Before Joe Biden met Vladimir Putin in Geneva this week, three U.S. presidents had tried to strike up a productive relationship with the Russian leader that would advance the interests of both countries. They all failed, miserably.
Building on those failures, a fourth curried favour with Mr. Putin in his own self-interest, allowing the Russian leader to spread his mayhem without fear of reprisal.
Just why Mr. Biden thought it was a good idea to give Mr. Putin the platform he craves – a face-to-face meeting that the Russian leader could spin back home as proof of his country’s great-power status – was a mystery to many in the Washington foreign policy bubble.
Just three months ago, Mr. Biden had responded in the affirmative when asked if he thought Mr. Putin was a “killer.” But by the eve of Wednesday’s meeting, the U.S. President was calling the Russian leader “a worthy adversary.” Why flatter the bully thus? Did Mr. Biden really think stroking Mr. Putin’s ego with the pageantry of a summit on the shores of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva would influence his future behaviour? After Mr. Putin had made a laughingstock of Mr. Biden’s four immediate predecessors?
Bill Clinton was already a lame-duck president when he met with Mr. Putin on the sidelines of the G8 summit in 2000, back when there was still hope that Russia (then the 8 in the G8) would turn a fledgling democracy into a thriving one. It was not long before those hopes were quashed and the world got the true measure of Mr. Putin.
No matter. George W. Bush bragged after their first meeting about seeing into Mr. Putin’s soul and deemed him “straightforward and trustworthy.” Right.
Barack Obama was persuaded he could “reset” U.S.-Russia relations from a position of power as Russia’s economy stagnated on Mr. Putin’s watch. Instead, at their first meeting, Mr. Putin gave the leader of the free world a long lecture about America’s misguided foreign policy. Mr. Putin later played Mr. Obama for a fool in Syria by propping up dictator Bashar al-Assad with the help of Iran. The Russian leader went on to annex Crimea and foment separatism in Eastern Ukraine.
Donald Trump admired Mr. Putin’s autocratic authority and may or may not have faced the threat of blackmail over Russian business deals with Putin cronies. At the 2018 Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, the U.S. president gave Mr. Putin a free pass over Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. election.
Given the track record of his predecessors, Mr. Biden came out of Wednesday’s meeting in Geneva looking wiser than all of them combined, conceding nothing and conveying to Mr. Putin that there is a new sheriff in town. But unless he wants to end up being outplayed by Mr. Putin the way the Russian leader outplayed his predecessors, the U.S. President will need to back up tough talk with action.
“I did what I came to do,” Mr. Biden insisted at his press conference after the summit. “Number one, identify areas of practical work our two countries can do to advance our mutual interests and also benefit the world. Two, communicate directly – directly – that the United States will respond to actions that impair our vital interests or those of our allies. And three, to clearly lay out our country’s priorities and our values so he heard it straight from me.”
Mr. Biden seemed to take a realpolitik approach to Russian cyberattacks and meddling in U.S. elections, saying: “We need to have some basic rules of the road.” He provided Mr. Putin with a list of critical U.S. infrastructure and industries that must be off limits to cyberattacks. It was as close as the U.S. President got to drawing a line in the sand Mr. Putin dare not cross.
Still, you got the impression that, in Geneva, Mr. Biden was mostly just ticking off a box on a foreign policy agenda that is dominated by China. The chaos Mr. Putin spreads in the Middle East, his suppression of political opponents at home, his support for autocrats in Venezuela and Belarus, and his military chest-beating in Eastern Ukraine are all intolerable acts of a rogue international actor. But they are distractions for a U.S. leader who sees positioning his country to win the global superpower race with China as the make-or-break challenge of his presidency. Nothing else comes close to topping that imperative, and hence other foreign policy issues must necessarily take a back seat to it.
Unfortunately for Mr. Biden, it will take more than a summit to persuade Mr. Putin to change his behaviour. He has already chewed up and spit out four U.S. presidents. What’s another one?
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.