The political world and the media have zeroed in on President Joe Biden’s meeting this week with Vladimir Putin as the most important diplomatic event in which this young administration has participated. But the truth is that the heaviest diplomatic lifting with regard to the US-Russia relationship, and American national security, will have already taken place before the meeting in Geneva begins—or it will come in its wake.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that Biden would be arriving at the Geneva meeting “with the wind at his back.” What he meant by that, according to a senior official traveling with the president, is that “in many respects, the most important part of the president’s message to Putin will have been made in the days before the meeting.” The official cited the achievements associated with Biden’s meetings with the U.K. leadership, G7 leaders, his NATO counterparts and top officials from the EU.
Trump not only distinguished himself from all previous American presidents by publicly bending the knee before his political sponsor Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, on Twitter and whenever he had the chance, the only coherent part of Trump foreign policy was that he effectively rejected three-quarters of a century of U.S. history by seeking to dismantle the international order America had tried to build since World War II. He attacked our allies. He condemned NATO. He disparaged the EU. And whenever he was given a chance, he rewarded Putin despite his invasion of Ukraine, his murder of his opponents (including on foreign soil), his freelancing in Syria, his efforts to erode the west’s relationship with Turkey and more.
Biden has been one of those who helped build the international system Trump attacked. He has been committed to undoing the damage Trump did. Just in the last week, Biden announced an effort to revitalize the Atlantic Charter, mended ties within the G7, made an unprecedented pledge of 500 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine as part of the G7’s commitment to provide 1 billion doses to needy nations worldwide, and re-engaged with our allies on terms more consistent with the pro-democracy, anti-autocracy message of our past.
Weeks of efforts were involved in helping to pull together the G7 COVID-19 vaccine announcement as well as preparations for the NATO Summit that they hope will produce announcements of new investments in the capabilities of key alliance partners. In other words, much of America’s most important diplomatic work took place away from the cameras, in the U.K., Belgium and Switzerland.
“You’ll see the alliance addressing priorities like China and climate change and reaffirming the commitment to (NATO’s) Article 5,” said a senior State Department official, who added that “Just the fact that there is an EU Summit sends an important message compared to that offered by the last administration.”
Even before NATO and EU meetings at which Biden’s almost half a century of experience as a leader in the Atlantic dialogue will be evident, as will his commitment to those institutions, his efforts are bearing fruit. A Pew Poll released last week showed that Biden is enormously more popular than Trump. Last year, among 12 countries surveyed, a median of 17 percent expressed confidence in Trump. That number has already shot up 58 points for Biden. US favorability has also almost doubled, from 34 percent last year to 62 percent this year.
Biden is also making it clear in his private meetings that America’s central geopolitical concern right now is China. This is a source of some tension with Europeans who do not want to be drawn into what some see as a budding US-China Cold War. But certainly it is clear that Russia, exiled from the G7 because of its invasion of Ukraine, is important but not as central as Trump (who wanted to crowbar Russia back into the group) had hoped to make it.
Biden’s efforts to strike up an anti-authoritarian chorus among our allies will be uncomfortable for Putin (as well as Xi, Erdogan and many others). But nothing he could say privately to Putin will resonate as strongly as enhanced unity on this issue by a newly energized western alliance. After all, Putin’s main goal throughout his entire career has been to weaken that alliance. Trump was his pawn in that effort. But Biden will deliver a message before he sees Putin that his efforts have now suffered a major reversal.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan set the mood before departing for the trip, “Joe Biden is not meeting with Vladimir Putin despite our countries’ differences; he’s meeting with him because of our countries’ differences.”
While the Putin meeting will be fraught with personal drama and receive plenty of attention, “you should not expect big outcomes immediately” said a White House official. The senior official traveling with Biden said that “This is not a reset. There is no long list of deliverables that are going to reshape the relationship. What we are really doing is seeking to set guardrails. This is in many respects a continuation of the two phone calls Biden has already had with Putin—including the second call in which Biden was clear about the consequences that would follow certain Russian challenges to U.S. or Western interests. What we want is predictability and stability. And if we can find areas of common interest—on strategic stability or Iran—we would like to identify and pursue those.”
The Biden team believes it is in Putin’s interests to make the meeting a success. They also emphasize that Biden is not looking to “dunk on Putin. These men know each other. Biden is approaching this with the long-term in mind.”
Diplomats with whom I spoke also added that among the heaviest diplomatic lifts of the week was the one managed by Vice President Kamala Harris during her trip to Mexico and Guatemala. Despite the superficial coverage in the press, Harris arrived in Mexico after four years of Trump talking about building a wall, deploying troops to the border, separating families, and worse. For all those caught up in the tone Harris used with an NBC reporter, let’s try to remember that Trump raised the idea of building a moat filled with alligators between the two countries.
In the wake of this Harris had great meetings with the Mexican President (he called them transcendent). The agreement of the Mexicans to enter into a meaningful cabinet-level security dialogue with the U.S. was a major breakthrough. So too was Mexican agreement to help stem the flow of refugees into the U.S., including their participation in efforts to work with Central American governments on addressing the root causes of migration. Restoring funding to programs focused on those root causes and setting up centers to help process legal migrants in Central America were concrete achievements of her Central American trip. While the press got hung upon her admonition to refugees not to come illegally, it neglected that she said in the same sentence that they should pursue legal channels of entry into the U.S.
It was a politically fraught trip that also involved undoing a huge amount of damage inflicted by the prior administration. In that respect, what you saw from both the president and the vice president and their teams was something else much more important than the meeting with any individual world leader: A coordinated, professionally managed, goal-oriented, long-term, realistic, experienced-based, mature US foreign policy being implemented.
Come to think of it, if you were Vladimir Putin, nothing Biden could have said would be more intimidating or meaningful than watching all that unfold.