The much-ballyhooed meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin was a disaster of optics and theatrics for Biden, despite frantic U.S. media efforts to spin straw into gold.
Biden gave Putin hugely valuable gifts and concessions before the meeting began, most notably killing U.S. pipeline projects while supporting Russia’s, and got nothing in return. The image of the businesslike new China-Russia axis rising to world dominance above a fading, conflicted, exhausted America was inescapable.
Biden’s loyal media fumbled to construct a narrative of the surprisingly powerful U.S. president putting the Russian dictator in his place with an unexpectedly firm handshake, even as the White House scrambled to lower expectations and flush its swaggering pre-summit rhetoric down the Memory Hole.
Despite the Democrat media’s best efforts, the enduring meme-ready images from this meeting are all terrible for Biden – from Biden nodding in numb silence when asked if he trusts the man he once denounced as a stone-cold “killer,” the man his entire Party and its media accused of stealing the 2016 election, the man they portrayed as the single greatest menace to democracy on the planet – to Biden snapping like a twig when someone from his courtier press dared to ask an unexpected question.
No leader this side of Pyongyang enjoys a more supportive press corps than Joe Biden, and he could not handle talking to them for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Putin romped through a marathon press conference during which he was bombarded with (justifiably) hostile questions and seemed to be enjoying himself.
The astounding moment when Biden pleaded with Putin to stop launching devastating cyberattacks against a list of 16 vital targets will long outlive any momentary gains the White House thinks it made during this encounter. Biden’s media think he set some sort of dramatic “red line” for cyberwarfare with Putin, but “How would you feel if ransomware took out the pipelines from your oil fields?” might be the most pathetic thing a free-world leader has said to an autocrat since Neville Chamberlain’s salad days. Putin most certainly did not interpret that line as a fearsome threat.
Every meeting between an American leader and hacker-happy despots since the beginning of the Information Age has been purely theatrical. The despots always deny they direct, sponsor, or indulge hackers. They always say they hate cyberespionage more than everyone and claim to be the biggest victims. It’s ridiculous, but at least in previous performances of this weird little play, the U.S. leader demands a halt to all state cyberwarfare and a crackdown on all rogue actors, and the despot pretends to agree. The world will very definitely notice that Biden is scaling back America’s demands.
Scoring the encounter like a prize fight and treating every snapshot like a punch is missing the point anyway. American presidents of both parties always underestimate how much a character like Putin wins just by showing up for these meetings, automatically gaining the prestige of world leadership on par with the U.S., China, and NATO. All Putin really has to do is look like he belongs on that stage with whoever sits in the White House at the moment. It’s a fairly low bar for him to clear.
Set aside the photo ops and sound bites of the Biden-Putin summit, and focus on the joint statement issued afterward that emphasized “strategic stability” and “ensuring predictability in the strategic sphere.” The real danger facing the free world is that Russia and China think they have a far better model for ensuring “stability” than the fading U.S.-NATO alliance. Biden did nothing to challenge that narrative.
The Chinese are extremely aggressive about pushing the notion that their brand of steely-eyed pragmatic authoritarianism is a much better foundation for global stability than America’s rambunctious, hypocritical democracy. Hardly a day passes without Chinese officials and state media hammering that point. Putin followed their script quite well at the summit.
Putin is not as smooth as the Chinese when it comes to turning America’s social crises and media obsessions against it, but he has definitely learned how to play the game, as seen in his obsessive focus on the Capitol riots as proof that Americans are hypocrites for criticizing the rough measures he takes to stay in power.
The Chinese are much more skilled at using Democrat Party rhetoric against Biden – how dare you criticize us for human rights violations! Just look at the 1619 Project and Black Lives Matter! – while Putin was mostly just trolling to deflect accusations of political repression by invoking Ashli Babbitt, a name that does not often come up in Democrat conversations.
Putin gets the general idea, though. The China-Russia axis recruits client states by arguing America and Europe are too mercurial to do business with. Democracies change their leadership often and have bitter inter-party disputes, while Chinese and Russian authoritarianism offers stability, consistency, and predictability.
Putin hit this point by arguing that Biden cannot take the bold steps needed to build better relations with Russia because the Republicans would savage him for it. He makes the same argument, with the parties reversed, when a Republican is in the White House. The message to client states is that no such factional bickering gets in the way when dealing with one-party autocracies.
Biden’s “America Last” style of foreign policy asserts that acting against America’s interests, and often refusing to acknowledge that America has legitimate national interests, somehow demonstrates the U.S. president’s virtue. We must be good guys if we put everybody else first!
The China-Russia axis responds that America Last proves leaders such as Biden are irrational and unpredictable, not virtuous. They claim America hypocritically uses human rights standards that it does not really believe in to attack its competitors, and it could turn against any of its partner nations on a moment’s notice in some future moral panic.
The U.S. and its allies are constantly talking about “regime change” and fomenting “color revolutions,” not Vladimir Putin and Chinese dictator Xi Jinping. The U.S. is the aggressor power – just look at all those aircraft carriers! – while China and Russia only desire peace and territorial security. The U.S. is “hegemonic,” while Beijing and Moscow just want to do business.
Russia and China promise they will never question the legitimacy of allied leaders or criticize what they must do to stay in power.
Moscow and Beijing offer political support to dictatorships, including protection at the United Nations, and write checks for programs such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative with no moralistic strings attached. They understand sometimes a junta has to throw a few people in jail and shoot a few protesters to keep the trains running on time. They predict post-pandemic America will never regain the economic strength to dominate global politics and would not know how to spend the money wisely even if it somehow managed to climb from its deep pit of debt.
Putin accuses the United States of destabilizing Syria and supporting terrorists throughout the Obama and Trump administrations, while Russia sensibly stepped in to put down a violent revolution and secure the “legitimate” rule of dictator Bashar Assad. He likes to use Barack Obama’s invasion of Libya as an example of how America’s regime change policies and human rights rhetoric cause regional instability.
Putin put on a solid performance for the China-Russia view of global politics and acted convincingly as the leader of a rising power facing off against a declining hegemon. The audience that really matters is not American cable news talking heads, but every smaller actor who has not firmly chosen a side in the latest global contest between authoritarianism and freedom.
Joe Biden did absolutely nothing to make his ostensible side of that conflict look more appealing, reasonable, or powerful. His stewardship of the U.S. economy certainly is not going to convince anyone outside of New York and D.C. newsrooms that America is recovering its strength after the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. Biden’s media love to claim “the adults are back” in Washington. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping do not see adults; they see retirees.