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Joe Biden the statesman

If anyone thought that 36 years in the Senate, chairing the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees and eight years as vice president was not more than enough preparation for a president, especially regarding national security, that notion was shattered this week. Even honest conservative critics should give some credit to President Biden for a successful trip to Cornwall, Brussels and Geneva.  

While one trip does not transform or rejuvenate American foreign policy, few could have predicted a better outcome. Despite clear political and economic differences over China, the G7 summit resulted in a consensus that had been missing for the past four years. With one possible exception, the NATO summit likewise was successful. The EU meeting was less publicized, and further analysis will be needed to determine what was achieved. 

Then came Geneva and Biden’s highly anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. While specifics of the private meetings will (gradually) be disclosed, the dual press conferences of both presidents were revealing. President Biden could not have been more explicit in what he discussed with Putin. In precise and crisp prose, Biden explained how basic American values stemming from the people delegating power to the government, and not the reverse, were the principal forces motivating his philosophy, thinking and actions as president.

In that regard, the president’s understanding of what drives Putin was perhaps the clearest of any president since FDR mistakenly dealt with StalinIn Biden’s view, Putin’s top priority rested in maintaining the authority of the Russian government as the only guarantor of ensuring a stable nation and thus the legitimacy of the Russian people, something previous American presidents did not fully understand. And Biden was clever in making his points, particularly by asking Putin how Russia would react if its oil and gas pipelines such as Colonial’s were disrupted.

Putin was not as forthcoming in his briefing. Putin complimented Biden for reinforcing the civil, professional and positive atmosphere of the somewhat shortened meetings despite the differences on many issues. Aside from Putin’s critique of American human rights and legal violations, his most trenchant comment came at the very end of the press conference.

Asked about Ukraine, Putin referenced how the U.S. invasion into Iraq was highly destabilizing. Putin then made the comment that after the attempted CIA “coup” in Kyiv, Russia had no option except to intervene in Ukraine in 2014. The U.S. of course denied any attempted coup. But in its diplomacy and an unfortunate comment by its assistant secretary of state that escalated and did not defuse tensions, Moscow had grounds for concern. That was not an excuse to intervene. But the U.S. was not entirely innocent, and the incident certainly provoked Moscow. 

The meeting established an informal modus operandi and then directed working groups on strategic stability and arms control, cyber, Syria and other issues of concern to propose future courses of action. Given that these groups will have professional as well as political participants, progress is not out of the question. And, as President Biden declared, “We will see” how this works in six months, a very commonsensical response.

The one area that could prove counterproductive was integrating China more deeply into NATO’s strategic considerations. Not all of NATO’s members fully agreed. But given a very pro-alliance president, dissent was muted.  

But the China “tilt” is the possible flaw. After the Soviet Union imploded, NATO began a gradual expansion of membership amid Russia discontent. The Clinton administration accelerated the process without answering the critical question of what ultimately to do about Russia and possible membership. Establishment of the NATO-Russia Council was always an unsatisfactory compromise. Now with 30 members, Russia had reason to fear encirclement. 

The potential trap here for NATO is overly militarizing the relationship with China. As the expansion of NATO ultimately was one of many reasons that led to a nadir in relations with Russia, repeating a similar mistake vis-a-vis China is possible. 

NATO does have a role in Asia. But that role needs to be subtle, not blunt and focused on soft power supporting allies rather than on a military confrontation. After all, China is not the Soviet Union and does not pose a direct military threat to the alliance.

One piece of advice however: The president would be wise to re-evaluate this muscular approach towards China to prevent this rivalry from getting out of hand. But will he?

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is United Press International’s Arnaud deBorchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book due out this year is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Endangered, Infected, Engulfed and Disunited a 51% Nation and the Rest of the World.” 

Tags Enlargement of NATO Foreign policy of Vladimir Putin G7 summit Joe Biden NATO Russia Russia–NATO relations Russia–United States relations Vladimir Putin

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