The Biden-Putin summit was a master class in diplomacy

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President Biden’s summit with Vladimir Putin evoked some fairly predictable responses from pundits and critics. The press looked for signs of conflict or some reflection as to whether the face-to-face meeting engendered a human response, perhaps even a basis for trust. They also were looking for tangible action items, of which there were few. 

As someone who has practiced diplomacy and taught the subject in the classroom, I was looking for object lessons, and I found them. Diplomacy is of course mostly about substance. But it is also about tactics, perception, process and rhetoric — words matter. While Putin, the president of a troubled, economically needy and diminished society, achieved a degree of stature by standing next to the American president, what more he achieved in the encounter remains to be seen. 

Why did the Biden administration give Putin this stage? In the president’s words: The two leaders “… have a responsibility to manage the relationship between two powerful adversaries, a relationship that has to be stable and predictable.” If Putin found these words flattering, he might want to consider how his previous policies reflected more the flailing actions of a weakened state than that of a self-confident nuclear power.

Beyond the resumption of full diplomatic relations with the return of ambassadors the meeting put in place a mechanism for future dialogue. Biden was able to make clear the U.S. commitment to human rights and his concern about the treatment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. He underscored that interference in democratic elections was unacceptable and he reiterated the position of the U.S. and its allies on Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory in Crimea and the Donbas region. In these cases the cost to Russia are sanctions, some old, some new.

Yet, some common ground was explored. Russia and the United States agreed that the nuclear agreement with Iran should be resumed. Some progress was made in allowing humanitarian aid in Northern Syria. Russia and the U.S. want to see a more stable Afghanistan after U.S. and NATO forces leave. Both sides agreed that the Arctic should be a region for cooperation rather than conflict. There is also the possibility of a prisoner exchange.

Two issues, however, have the potential to rise to the existential level: nuclear arsenals and cybersecurity. These issues alone most likely dominated the three-hour meeting. 

Scientific breakthroughs have a way of getting ahead of diplomacy and cyberwarfare is one of those. The capacity of governments or individuals to attack infrastructure in another country is of great concern. Recent ransomware attacks, allegedly from Russian criminal gangs, have been aimed at American financial, governmental and energy sectors. There is a strong suspicion that the Russian government is either responsible for these attacks or aware of their source. Here, Biden drew a red line with a threat of retaliation if any of some 16 sectors are targeted in the future.

Biden also expressed a concern that Putin must share: the weakening of nuclear deterrence due to the development of new weapons systems and the abrogation of treaties such as those governing anti-ballistic missiles, short-range missiles and the Open Skies verification system. Both sides have an interest in stabilizing their nuclear relationship and in working together to bring China into a dialogue about deterrence and stability.

What object lessons would I draw from these negotiations for my students? 

First, from all accounts this was not “positional” or “transactional” bargaining as one might have seen from the previous U.S. administration, or in a marketplace. It appears that both sides did the hard work of identifying the “interests” of the other, and where those interests converged and where they didn’tRoger Fisher and William Ury, authors of “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In,” smartly argue that “Interests motivate people; they are the silent movers behind the hubbub of positions.”

Second, Biden’s touchstone was “international norms.” Where Russia would violate those norms, he asserted, their interests would suffer. On this, there were agreements and disagreements, but, as Biden said in his press conference, this wasn’t done “in a hyperbolic atmosphere.” The consequences of future action or inaction were made clear, put forward as facts, not threats (as in an old line from the television show Kojak, “Greeks don’t threaten. They utter prophecies.”).

Third, a process was set up — called a “strategic stability dialogue”— to explore these issues and to find out where mutual interests will take the two sides. As Biden has said, we will be able to “… look ahead in three to six months and say, ‘Did the things we agreed to sit down and try to work out, did it work?’”

Fourth, Biden entered that room with Putin knowing that his G-7 and NATO partners had his back. He was speaking for the United States, of course, but he did so with confidence that restored alliances would make his positions more salient and durable. As Ambassador Chas Freeman, author of “Arts of Power: Statecraft and Diplomacy,” has written: “Statecraft rests on an accurate appraisal of the power of one’s own nation and its allies in relation to the power of rivals.”

It remains to be seen whether this effort by the Biden administration will produce a more stable and predictable relationship with Russia. What is clear from the summit in Geneva is that there was no real cost in utilizing effective diplomacy to make the effort. 

No one believes that Putin will change his stripes. But he is the leader of a troubled nation, and he now may more fully understand the consequences of his government’s behavior. He may even focus on mutual interests that will benefit both sides. We will know better in time.

Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute. He was dean of Professional Studies at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute and dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He served as undersecretary of State and administrator of USAID in the Clinton administration.

Tags Biden Foreign policy of the Joe Biden administration Joe Biden Joe Biden Political positions of Joe Biden Presidency of Joe Biden Presidents of Russia Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin

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