Is it simply the nature of this era, the fact that the event epitomised a kind of political essence, or that the mad global media not only covers news but also makes it? Whatever it is, during US President Joe Biden’s first tour abroad, the world was at the edge of its seat in anticipation of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The 46th US president’s stop in the UK to meet with other heads of state of the G7 – followed by his meeting with NATO leaders, which included an important fringe discussion with Erdogan – looked like the prelude to this grand event.
It was like a symphony where everything prepares for that moment when the strings pick up pace, the other orchestral sections join in to enhance the drama, and the crescendo builds as excitement peaks in anticipation of the resounding resolution. The performance did not lack some jarring moments, such as that point in an earlier overture when Biden, contrary to his customary equanimity and prudence in his choice of words, called the president of the world’s other superpower – which also has enough nuclear weapons to destroy the planet – a “killer” and “criminal”. The coolness of Putin’s response was thunderous. To him Biden was merely a vice president whom he’d met before.
Perhaps observers failed to notice that the two sides struck an agreement concerning cybersecurity in the lead-up to the summit and that during the summit they agreed to sustain current agreements on nuclear weapons and, more importantly, on the need to work towards “strategic stability.” Both sides also made it clear that they are keen to cooperate in areas where their interests converge, from fighting climate change to the Syrian question in the Middle East. None of the foregoing could have been ruled out before the meeting as such steps were needed in order to douse volatile sparks in various hotspots.
Moreover, at closer inspection, the steps were both logical and consistent with the customary framework of US-Russian relations which deal with matters of global security, matters of concern to all humanity, discussing considerations that are crucial to their own internal policies and, at this stage in particular, any number of important details in a world reeling under the strain of the Covid-19 pandemic and economic recession.
It was mainly two things that made the summit exciting: the absence of Donald Trump after his four years in power, and the issue of human rights which Democrats in the US want Biden to brandish like a sword in a global crusade. Some years ago in a previous summit in Brussels, Trump stunned other NATO members with the ultimatum that the US would withdraw from this Western military alliance unless they spent more on their own defence.
On 14 June this year, in the same venue, Biden had to mend the considerable damage done by four years of histrionics on the part of his predecessor who suddenly decided to pull 12,000 US troops out of Germany. It is hard to ignore the lesson Trump gave the world about the lack of stability in US foreign policy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not exaggerate when she said that her country and others had to come to terms with the fact that the US changed its policies every four years. So when Biden stated that his country regarded Article 5 of the NATO charter, which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all and should be met with a collective response, as a “sacred obligation”, his remarks had the effect of a balm on his listeners’ ears. Such reverent rhetoric has long been a Biden trademark, but it was not without purpose.
What Washington wanted from its allies in NATO and from its fellow G7 members as well was a stronger collective stance on Russia, especially on cybersecurity. The same applied to China, which the US has come to perceive as an adversary in this matter. Biden got what he came for from his allies and this paved the way to what he later achieved in Geneva. Of course, it is impossible to predict how much of a push from NATO might still be needed to achieve cybersecurity and strategic stability, especially since the delicate Ukrainian question is still up in the air.
As for the Ukraine and the Russian opposition activist Alexey Navalny, the White House had stressed beforehand that no great breakthroughs would be made on these issues during the summit. Biden was more focused on structuring the meeting as an exercise in down-to-earth pragmatism. Specifically, he had in mind the need for higher degrees of predictability on how Washington and Moscow would act in various scenarios and the need to understand each other’s red lines.
From the coverage of the summit, it appears that democracy and human rights were less a topic on the negotiating table than food for the press conferences that followed the meeting. Rather than the joint press conference one would customarily expect, Biden and Putin held separate press conferences, creating the impression of a different kind of summit, one between each head of state and his own people. As a result, it seemed that Russia came under less of a glare on questions of democracy and human rights than the US because of its actions in Iraq and Afghanistan and the problems of racism and the ramifications of the recent storming of the Capitol Building at home.
Around 50 years ago, two summits, the first between the US and China and the second between the US and the Soviet Union, turned the world as everyone had known it upside-down. They effectively declared the end of the Cold War. The US under Nixon wanted to pull out of Vietnam with the least possible losses. Beijing and Moscow wanted a breath of fresh air untainted by its violent rivalry with Washington.
The result was the policy of détente intended to reduce tensions and prevent dangerous brinksmanship by taking advantage of the opportunities made available by common ground and shared interests so as to promote benefits for both sides. Although disputes would sometimes escalate and the Cold War would return in the 1980s and last until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the summits continued without interruption for the sake of maintaining strategic stability and peace. True, the mutual taunting and name calling would continue, as occurred when Biden told Putin he thought the Russian leader did not have a soul. But such is the stuff of politics and international relations. What matters above all is keeping the world safe from nuclear war.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly