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How We’ll Know If the Biden-Putin Summit Was a Success

And why foreign policy is not just ‘a logical extension of personal relationships.’
June 17, 2021
How We’ll Know If the Biden-Putin Summit Was a Success
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - JUNE 16: U.S. President Joe Biden (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet during the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange on June 16, 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland. Biden is meeting his Russian counterpart, Putin, for the first time as president in Geneva, Switzerland. (Photo by Peter Klaunzer - Pool/Keystone via Getty Images)

The Biden administration set the bar so low for the president’s Geneva summit with Vladimir Putin that it was pretty much foreordained to be a “success.” Pre-summit backgrounding by an unnamed U.S. senior official indicated that “we’re not expecting a big set of deliverables out of this meeting.” The basic point of the meeting appeared to be branding, or what has been dubbed “station identification.” There would be no Obama-like effort to “reset” the relationship, nor a Trump-like slavish search for Putin’s personal approval.

Rather the agenda, according to the anonymous official, was more modest:

We are seeking three basic things:

First, a clear set of taskings about areas where working together can advance our national interest and make the world safer.

Second, a clear laydown of the areas of America’s vital national interests, where Russian activities that run counter to those interests will be met with a response.

And third, a clear explication of the President’s vision for American values and our national priorities.

Earlier backgrounding by the administration had suggested that the most likely outcomes of the summit would be (1) the return of ambassadors to capitals (Russia had recalled Ambassador Anatoly Antonov to Moscow in March after Biden’s comment calling Putin a killer and had strongly suggested Ambassador John Sullivan return to the United States—which he did in April after some initial hesitation); and (2) the empaneling of various working groups to pursue some major issues of mutual concern—like strategic stability and cybersecurity. Both Biden’s and Putin’s post-summit comments suggest that the meeting, which ran shorter than anticipated, achieved this de minimis set of objectives and Biden wisely avoided a joint press conference so that none of his staff would feel the need to feign a health emergency or think about pulling a fire alarm (as Fiona Hill has suggested she considered at Helsinki in 2018 to bring down the curtain on the mortifying spectacle of President Trump siding with Putin against his own intelligence community).

Of course, Putin had every interest in this summit going off with minimal hitches since the laundry list of his malign activities both before and after Biden extended the invitation to meet is long—including the hacking of SolarWinds and USAID by agents of the Russian state, the buildup of Russian forces near Eastern Ukraine, the critical infrastructure attacks against U.S. energy and food distribution targets by Russian-based cyber criminals, the approbation for Belarusian state-sponsored air piracy, the designation of Alexei Navalny’s political opposition movement as an extremist organization—and on and on. Still, Putin was invited to meet with the leader of the free world in Geneva and have his amour-propre stroked by Biden’s characterization of him as a “worthy adversary” without having to address any of the issues that raised concerns about Russian policy in the United States or Europe.

Both leaders expressed satisfaction after the fact that the meetings had been constructive and direct, and that they opened the way for further discussions between the two governments (although Putin managed to do this while at the same time engaging in a long dyspeptic monologue filled with whataboutism and feigned concern for the rights of the protesters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6). In that way, on the surface at least, the summit seemed to satisfy both sides’ quite limited aims.

In reality, though, it is far too soon to judge the summit’s success or failure—precisely because the expectations were so low. In his post-summit press conference, President Biden made a general observation of some note:

Look guys, I know we make foreign policy out to be this great, great skill that somehow is sort of like a secret code. Pract– all foreign policy is, is a logical extension of personal relationships. It’s the way human nature functions.

He is partly right. Diplomacy is without a doubt partly about performance art, the presentation of self by one leader to another. But that is not the full picture. Biden’s comment really reflects on diplomacy rather than foreign policy. As the distinguished British diplomat and author Harold Nicolson noted in his book Diplomacy, there is a distinction between policy, which is the concerted aim of government using a variety of tools at its disposal, and diplomacy, which is the technique by which policy is executed by leaders and negotiators. Ultimately diplomacy—the kind of interpersonal relationships that Biden is talking about—have to be put in service to a policy or strategy of some kind, and here it is not clear whether the Biden administration has one yet with regard to the challenge represented by Russia.

Recent press accounts suggest an administration divided. On one side are those who, like Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman, and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland (who has more relevant Russia experience than virtually anyone in the administration) have advocated a tougher approach on things like the Nord Stream 2 pipeline waiver. On the other side are those who advocate a more nuanced approach aimed at placating such allies as Germany’s Angela Merkel, who have consistently placed commercial interests above the need to take a hard political line with authoritarian adversaries like Russia and China.

Having competing and even conflicting views within a single administration or even a single department is not unusual, of course. The challenge for the Biden administration is to come up with coherent and consistent policy to execute the larger strategic aims that the president has chosen to frame his approach—to wit, the success of democratic models of governance in the face of opposition by authoritarian powers. The challenge for Biden and his team is not dissimilar from the one Churchill described affecting the Western democracies between the wars:

the structure and habits of democratic States, unless they are welded into larger organisms, lack those elements of persistence and conviction which can alone give security to humble masses; how, even in matters of self-preservation, no policy is pursued for even ten or fifteen years at a time. We shall see how the counsels of prudence and restraint may become the prime agents of mortal danger; how the middle course adopted from desires for safety and a quiet life may be found to lead direct to the bull’s-eye of disaster.

Ultimately, to judge whether this summit succeeded will require some time. Putin’s professional formation as a KGB officer is quite relevant here. Just as he was trained to do before he was stationed in East Germany, Putin no doubt was attempting to assess Biden (whom he has met before as a senator and vice president but who is now for the first time in charge of policy-making) and weighing his strengths and vulnerabilities. For now, Putin’s assessment of Biden is his to know and ours to find out over the next several years, based on his actions vis-à-vis the United States and the West. Laying down a marker that attacking sixteen different critical nodes of U.S. infrastructure would breach a red line for the administration may look like a winning move if Russian-based cyberattacks wane over time. If, on the other hand, it is seen as an invitation to go after everything not included in the list of sixteen, it may look like an indication of weakness that Russia under Putin will continue to exploit.

An editorial in today’s Washington Post suggests that Biden gave Putin the benefit of the doubt despite the fact that none of his predecessors was able to accomplish much of anything with Putin using that approach. We will soon find out whether the meeting in Geneva actually moved Putin to change his overall approach to the United States and the West. Biden’s petulant answer (and subsequent apology) to CNN correspondent Kaitlan Collins’s shouted question at the end of his press conference—she asked about whether Putin will really “change his behavior”—suggests that even Biden has his doubts.

Eric S. Edelman

Eric S. Edelman is counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a non-resident senior fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. He is also the co-host of The Bulwark’s Shield of the Republic podcast.  He was U.S. ambassador to Finland from 1998 to 2001 and under secretary of defense for policy from 2005 to 2009.