With President Biden, there is no such concern. He has decades of experience in foreign policy as a globe-trotting vice president and senator. His foreign policy chops (while inexplicably MIA in his chaotic exit from Afghanistan) showed on his trip to Europe — and paid dividends for the American people.
Biden established an easy rapport with his fellow democratic leaders at meetings with the Group of Seven, the European Union and NATO. “I think it’s great to have the U.S. president part of the club and very willing to cooperate,” French President Emmanuel Macron said. As a congenial insider, Biden was able to accomplish far more than a testy outsider such as Donald Trump ever could. Biden got fellow leaders to agree on a 15 percent global corporate minimum tax, on sending 1 billion doses of covid-19 vaccines to the developing world (not enough, but a start), on speaking out about the challenge posed by China, and on settling a long-festering European-American trade dispute over aircraft subsidies.
Even before Biden stepped foot in Europe, his approval ratings among U.S. allies had soared. The Pew Research Center reports that, in 16 countries, the percentage of people who have faith in the U.S. president to do the right thing in foreign affairs has risen on average from 17 percent last year to 75 percent today. Biden’s sure-footed, gaffe-free trip may send those numbers even higher.
The meetings with allies were, in some sense, merely a prelude for meeting with one of the United States’ most effective foes — Vladimir Putin. One cannot imagine a starker contrast between Biden and his predecessor than in their handling of the Russian strongman. At Helsinki in July 2018, then-President Trump simpered and cowered. In a low point of a presidency with more low points than Death Valley, Trump accepted at face value Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denials of complicity in the 2016 election attack. Putin emerged from that meeting smirking like the cat that swallowed the canary.
As the historian Michael Beschloss noted, there was no such grin on Putin’s lips when he did his solo press conference after meeting with Biden on Wednesday. While Putin engaged in his usual dishonesty and whataboutism — he compared his jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny with the prosecution of the Capitol rioters — his manner was subdued and far from triumphant. He attacked the United States but was careful not to insult Biden personally. He even compared the current president favorably to his predecessor: “President Biden is an experienced statesman. He is very different from President Trump.” (Ouch. That’s got to sting for Putin’s biggest fanboy in the United States.)
In his own remarks, Biden struck all the right notes. He made clear that he raised human-rights concerns with Putin. “How could I be the president of the United States of America and not speak out against the violation of human rights?” he asked. It is almost unimaginable — had we not just witnessed the Trump presidency. Biden said he told Putin that, if Navalny dies in a Russian prison, the consequences would be “devastating for Russia.” He said he also raised Russia’s complicity in cyberattacks, its interference with humanitarian aid in Syria, and its invasion of Ukraine (he expressed support for Ukraine’s “territorial integrity”), while holding out the hope of cooperation on the Iranian nuclear program, stability in Afghanistan, nuclear arms control and other issues.
Biden did not express any naive hopes for a transformation of Russia; he is the first U.S. president since Putin’s ascension in 1999 who does not expect a fundamental reset of relations. His goals were more modest, if perhaps still too ambitious — namely a little more stability and predictability from the Kremlin. “This is not a kumbaya moment,” he said, but it’s not in anyone’s interest to be “in a new cold war.”
Even that may not be true: Russia benefits from a cold war if that means it gets treated as the equal of the world’s sole superpower rather than, as John McCain put it, “a gas station masquerading as a country.” Indeed, one can argue that Putin is rewarded for his misbehavior by being granted the world’s stage in Geneva in a way that the leaders of larger economies, such as Italy or India, are not.
But there is a diplomatic benefit from the summit that may outweigh the cost of boosting Putin’s standing. That is to have an experienced and principled U.S. president communicate clearly and unequivocally to the “killer” in the Kremlin what U.S. interests and expectations are — and to let him know that there will be grave consequences for misbehavior. That appears to be exactly what Biden did. Whether Putin got the message remains to be seen. But at least it’s nice to have a president who knows what message to deliver.