Reflections on the Biden Summits: Where Do We Go from Here?

Prof. Mark Meirowitz* | MMeirowitz@sunymaritime.edu

Professor, State University of New York (SUNY) Maritime College


In June 2021, President Biden held a whirlwind series of meetings with world leaders, including Summits with the G7, the E.U., NATO, and culminating in the pièce de résistance, a meeting with Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin. Biden also held one-on-one meetings with the U.K.’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, France’s President Macron, Germany’s Chancellor Merkel and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It does appear that Biden did accomplish what he set out to do – to proclaim that ‘America is Back’ (Garver, 2021) in terms of multilateral engagement with America’s allies and beginning the process of the Western allies’ working together to address the formidable challenges coming from Russia and China.

It might be useful to suggest a few takeaways from these meetings:

NATO is alive!

You might have thought that NATO was “brain dead” (The Economist, 2019), based on the previous statements of French President Macron. But, alas, NATO now appears to be alive, to have been resuscitated. President Biden “threw his full support behind [NATO]…He called NATO’s Article 5 ‘a sacred obligation, referring to the agreement that an attack on one is an attack on all and will be met with a collective response” (Pettypiece & Shabad, 2021). Biden said that “America’s commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance is unshakeable”. (NATO stands together as Biden reaffirms U.S. commitment to alliance, n.d.)

Raising NATO from the dead is somewhat reminiscent of Justice Scalia’s comment about a Supreme Court doctrine (known as the Lemon test) where he compared the doctrine to a “ghoul in a late night horror movie that repeatedly sits up in its grave and shuffles abroad, after being repeatedly killed and buried” (Scalia, n.d.). As with Scalia’s comment on the American constitutional law test, the question is whether the NATO Alliance is truly alive, or perhaps it has jumped up in its grave and will be buried again and become irrelevant and ineffective. Time will tell.

NATO issued a Communique following the Summit sharply criticizing Russia and China. As for Russia, the NATO Communique stated that “[u]ntil Russia demonstrates compliance with international law and its international obligations and responsibilities, there can be no return to ‘business as usual’” (NATO, n.d.-a), and stated further that:What is not clear is the path forward for NATO, notwithstanding its ambitious “NATO 2030” mission statement, which included NATO’s intention of being “a strategic anchor in uncertain times” with its vision including “[u]phold[ing] its role as the bedrock of peace, stability, and the rule of law in the Euro-Atlantic area; … and remain[ing] the strategic center of gravity for collective defense of all its members on the basis of an up-to-date Strategic Concept” (NATO, n.d.-d).

“[i]n addition to its military activities, Russia has also intensified its hybrid actions against NATO Allies and partners, including through proxies. This includes attempted interference in Allied elections and democratic processes; political and economic pressure and intimidation; widespread disinformation campaigns; malicious cyber activities; and turning a blind eye to cyber criminals operating from its territory, including those who target and disrupt critical infrastructure in NATO countries” (NATO, n.d.-a).

As for China, the NATO Communique proclaimed that “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security.  We are concerned by those coercive policies which stand in contrast to the fundamental values enshrined in the Washington Treaty”. (NATO, n.d.-a).

These are very strong statements by NATO, especially as to China, which had not previously been a focus of NATO’s activities.  Also, significantly, notwithstanding NATO’s coming on board to criticize Russia and China, it remains to be seen is whether NATO members live up to the 2% defense commitment which President Trump had insisted upon (Wilkie, 2018).

We should also not forget the tepid reaction of NATO to the Russian invasion of Crimea (NATO, n.d.-c), and the continuing Russian military interventions in Ukraine, including Russia’s massing of troops on the Ukraine border.

In addition, NATO, spurred on by the United States, is undergoing a withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan through its Resolute Support Mission (NATO, n.d.-b), which could conceivably result in a catastrophic disaster and instability in Afghanistan. Discussions have been underway in connection with Turkey’s providing security for the Kabul Airport (“Turkey says it will not send more troops to Afghanistan for airport security,” 2021), but even this gesture, if implemented, will not likely prevent the complete collapse of the Afghan Government (Lubold & Trofimov, 2021), after the withdrawal U.S. troops, and the takeover of the country by the Taliban (and the resurgence of Al Qaida in Afghanistan).

The future of NATO is clearly in question – and we will need to see how NATO reacts to the inevitable future provocations by Russia and China. U.S. leadership in NATO is indispensable, but the members of the NATO Alliance must remain firmly committed to NATO’s mission and vision.

The U.S. Relationship with Russia Going Forward – What Is It Actually?

