Joe Biden’s Excellent Week: America Back on the World Stage

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Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin in Switzerland (Screenshot from Reuters video)

President Joe Biden wrapped up a packed week-long agenda of European summits and ceremonies with his first meeting as head of state with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a brief but unexpectedly encouraging session that both leaders called constructive and cordial.

In sharp contrast to the embarrassing diplomatic forays of his White House predecessor, Biden reassured allies in the Group of Seven leading democracies, the European Union, and the NATO military alliance that “America is back” after four years of Donald Trump’s “America First” rejection of global collaboration.

Biden and leaders of the European Union reached breakthrough agreements in Brussels earlier in the week to end a 17-year-old dispute over subsidies to their respective aerospace giants, Boeing and Airbus. The suspension of that trade war was hailed as a sensible decision to focus on the real culprit in suppressing aircraft sales competition: China, which is developing its own aviation industry with massive subsidies from Beijing’s Communist government.

The transatlantic allies also agreed to pursue a 15% minimum corporate tax on profits to halt the “race to the bottom” by international businesses moving to the lowest tax venues and depriving their home governments of vital revenue.

Most important, from a security perspective, was the palpable relief expressed by America’s NATO partners at Biden’s reassurance that the United States is fully committed to the 30-nation alliance and stands ready to defend any member country should it come under attack. Trump belittled NATO as “obsolete” and portrayed European partners as moochers on the outsized share of the alliance budget contributed by the U.S. 

The cumulative dispute resolutions and restoration of Europeans’ confidence in their U.S. allies likely constituted Biden’s most consequential week since taking office five months ago. His early success in rolling out COVID-19 vaccines and driving down virus outbreaks in much of the U.S. has been followed by many of his other domestic projects hitting political roadblocks in the divided and acrimonious houses of Congress. Ambitious bills to fund a massive infrastructure overhaul and to prevent states from imposing voter suppression laws have stalled amid the political gridlock. The 50-50 split Senate even failed to pass a measure establishing an investigative committee to document who and what led up to the deadly Jan. 6 riot that attempted to prevent certification of Biden’s victory in the November presidential election.   

Biden flew home to Washington Wednesday night after his first foreign policy mission as president with pledges from Putin to restart talks on a new strategic arms limitation treaty and to return their exiled ambassadors to the embassies in their respective capitals. The Kremlin recalled Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov from Washington three months ago, after the Biden administration accused Russia of hacking strategic U.S. infrastructure and industry. The Russian government simultaneously told the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Trump-holdover John J. Sullivan, to return to Washington for “consultations.” Neither envoy has been back at his embassy since then.

That first step toward easing tensions between the nuclear superpowers was a low bar set by foreign policy experts for “deliverables” from the streamlined summit. Richard N. Haass, a veteran diplomat and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, opined in cable television interviews on the eve of the meeting that Biden and Putin needed to restore more normal diplomacy “as a minimum” to pull their countries out of the most contentious relations since the Cold War purportedly ended with the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

The absence of ambassadors and earlier tit-for-tat closure of consulates in both countries has ground visa issuance to a halt. Applications for business travel, tourism and people-to-people diplomacy, essential to improving U.S.-Russia relations, often take up to a year to process.

At separate news conferences after their three-hour meeting, Putin and Biden both pointed to the decision to return their ambassadors to their posts as evidence of some headway in bringing down the diplomatic fever.

Neither leader claimed any breakthrough in convincing the other to cease provocations, rather they warned of unspecified “consequences” for crossing “red lines” – human rights abuses and cyber-attacks of concern to Biden and what Putin condemns as U.S. efforts to interfere in Russian domestic politics.

Biden said he brought up with Putin the case of two detained Americans, Paul Whalen and Trevor Reed. Both leaders said there would be examination of the circumstances of their detention, as well as those behind Russians in U.S. custody for alleged security violations.

Biden said he repeatedly raised with Putin his treatment of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, the imprisoned politician and corruption fighter who was poisoned with a Soviet-era nerve agent last summer and evacuated to Germany for life-saving treatment. Upon his return to Moscow in January, he was sent to prison for violating the terms of his parole on politically motivated charges. His violation? Failure to get permission to leave the country when he was in a coma after being poisoned. Navalny went on hunger strike until authorities met his demand for medical assistance. Concerns remain that the high-profile dissident could die in prison.

Biden said he raised Navalny’s case and other human rights issues because “no president of the United States could keep faith with the American people if they did not speak out to defend our democratic values, to stand up for the universal and fundamental freedoms that all men and women have, in our view.”

Asked how the U.S. would response if Navalny dies in custody, Biden replied: “I made it clear to him (Putin) that I believe the consequences of that would be devastating for Russia.”

Putin countered the criticism of his suppression of dissent by comparing it to the Biden administration’s treatment of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists, portraying those who attacked the congressional session as unarmed protesters.  

“We sympathize with what is happening in the states, but we do not wish that to happen in Russia,” Putin said.

Biden was quick to dispute some overly optimistic characterizations of the summit results in questions from the media. Asked why he was confident Putin would follow through on the discussed efforts to soothe their troubled relations, he snapped at the question as he was leaving the news conference.

“I’m not confident,” Biden said, turning back toward the media scrum. “I said what will change their behavior is if the rest of the world reacts to them and it diminishes their standing in the world. I’m not confident of anything. I’m just stating the facts.”

Putin, likewise, cast aspersions on U.S. policies, citing a congressional declaration of Russia as a U.S. “enemy” and support for nongovernmental organizations active in Russia with the aim of building up opposition forces. 

The leaders also discussed Russia’s claimed sovereignty over the emerging Arctic shipping lanes, a trade route widening — largely due to global warming — along the vast Siberian coast that is home to much of Russia’s strategic naval fleet. Putin insisted Russia is a fair and legitimate steward of the Arctic region, bordered by seven other countries with claims to its natural resources.

Putin gave an interview to NBC News in Moscow ahead of the summit in which he repeated his praise of Trump as a “flamboyant, talented and experienced” businessman, contrasting him with Biden who he described as a “different sort.” (U.S. media reports that Putin described Trump as “bright” are a mis-translation of the Russian word meaning bright in a striking visual sense, not the English connotation of intelligence).

The Russian leader sounded nostalgic for his more enabling former U.S. counterpart in the interview. At his wide-ranging 90-minute press conference after his meeting with Biden, Putin made no comment about Trump and seemed to soften his testy relations with Biden by complimenting “the extent of his moral values, which are quite attractive. We speak the same moral language.”

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Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.

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