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I Dream of Geneva
What to expect - and what not to expect - when Biden meets Putin.
Cornwall is lovely this time of year, but it ain’t Geneva. And Boris Johnson? Well, he’s no Vladimir Putin.
Even as Joe Biden, on his first trip abroad, arrived for the G7 summit here in England and signed a renewed ‘Atlantic Charter’ with the UK, all anyone seemed to want to talk about was his meeting next week with Putin. And that’s understandable: We know what to expect from Johnson and the G7, but a powwow with Putin is a bit of a cat in a bag.
The uncertainty of that meeting hasn’t stopped a number of commentators from being very, very sure that it’s a very, very bad idea, so when I spoke to ABC TV (Australia) about it earlier today — see the video below — I attempted to temper that a bit, making (or trying to make) the following points:
While we are not in a new Cold War, we are reverting to a Cold War-era style of summitry.
Biden will talk about Navalny, about Ukraine, about Novichok and maybe even about election interference — and he should talk about all of those things — but it won’t make a difference.
For all the negatives, the upcoming summit has the potential to lay the groundwork for a process that will prevent the world from becoming a more dangerous place — and that’s a good thing.
Let me take each point in turn.
First, I’m allergic to the ‘New Cold War’ idea, and (I think) for a host of good reasons: Russia isn’t the USSR; we’re not locked in a competition for world domination; we’re not on the brink of nuclear war; and, caveats notwithstanding, both Washington and Moscow operate in the same global political economy. And yet, as in the Cold War, there can be no talk of partnership between the two powers. No one really believes the residual rhetoric about common interests (think pandemics, climate change and terrorism). As I wrote in April, there is very little that Biden wants from Russia, and the opposite is also mostly true.
All of that means that summits are both less and more important than they have been in most of the post-Soviet period. Less, because there’s objectively a lot less on the table, and a lot less that can be achieved. But more, because there’s so little other contact going on, and so anything that can happen between Moscow and Washington will only happen if the presidents make it so.
Second, there are a lot of things about which Biden will express grave concern, ranging from Russia’s depredations in Ukraine, to its apparent gamification of chemical weapons and the state of its own democracy. For the sake of Washington’s friends in Kyiv, Europe, and even in Russia itself — and because it’s what American voters expect of him — Biden will raise all of these things and more, just as American presidents did throughout the Cold War. Putin, doubtless, will have his own list. Both will play well on domestic television, and the requisite points will be scored in the press conference (if there is one), but neither side expects anything to come of it.
That means, of course, that no one should judge Biden’s success or failure in Geneva on the basis of whether he manages to push Russia out of the Donbas, or to get Navalny out of jail. But that doesn’t mean it’s an entirely pointless gesture. Like most rituals, it serves to remind all of the participants of their principles, of the boundaries of compromise, and of what they owe to people and ideas outside the room. (I’m a constructivist. So sue me.)
And third, there are things Washington and Moscow sorely need to discuss. With the death over the last 15 years of of the CFE, INF, Open Skies and other treaties, and the growing chasm of mistrust between the two countries, nuclear war is becoming easier and easier to imagine. I am not here to suggest that the US and Russia should learn to trust each other again. That is an agenda for another decade, if not another generation. But Biden and Putin — for all the very good reasons for them not to get along, and in fact because of all of those reasons — have the opportunity to begin to rebuild the infrastructure of transparency and confidence-building that might just keep us from blowing up the planet.