A lot of diplomacy will be required if the toxic Russophobia prevalent in the U.S. political establishment and media is to be overcome.
The success of the summit this week between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin boils down to this: the two men met, shook hands and proceeded to have detailed discussions in a cordial, respectful and frank manner.
On many issues, they apparently agreed to disagree, while on the most urgent matter of all – the danger of nuclear war – they made a mutual commitment to maintaining peace, pronouncing that such a war should never be fought.
That, in essence, is diplomacy and dialogue at its most prosaic and yet also at its finest. The willingness of two parties simply to come together and speak to each other with the purpose of finding cooperation despite a background of antipathy.
It should be heartening to most people that the presidents of the United States and Russia – the world’s two nuclear superpowers – met in Geneva this week and held nearly two hours of constructive dialogue. They aired their differences on a range of issues. But the exchange was conducted with reason and respect. There was no acrimony, grandstanding, threats, ultimatums, or hyperbole.
That in itself was quite an achievement given the spiraling bad relations between the U.S. and Russia over the past decade, a downward dynamic that has accelerated in the last four years.
Relations have not slumped to such lows since the end of the Cold War three decades ago. Indeed, it could be argued that the realpolitik of the Cold War era between the United States and the Soviet Union was preferable to the recent collapse in relations between Washington and Moscow in that at least during the former Cold War, there was mutual rational recognition of divergent positions.
The recent deterioration in bilateral relations is characterized by more irrational Russophobia which seems insatiable in its negativity towards Moscow and President Putin in particular. Russia has been vilified and demonized with a torrent of allegations, from interference in elections to organizing cybercrime, and so much more that is hardly worth recycling here. The allegations are unsubstantiated, to say the least, regardless of what proponents think they believe to be “true”.
President Biden too has indulged in this relentless Russia-baiting. He has previously called Putin a “thug” and a “killer” and has issued grave warnings about making Russia “pay a price” for its alleged malign conduct.
Instead of lobbing accusations and claims, the only remedy is to actually meet the other party, even if one perceives the other as an “enemy” – which the U.S. political establishment certainly does regarding Russia. That remedy, in a word, is called “diplomacy”.
Diplomacy and dialogue are what Moscow has repeatedly appealed to the United States to engage in. Only for the words to fall on deaf ears, until now. Ironically, it was Biden who initiated the summit in a phone call with Putin in April. A seasoned politician, Biden probably realized that the enmity in relations is unsustainable and perilous. And that Russia’s appeals for dialogue were the only way out of trouble.
Finally, after nearly five months since he became president, Biden met with Putin. It is lamentable that it took so long given the unique and onerous responsibility that the two nuclear powers bear in maintaining global security. The last time a summit was held was three years ago between Putin and then President Donald Trump.
The inertia is a result of the toxic domestic politics of the United States and its bipartisan leitmotif of Russophobia.
Nevertheless, a meeting came to pass this week and the two leaders engaged in mutual discussions. They issued a brief joint statement declaring: “Today, we reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought.”
It is a sign of how fraught relations had become that such a declaration no doubt brought huge relief around the world.
The main practical outcome of the summit was the commitment by both sides to work together on maintaining “strategic stability” and to safeguard the New START treaty limiting nuclear arsenals in the U.S. and Russia – which represent over 90 percent of the world’s total stockpile.
Through such vital cooperation, it can only be hoped that the United States and Russia can begin rebuilding trust on wider issues and hence return to a modicum of normal relations.
A second important gain from the summit was the commitment by both sides to formulate an international cybersecurity mechanism.
The realm of cybercrime has become a new international threat endangering national economies and infrastructure. But more than that, it also poses the added danger of increasing global tensions through misunderstanding and misattribution. Recent cyberattacks on the American oil industry were blamed on Russia, which Russia denied. The potential for mistaken escalation of conflict is disturbing. That is why it is imperative that nations cooperate to counteract cybercrime in much the same they do with regard to any other category of crime.
Again, as with the issue of strategic arms control, it is Russia that has been urging the American side to collaborate on cybercrime security. In both areas, it is Washington that has up to now shown reluctance to engage.
There was also agreement on returning respective ambassadors after a few months of estranged absence, as well as cooperation over developments in the Arctic region and facilitating the exchange of citizens in criminal prisoner swaps.
However, there remain many points of acute difference. Biden said he raised American concerns about human rights in Russia, the case of jailed blogger Alexei Navalny, and also relations between Moscow and Ukraine and Belarus. Fair enough, the American leader is entitled to his opinions, and no doubt his Russian counterpart was able to give a robust riposte to these points, and make his own criticism about U.S. conduct domestically and internationally, such as military forces encroaching on Russian borders. Both sides expressed their respective “red lines”.
But the salient note is that the Geneva summit marked a welcome change in the overall American attitude. The discussions were conducted with mutual respect. That marks a significant shift away from the high-handed arrogant attitude that has prevailed in Washington for far too long which has been the biggest causal factor in why relations between the U.S. and Russia have become so embittered and fraught.
Thus, the Geneva summit can be viewed as a good opening with a “genuine prospect to significantly improve relations”, as Biden commented.
It remains to be seen if the opportunity is taken further to properly normalize relations. There is still a heap of debris and toxic allegations blocking the way. Countless rounds of American sanctions have declared Russia an enemy state. The NATO summit last week also reiterated multiple claims against Russia as being a “threat”. In reciprocation, Moscow has put the U.S. on a list of “unfriendly states”. It will not be easy to reverse out of the hole in relations.
A major impasse stems from the mindset of the American political and media class.
It is rather daunting that after the summit President Biden was harangued in the U.S. media by Democrats and Republicans alike for being “too soft” on Putin. He was even denounced for holding the summit as giving “too much respect” to the Russian leader.
Diplomacy, it is said, is “the art of the possible”. In that case, a lot of diplomacy and a lot of art will be required if the toxic Russophobia prevalent in the U.S. political establishment and media is to be overcome so that rational and reasonable international relations can be restored.
Notwithstanding the daunting challenges ahead, the Geneva summit this week between Biden and Putin is a vindication of diplomacy and dialogue.