The U.S. Relationship with Russia is not entente, it’s not détente (The Economist, 2021); it’s not even “Trust But Verify” (a term used by Ronald Reagan with respect to America’s relations with Russia) (Trust but verify – leadergrow, 2014); it is now apparently “Don’t Trust and Verify” as expressed by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (Secretary Antony J. Blinken with John Dickerson of CBS’s Face The Nation, 2021). President Biden had his own spin on this: “I’d verify first and then trust. In other words: Everything would have to be shown to be actually occurring.  It’s not about, you know, trusting; it’s about agreeing” (Remarks by President Biden in press conference, 2021a). So, it is not exactly clear what the U.S. relationship with Russia will be in the future.

Killer v. Astute Negotiator

On a personal level, Biden and Putin appear to understand each other. For Biden, there is no substitute for personal diplomacy. Biden had previously called Putin a “killer” (Keating, 2021), but Putin at the Summit praised Biden’s negotiating skills (Putin praises summit result, calls Biden a tough negotiator, 2021). Russia and the U.S. agreed to have their respective ambassadors’ return to their posts, and the two nations will pursue discussions on cybersecurity and arms control. (“Far apart at first summit, Biden and Putin agree to steps on cybersecurity, arms control,” 2021). Having Ambassadors in place is very important and useful.

We are “not flipping a light switch”

Secretary of State Blinken has referred to the entire negotiating process as follows: “…most of the things we do are not flipping a light switch. It doesn’t happen that quickly or that simply. There are exceptions, but most of the time it is the day-in, day-out work, with your sleeves rolled up trying to make progress” (n.d. -b).

What this probably means is that Rome wasn’t built in a day and that this will all take time. However, the issues pertaining to Russia and China are urgent, and America must show that it is committed to continuing to assert its leadership in the world and to be able to respond quickly and effectively in response to any Russian and Chinese provocations.

Predictability and Stability

Biden wants predictability and stability in America’s relationship with Russia. As President Biden stated, “President Putin and I had a — share a unique responsibility to manage the relationship between two powerful and proud countries — a relationship that has to be stable and predictable.  And it should be able to — we should be able to cooperate where it’s in our mutual interests” (Remarks by President Biden in press conference, 2021b).

As a result of Biden’s Summit with Putin, one would think (and hope) that significant provocations by Russia in the short-term are probably unlikely, especially in terms of actions by Russia against Ukraine and cyber-hacking against U.S. infrastructure and institutions, and because of the planned ongoing talks between the United States and Russia on arms control and cybersecurity. There is no assurance, however, that this will be the case.

Don’t Forget China

However, what about China? The main objective of the Biden trip to Europe (and holding the various Summits) was to achieve a modicum of predictability in America’s dealings with Russia, a sort of level-set, which would allow Biden to concentrate on the main existential threat to the U.S. coming from China. As for China, the threat is much more immediate. According to Admiral Phil Davidson in his testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, “China… represents the greatest long-term strategic threat to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and to the United States. Through fear and economic pressure, Beijing is working to expand its form of Communist-Socialist ideology in order to bend, break, and replace the existing rules-based international order. In its place, Beijing seeks to create a new international order led by China and with ‘Chinese characteristics’—an outcome that displaces the stability and peace of the Indo-Pacific that has endured for over 70 years” (N.d.-c).

China’s repressive actions in Hong Kong in implementing its National Security Law are the ‘canary in the mine’ – and presage the possibility of Chinese intervention in Taiwan which would precipitate a major US crisis (N.d.-d). U.S. relations with China are clearly not in a good place, and it is uncertain how these relations will move forward. The vituperative tone of the meeting between U.S. and Chinese negotiators in Anchorage indicates that US-Chinese relations are fraught and need to be clarified at the earliest possible time (BBC News, 2021). President Biden’s convening of an intelligence inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic could also further exacerbate US-China relations (Shear, et. al., 2021). In an extraordinary discussion with the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi set forth his views on US-China Relations and included the point that,

“We hope that the United States will not interfere in China’s internal affairs. Sovereignty and territorial integrity involve a country’s core interests. Like any other country, China has no room for compromise on such a major issue of principle. The United States cannot repeatedly challenge China’s rights and interests on issues related to Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong while expecting China to cooperate with it on issues it cares about. The Taiwan question is the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations” (A conversation with State Councilor Wang Yi of China, n.d.).

The road ahead is unclear because President Biden has clearly expressed that Taiwan, Hong Kong and human rights issues in Xinjiang are highly significant concerns of the United States.

Cyber Attacks from Russia Off-Limits in Specified Areas

President Biden identified sixteen (16) sectors designated as critical by the U.S. Homeland Security Department, including telecommunications, healthcare, food, and energy which must be off limits to Russia’s cyber-hacking and interference (“Biden tells Putin certain cyberattacks should be ‘off-limits,’” 2021). Said President Biden, “[a]nother area we spent a great deal of time on was cyber and cybersecurity.  I talked about the proposition that certain critical infrastructure should be off limits to attack — period — by cyber or any other means.  I gave them a list, if I’m not mistaken — I don’t have it in front of me — 16 specific entities; 16 defined as critical infrastructure under U.S. policy, from the energy sector to our water systems” (Remarks by President Biden in press conference, 2021b). Delineating the 16 prohibited sectors, however, might actually encourage Russia to interfere in areas and sectors not on the list. Once again, the chilling effect of this prohibition is not clear, and is unknown – but clearly Russia is now on notice.

