
It shows how far America fell over the past four years that Biden had to reaffirm one of the central responsibilities of the leader of the United States and NATO, but he could not have been clearer when he noted that he had raised Putin’s treatment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. “How could I be the president of the United States of America,” Biden said, “and not speak out against the violation of human rights?”
How indeed. There is plenty more work to be done in mending the damage to American foreign policy, but whatever else might come from this first meeting in Geneva, the return of moral clarity about America’s role in the world is something for Americans and their allies to celebrate.
Tom Nichols (@RadioFreeTom), a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, is the author of “Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from within on Modern Democracy,” coming in August. The views expressed here are solely his own.
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