Putin and Biden Step Into the Post-Trump Void
The much-anticipated culmination of a new president’s first foreign trip has, more than anything, cemented a changing of the guard.
For nearly a half a decade, a narrative was pounded home.
Donald Trump, accidental president, was the result of choreography from the high command in Moscow, which somehow understood the United States more than its own elite. The Kremlin outsmarted the American establishment like a fox, and installed a Manchurian candidate in the White House.
The trouble was, this figure was a patsy pawn with a policy record as president more anti-Russian than any president since Ronald Reagan: there was the dubious doling out of heavy weapons to Ukranian allies, in tandem with a sanctions regime on the country only rivaled by Washingtonian treatment of Venezuela, Iran and North Korea, and then, the actual expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that Trump once called “obsolete.”
If the Russians ever held President Donald Trump as an asset, which they did not, they were plainly never able to liquidate their holding.
By contrast, beneath the sound and the fury, Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden, has surprisingly assumed the form of an earlier self, a foreign policy realist of a sort, at least on the subject of Russia. This comes after a presidential campaign, during which either politics or conviction, or both, compelled the aspirant president to mouth the outright Russophobic platitudes of party zeitgeist.
It’s a turnabout.
As Gil Barndollar of the Center for Study of Statesmanship wrote in a cover piece for The American Conservative last year: “Biden also has a curious and perhaps revealing tic: he often invokes Vladimir Putin as the final word on Trump, whether speaking to Washington policy wonks or a New Hampshire union hall. Biden seems to view Russia as an outright enemy, in contrast to the Chinese competitor. Russia is one area where Biden’s advisors and surrogates seldom equivocate.”
And yet, they have.
As Biden noted in April, the central geoeconomic ambition of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime has been the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, a linchpin of the Kremlin’s European policy. In a move that would have brought hellfire down upon a Donald Trump White House, Biden’s administration relented on its objections with basically only neoconservative acrimony. “Nord Stream 2 is a complicated issue affecting our allies in Europe,” Biden said in April.
It was against this backdrop that the new president summited with Putin this week on Lake Geneva. His principal foreign policy aide, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, saw a clear, post-Trump conclusion. “The bottom line is that Joe Biden confidently and skillfully donned the mantle of leader of the free world on this trip,” Sullivan told reporters on a call Thursday.
Some conservative-leaning media jumped on Biden’s transparent use of note cards as evidence further of how stage-managed the president often is. And he can be. But the conclusion of his European swing actually marked a departure from the often gormless status quo: Biden held a freewheeling presser with reporters, and lashed out, however ill-advisedly, at a female reporter (before swiftly apologizing). But on Russia policy, at the very least, the 46th president showed it was actually he who had been driving the bus.
The sense of individual preference is important, and shows who the president is does matter.
Matthew Rojanksy, a controversially-quashed appointment to the National Security Council, emphasized this week that Biden has long flashed a pragmatic streak, referencing Biden’s counsel that the U.S. “hang tough, but keep talking” in a 2017 Foreign Affairsarticle as evidence of the wily politician’s subtle dissent from a Democratic Party basically inarguably worked up into a frenzy following the 2016 election.
Still, old scars remain.
At the bilateral this week was Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s longtime spox, a figure fingered as an ultimate villain in the era of Russia disinformation campaigns. His ideological, proper opposite was also in attendance: Victoria Nuland, an Obama hand and spouse of neocon bigwig Robert Kagan. She has made an encore appearance at the State Department.
And the summit was, in some ways, the story of two foreign ministers. On the one hand, one encountered Antony Blinken, the first secretary of State in generation (since James Baker), who owes his station in life, above all, to a cultivated and long-standing relationship with the president. On the other hand, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, is perhaps the only member of the political, Putinite inner sanctum that precedes the longtime Russian president in real power (he is a creature of the diplomatic corps).
As Dimitri K. Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest and a host on Russia’s Channel One, concluded of the meeting succinctly, if sardonically: “I think it was civilized.”