Biden-Putin summit was nothing of consequence
Many years ago, John F. Kennedy lamented that “we all live under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging under the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.”
Numerous experts consider current relations between the United States and Russia to be the worst ever. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on June 16 in Geneva, Switzerland, for a longawaited summit discussion. Biden and Putin did not behave like leaders of countries living under a nuclear sword hanging by the slenderest of threads. Instead, they acted like politicians wedded to disparate self-ser ving narratives and determined to advance their purpor ted national interests. Had they been more worried about the nuclear sword, Biden might have apologized for calling Putin a killer, and Putin might have invited investigation of alleged Russian election inter ference.
The first U.S.-Soviet summit meeting took place in 1943 in Teheran, Iran, between Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. There have been over 30 U.S.-Soviet or U.S.-Russian summit meetings since then. Virtually all of these political interactions considered nuclear issues. A few achieved dramatic results, such as the 1985 conclave between Regan and Gorbachev (also in Geneva) which sharply deescalated the first Cold War. However, most of these high-level discussions have not been tremendously consequential.
The Biden-Putin summit was disappointing in several ways. Trump’s decisions to remove the U.S. from the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) and Open Skies treaties were not reversed. No progress was made on NATO expansion, the eastern Ukraine conflict, or cooperation in Afghanistan. In neither Russia nor the United States were consular ser vices reestablished. Personal relations between Biden and Putin remained cool, if not frigid.
Yet it would be mistaken to think that the Biden-Putin summit accomplished nothing. The two presidents reaffirmed the Gorbachev-Regan declaration that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” While this statement should seem painfully obvious, the Pentagon does contemplate the use of tactical nuclear weapon under battlefield conditions. Thus, Biden’s apparent rejection of nuclear war should also be a repudiation of these horrific and destabilizing armaments.
Perhaps the most significant progress made in the Biden-Putin summit was the altered tone in which the United States president addressed the Russian president. Gone was Obama’s contemptuous approach which derided Russia as a failed state — and was epitomized by John McCain’s claim that “Russia was a gas station masquerading as a countr y.” Indeed, Biden’s more respectful manner implicitly acknowledged that recent U.S. policy towards Russia had failed, and that Russia could not be ef fectively bullied or threatened. Furthermore, Biden apparently abandoned the hopeless but infuriating endeavor of splitting Russia from China.
The two presidents also agreed to (a.) discuss cybersecurity and other issues at an exper t level, (b.) dialog about strategic stability, (c.) discuss future arms control agreements, (d.) consider the possibility of a prisoner exchange, and (e.) return respective ambassadors to their posts.
In light of the nuclear sword that hands over humanity, these agreements are pitifully small. But neither are they nothing. Ambiguous is perhaps the most accurate way to describe the recent Biden-Putin summit.