Andrei Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, on why Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Joe Biden provides a more optimistic outlook than Donald Trump’s summit did.
Any meeting between the leaders of Moscow and Washington is inevitably a significant international event. Once upon a time, such summits decided the fate of the world, and with bated breath, this world is watching negotiations between the Kremlin and the White House on strategic arms, the search for agreements on pressing regional issues and for any political signals coming from the capitals of the two superpowers on the cusp of the next round.
Although the days of a bipolar world are gone and U.S.-Russian relations are no longer at the forefront of international politics, the intrigue of bilateral summits is still very much alive today. As in the past, interaction between the two countries is built on a top-down principle. These meetings between leaders essentially drive the cumbersome bureaucratic machinery in Moscow and Washington. Diplomats and military officials are beginning painstaking work on specific issues, interaction in the private and civil society sectors is reviving, media rhetoric is gradually softening, and bilateral cultural, educational, and scientific projects are slowly starting up again.
In spite of this general rule, there are unfortunate exceptions. Particularly, the last full-fledged U.S.-Russian summit, held in Helsinki in July 2018, did not improve bilateral relations. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s interaction with Vladimir Putin in Finland’s capital was harshly rejected by the anti-Russian Washington establishment. As a result, the U.S. president had to make awkward excuses to his supporters and opponents upon his return home, and relations between the two countries continued to deteriorate rapidly after the meeting.
It is doubtful that anyone would like to see a repeat of Helsinki in June 2021 in Geneva. But do we have a good reason to think that the outcome will be different this time? To answer this question, let’s compare how Trump and Joe Biden addressed the U.S.-Russia summit and the overall relationship between the two countries.
First of all, at the Helsinki summit, Trump wanted to be liked by the Russian leader. The Republican president not only avoided publicly criticizing his colleague but also went out of his way to compliment him. This inevitably triggered a harsh reaction in Washington, including from the Trump administration itself — not one of irritation but of rage. Having known Putin for many years, Biden does not feel the need to set a goal of pleasing him. There is no evidence that the two politicians share much empathy for each other, and this attitude is unlikely to change after their talks in Geneva.
In addition, Trump sought a spectacular personal foreign policy victory in Helsinki. By implementing his “reset,” Trump hoped to outdo Barack Obama and somehow get along with Putin, turning Russia into a strategic partner of the United States, if not an ally. Apparently Biden has no such plans. The new U.S. president is well aware that the relationship between Moscow and Washington will remain one between rivals, and, in some cases, directly confrontational for the foreseeable future. The Kremlin and the White House have very different ideas about the modern world — about what is legal and illegal, just and unjust, where it is heading and what the future world order ought to be. Therefore, it is not a question of moving from a strategic confrontation to a strategic partnership, but rather of reducing the risks and costs of this inevitably costly and lengthy confrontation.
Finally, Trump simply had much more time to prepare for the Helsinki summit than Biden had to prepare for Geneva. Trump arrived in Finland a year and a half after he came to power. Biden plans to meet with Putin less than five months after his inauguration. Inevitably, preparations for Geneva are rushed, which should lower expectations for the outcome of the upcoming summit.
Given these differences between Biden and Trump, it seems unlikely that the meeting will be particularly fruitful. However, we should not lose sight of a whole set of other features of the current U.S. administration’s foreign policy style that allow us to look at the June summit with cautious optimism.
First, Trump never paid much attention to arms control, arrogantly believing that the United States was capable of winning any race, whether with Moscow or Beijing. Consequently, under the former president, this crucial aspect of U.S.-Russian relations was virtually destroyed, with negative implications for future cooperation between the two countries and global strategic stability.
Biden, on the other hand, remains a loyal supporter of arms control, as confirmed by his decision to extend the bilateral Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty III. We can hope that in Geneva, the leaders will at least begin to discuss a new agenda in this area, including the threat of space militarization, cyberspace, hypersonic flight, rapid global strike capability and autonomous lethal systems. Beyond START, the arms control dialogue will be difficult for both sides as it does not promise quick solutions. But the sooner it begins, the better it will be for both countries and for the international community as a whole.
Second, Trump never liked multilateral approaches and did not consider them productive. Apparently, he sincerely believed that he could solve any pressing international problem alone, be it the conflict between Israel and Palestine or North Korea’s nuclear missile program.
It seems that Biden doesn’t possess the same false confidence. He not only constantly emphasizes the importance of multilateralism, but also understands perfectly well that in many regional conflicts and crises it is impossible to do without interaction with Russia. Therefore, in Geneva, a dialogue is possible on Afghanistan, on the Iranian nuclear deal, on North Korea and even on Syria. Although it is difficult to see how Biden and Putin will be able to agree on all of these questions right away, even the prospect of a preliminary discussion at the summit is to be welcomed.
Third, Trump was not very fond of professional diplomats and did not seem to value the diplomatic dimension of foreign policy at all. Although the U.S.-Russian embassy war began before Trump, not only did he fail to put an end to it, but he gave it unprecedented scope and intensity in bilateral relations.
Unfortunately, the embassy war continues. But President Biden, with his vast experience in foreign policy, understands and appreciates diplomatic work better. We cannot rule out the fact that one of the practical outcomes of the Geneva meeting will be the beginning of a process to restore full-fledged diplomatic missions in Washington and Moscow, as well as rebuilding the network of consular offices in each other’s country that was completely destroyed in recent years. Consular services may not be very visible against the backdrop of big politics, but for most ordinary Russians and Americans, regaining access to fast and efficient visa services would clearly outweigh many of the other potential gains of the Geneva summit.
The author is an expert member of the Valdai (Discussion) Club and director general of the Russian International Affairs Council. Its editorial position may not be reflected by the author’s opinion
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