D10 & B3W

Add these to your list of abbreviations: the D10 (Rogers, 2020) – alliance of democracies (Gordon, et. al., 2021) and Build Back a Better World (B3W) (FACT SHEET: President Biden and G7 leaders launch build back better world (B3W) partnership, 2021). As for D10, “[t]he U.K. proposal involves creating a new coalition of democracies, based on the Group of 7, with the addition of Australia, India and South Korea. It would be known as the ‘Democratic 10’, or ‘D10’ for short”. (Rogers, 2020). This is very much in line with the idea that the democracies should marshal their strengths and resources to challenge authoritarian regimes. What complicates this endeavor is the disconnect between how the democracies and authoritarian regimes view their actions. For example, China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed the view in his discussion with the CFR that:

“[u]sing democracy to conduct values-oriented diplomacy, meddling in other countries’ internal affairs, or stoking division and confrontation will only lead to turmoil or even disaster”. Councilor Yi added that “[r]ecently, there has been this tendency to compare China and the United States as democracy versus authoritarianism and to draw the line along ideology and pin labels on countries. But to use an analogy, democracy is not Coca-Cola, which, with the syrup produced in the United States, tastes the same across the world. A single model and single, civilized world would be lifeless and dull. China’s socialist democracy is a whole-process, most representative democracy. It embodies the will of the people, fits our country’s realities, and is endorsed by the people. To label China as authoritarian or a dictatorship simply because China’s democracy takes a different form than that of the United States is in itself undemocratic” (A conversation with State Councilor Wang Yi of China, n.d.).

One can not conceive of a wider gap between China and the United States on understanding and defining what a “democracy” is and means to the people living in the various countries around the world. It is unlikely that the United States will be able to change China’s views (or likely Russia’s views) on the ‘democracy gap’ and how this issue should be addressed. Nevertheless, it is clear that the United States and its allies will continue to pursue human rights issues.

As for B3W, this refers to: “Build Back Better World: An Affirmative Initiative for Meeting the Tremendous Infrastructure Needs of Low- and Middle-Income Countries. President Biden and G7 partners agreed to launch the bold new global infrastructure initiative Build Back Better World (B3W), a values-driven, high-standard, and transparent infrastructure partnership led by major democracies to help narrow the $40+ trillion infrastructure need in the developing world, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic” (FACT SHEET: President Biden and G7 leaders launch build back better world (B3W) partnership, 2021).

The B3W effort is clearly intended to counter China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) – this is absolutely essential in challenging China’s rising global influence. The question is whether the United States and its allies can get together on this initiative. B3W should also involve bailing out States that are stuck in a ‘debt trap’ with China as a result of commitments to China via the BRI.

Where Do We Go from Here?

When President Biden was asked whether he was confident that President Putin would change his behavior, Biden was blunt: “I’m not confident he’ll change his behavior” (Remarks by President Biden in press conference, 2021b). President Biden also stated that “[t]he proof of the pudding is in the eating” (Remarks by President Biden in press conference, 2021a). Indeed, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul is of the view that Biden’s statement that the “proof of in the pudding is in the eating” is the “key takeaway of the Geneva meeting with Putin” (No title, n.d.). That is to say that time will tell whether the Summit with Putin and the other Summits will produce the desired results for the United States.

American leadership is essential to successfully meeting the challenges certainly to come from Russia and China in the future. However, the members of the G7, NATO, the E.U. and all of the allies of the United States throughout the world need to be on board, so that America has their backing and support. These States also need to avoid future adventurism and risky endeavors with Russia and China (e.g., the now-frozen E.U. Investment Deal with China (Tan, 2021; Ni, 2021); and the still-disputed Germany-Russia NordStream 2 Pipeline Deal (Gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 links Germany to Russia, but splits Europe, 2018), and place their reliance on, and commitment to, squarely in the hands of United States’ leadership working with America’s allies. In this way, a future of peace and security will be ensured. Also, the democracies of the world must line up together to promote human rights and promote a clear understanding of what a democracy is. All these efforts will help to ensure a bright future for all the people of the world.

References

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(N.d.-c) Statement of Admiral Philip S. Davidson, U.S. Navy Commander, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Before the Senate Armed Services Committee on U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Posture 12 February 2019, from https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Davidson_02-12-19.pdf

(N.d.-d) “The Taiwan Temptation,” Oriana Skyler Mastro, from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2021-06-03/china-taiwan-war-temptation


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