Biden’s Two-Step Geneva Waltz Simply Buys Him Space
Washington would do well to discount von Leyen’s gushing love-in with Biden – it means very little.
The show came, and now has passed. The G7 visuals were meant to underline the prolongation of the unipolar moment and its purported values – Macron described it as a ‘family’ get-together, after a long hiatus, and Johnson remarked that it was so reminiscent of a ‘return to school’, with old mates crowding around, after the ‘hols’. The West is back, facing off against the autocratic ‘beasts from the East’ – so says the new narrative of the U.S. and the EU – said without a trace of irony – as democracies are mobilising against the threat from ‘the East’. The West is best; democracy is best; and works better, too … and shall win any race!
But visuals and re-booted mission statement apart, where does this take us? Well, nowhere substantive, beyond Boris Johnson’s celebration of G7 bonhomie. The NATO summit however, did elevate Russia to an ‘acute threat’, whilst China was lowered a rachet, to being only a ‘systemic challenge’. Why so?
Well, the NATO statement represented something of a Faustian Bargain. West Europeans (Macron and Merkel essentially) were resigned to the fact that they needed to give Biden some ‘China Threat’ language in the final communiqué to bring him – and America – back aboard the multilateral Eurobus. The Europeans have pressing trade ‘bones’ (steel and aluminium tariffs), that they wish to pick with Washington. So they didn’t want China entirely demonised; they need it too much. They wanted it instead, ‘differentiated’. That is to say, they argue that China presents differential threats – military, trade, tech and cultural – each of which should be treated differently. Macron says this approach represents the spirit of his Euro strategic-autonomy campaign.
But on Russia, it was an easy outcome. The NATO dog was allowed to be ‘wagged’ by a ‘tail’ of East European Russophobes and everyone emerged from NATO happy. Russia was mentioned unfavourably 63 times, to China’s only 10 times. China emerged differentiated. We will have to see how successful Europe is castigating China roundly over Xingjian and Hong Kong human rights, and egging on Taiwanese autonomy, whilst at the same time, begging Xi to put his hand in his pocket to help save Europe’s disintegrating economy.
Bear this in mind as we contemplate the panglossian aura projected by some commentators onto the Biden-Putin summit: NATO Secretary-General, Stoltenberg, says NATO won’t simply “mirror” Russia: It will de facto outspend it, and surround it. Surround it with multiple battle formations, since “we now have implemented the biggest reinforcements of our collective defence since the end of the Cold War”. The NATO communiqué is adamant: The only way for military spending is up.
Yet the Biden-Putin meeting nevertheless was intriguing. Nothing of substance (beyond the prospect of diplomatic talks), but no fireworks either. What lies behind this?
It seems more to do with Biden’s political ‘management’ doctrine which (naturally) is far removed from Trump’s Art of the Deal. It seems he deployed the same two-step approach with Putin that he follows with the U.S. Congress in terms of bipartisan infrastructure talks: Try to take the most optimistic path, give it some time; but be prepared to ditch it if it yields poor, or no, results.
The summit then was less about trying to detach Russia from China, than framing the parameters to that which might be done, and to those acts which will cross ‘red lines’. Biden said that he wanted Putin to hear directly from him what the U.S. considers unacceptable. “My agenda is not against Russia. There were ‘no threats’, no hyperbole, just ‘simple assertions’. The relationship is not about trust, but self-interest and verification”, Biden said.
After the meeting, Biden set it out clearly: “I did what I came to do: Number one, identify areas of practical work our two countries can do to advance our mutual interests, and also benefit the world. Two, communicate directly that the United States will respond to actions that impair our vital interests or those of our allies. And three, to clearly lay out our country’s priorities and our values – so that he [Putin] heard it straight from me”. “And I must tell you, the tone of the entire meetings — I guess it was a total of four hours — was — was good, positive. There wasn’t any — any strident action taken. Where we disagreed — I disagreed, stated where it was. Where he disagreed, he stated. But it was not done in a hyperbolic atmosphere”.
So now it is clear – It is clear why Putin accepted the meeting. Biden already had indicated that he did not want his incumbency to be overshadowed by Russia, as it had been for Trump. This was stage one – laying out the landscape. He then spelled out explicitly the following stage: “We’ll find out within the next six months to a year, whether or not we actually have a strategic dialogue – that matters”.
This suits both men. Putin has been able to probe the American limits and mindset – and Biden’s ‘staged process’ offers too, the prospect of a less fraught political atmosphere, in the lead up to the Duma elections this September. Something of consequence to Putin. This represents Putin’s strength, managing diverging interests (i.e. such as patiently ‘managing’ the erratic, irascible Erdogan)
For Biden, the hope must be to have put the U.S.’ hysteria over Russia in ‘a well-defined box’, thus allowing him to focus on his central objective of a pivot to China. This Biden two-stage approach is mirrored in his Iran policy: He expressly indicated that a return to the JCPOA was intended to yield – at the very least – having Iran’s nuclear programme boxed-in, whilst stage two – if conditions were right – would be to somehow de-toxify the region of the Iranian-Arab Sunni grudge, sufficiently for America to pivot out from all the Middle East quagmires, to complete the Obama pivot to Asia.
Tom Friedman, the voice of the Establishment in the NY Times, encapsulates the current ‘Beltway-think’ succinctly:
“Iran is too big to invade; the regime is too ensconced to be toppled from the outside; its darkest impulses, to dominate its Sunni Arab neighbours and destroy the Jewish state, are too dangerous to ignore; and its people are too talented to be forever denied a nuclear capability.
“So, when dealing with Iran, you do what you can, where you can, how you can, but with the understanding that (1) perfect is not on the menu and (2) Iran’s Islamic regime is not going to change …
“The Biden team believes that Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign did not diminish Iran’s malign behaviour in the region one iota (it will show you the data to prove it). So, Biden wants to at least lock up Iran’s nuclear program for a while, and then try blunting its regional troublemaking in other ways. At the same time, Biden wants to put more focus on nation-building at home and on countering China”.
The question, of course, is once the showtime passes, what will Russia China and Iran make of it all? Biden has his vision. Many will applaud it; but others may question whether it has any inherent longevity, beyond its six-month trial pause. Moscow will understand that it is no ‘pause’ at all for Russia. Biden simply passed the ‘bash Russia’ baton to the Europeans and to NATO, and they grasped at it with relish.
The point of course was to allow the Democrats to pursue legislatively their radical vision for America – with less distraction. The Achilles’ Heel to the Biden ‘America is Back’ flag-waving however, is that it is contingent on an old storyline (American exceptionalism, and its proclaimed ‘virtues’), whose source lies with the American religion of 1776. It is this foundation which the shock-troops of BLM and Project 1619 (the foundation of America through slavery) precisely wish to pull down, overthrow, and to replace those ‘virtues’ with a completely different cannon of beliefs.
All the world has watched the purposeful disruption – as the Millenarian forces of ‘our democracy’ have sought to dissolve America’s foundational storyline, stigmatising white supremacism as a threat to the state, and as ‘domestic terrorism’. The world clearly sees the widespread public restiveness, and a weak administration with insufficient strength in Congress to follow through with transformative legislation. Moreover, multiple spending splurges promise to bring galloping inflation – the eternal political killer.
The sudden lifting of the (once ‘perpetual’) COVID emergency powers, and the growing scepticism at ‘lockdown-based science’, signals the end to the unlimited accretion that the virus ‘gave’ to state power. The ‘science-based’ rationale is in disarray (especially, as now the details of U.S. early ‘gain of function’ collaboration with Wuhan, are being leaked). One can sense a paradigm shift in mood amongst the U.S. public.
The ’emergency powers’ have ended too soon for the likes of the Davos élites: COVID lockdown was weaponised both to be disruptive – and concomitantly, to speed Trump’s ouster. But it was also always intended by the Re-set ‘crowd’ to be the bridge to span the gap between the immediate dispensation of the COVID emergency, and stage two – that of the Global Climate Crisis ‘emergency’ (which also would likely require ‘climate lockdowns’, we are told). These were the disruptive events (the deus ex machina), that would be used to legitimise global monetary governance and the ushering in of a truly radical ‘overhaul of our economic structures, and doing capitalism differently’.
But the cracks in this agenda seem to be accelerating. The oligarchs ‘behind the Re-set curtain’ seem flummoxed by the turn of events – and at the hostility their agenda has generated. The pushback is not confined to just lockdowns; but an ‘exhausted majority’ is revolting at ‘correctness’, and the teaching of Critical Race Theory in schools and in the workplace. The Atlantic reports a poll showing that among the general American population, a full 80% believe that “political correctness is a problem in our country.” Even young people are uncomfortable with it, including 74% ages 24-29; and 79% for those under age 24. On this issue, the woke and their handlers, find themselves in a clear minority, across all ages.
So, the bottom line is that the narrative of ‘West is best; its virtues sacred’, is compromised. And this remains widely recognised across the globe, despite the EU’s gushing response. Some of these inherent tensions were clearly on display during the recent mini-intifada launched by Hamas, after the Israeli riot police entered al-Aqsa mosque. On the one hand, Biden sang the song of traditional American virtue, supporting unreservedly Israeli actions. While, on the other, the progressives in his party sang about the oppression of Palestinians and their Rights. Which is it to be? The world watches. Will America’s foundational values be overthrown, or is a Thermidorian reaction already beginning to unfold? Will the former all unwind with the 2022 U.S. mid-term elections?
So, as the world makes its’ accounting in wake of Biden’s ‘progress’ through Europe, they will note that nothing emerged that would change the direction-of-travel of the global strategic balance. More than anything, it is the evolving shift in the strategic balance that counts. And the geo-strategical balance is not in the U.S.’ favour – it is tilting against the U.S.
As long ago as March 2018, Putin described in detail (in an address to a joint session of Federal legislatures), the operational capabilities of new defence systems that were ready for release, or were far advanced in the testing and production pipeline. These included hypersonic missiles flying at Mach 10 and more. He claimed that the new weapons systems marked the first time in history that Russia had moved ahead of the West in innovative, unparalleled performance of its arms. “Putin insisted that the new weapons systems signified the restoration of strategic parity with the United States”. That is the point. Elsewhere today, Iran has achieved a strategic parity with Israel; and China is advancing towards a weapons lead over the U.S.
So these states will have watched the show, but after it, they simply will continue with their own agenda of global transformation. They know that saying ‘West is Best’ just doesn’t cut it anymore globally. Washington would do well to discount von Leyen’s gushing love-in with Biden – it means very little.