(CNN)When President Joe Biden told officials this spring that he wanted to meet soon with his Russian counterpart for a summit, his team quickly set out to make it happen — even if some wondered what he really hoped to achieve.
The last two administrations — including the one Biden served as vice president — had tried and failed to develop better ties with Moscow. Experienced foreign policy advisers had watched as Russian President Vladimir Putin hijacked meetings before with outlandish whataboutism. They wondered what Biden could possibly gain from meeting him now, less than six months into his term.
The summit was subject to internal debate, with a divide emerging between supporters and skeptics. A spate of provocations, from ransomware attacks launched by criminal networks inside Russia to the treatment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, led to further discussion over whether the time was right for a meeting. Biden’s ambassador to Russia even privately warned lawmakers that the administration risks repeating the mistakes of its predecessors if it does not approach relations with Putin with clear eyes, CNN reported on Tuesday.
Yet after two phone calls with Putin, Biden remained convinced that face-to-face talks were the only adequate venue to truly engage the notoriously truculent leader.
And after more than 40 years spent watching other presidents determine American foreign policy, it was finally his decision to make.
Biden takes the lead role
As his domestic agenda is mired in Washington gridlock, Biden’s arrival in Europe on Wednesday on his first presidential trip abroad is the culmination of decades spent circling the center of the US foreign policy establishment — at moments helping to hone America’s role abroad, but sidelined during others as his views were ignored and even mocked.
Often dispatched to conduct messy or mostly hopeless diplomacy deemed too intractable for anyone else, Biden this week will experience something vastly different, speaking to foreign leaders as their equal rather than someone else’s envoy. It’s the position he has long craved, but one that now comes with new challenges, including the pandemic and critical decisions on vaccine distribution.
His determination to meet Putin, even in the face of skepticism, reflects what officials said was a deeply held view that cultivating a personal relationship — even with the most authoritarian of leaders — is the only way to deal bluntly with the major issues currently facing the world. Putin, Biden has told his team, will respond only to strength and honesty.
“There is never any substitute for leader-to-leader engagement, particularly for complex relationships, but with Putin this is exponentially the case,” Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said this week.
“He has a highly personalized style of decision making and so it is important for President Biden to be able to sit down with him face to face, to be clear about where we are, to understand where he is, to try to manage our differences, and to identify those areas where we can work in America’s interests to make progress.”
In Biden’s view, the stakes of his first trip abroad are nothing less than democracy itself. A highly symbolic choreography will take him from a Group of 7 meeting on the Cornish coast in England to a summit with NATO allies in Brussels, Belgium, before concluding with the Putin summit in Geneva, Switzerland, whose lakeside hosted the first talks between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev 36 years ago.
Biden comes with a self-described mission of proving, in the face of authoritarian threats, that democracy can still work — a message complicated by the historic strains on American democracy unfolding at home. Biden planned his trip to highlight traditional American alliances after four years of strain under President Donald Trump.
Biden will also seek to reassure allies about America’s role in the distribution of the coronavirus vaccine.
The President is expected to make a major announcement related to global production while at the G-7 summit Thursday, according to two people. In a sign of the role the pandemic will play in Biden’s first trip, he is bringing along one of his top coronavirus advisers, Jeff Zients.
The visit to Cornwall comes as administration officials have become increasingly concerned about the highly infectious virus variant known as Delta, which was first detected in India but is now considered to be dominant in the United Kingdom.
Yet skepticism abounds among Europeans that another president, potentially Trump himself, could reverse anything Biden does or says. He also will confront new tensions toward the US that are running high in the wake of the pandemic, after only slowly starting to share vaccines with the world.
“The trans-Atlantic alliance is back,” Biden told allies in a speech shortly after taking office. “And we are not looking backward. We are looking forward, together.”
Biden is departing at a fragile moment for his domestic agenda, as bipartisan talks on infrastructure collapse and other legislative priorities, like voting rights, appear in serious doubt. White House chief of staff Ron Klain, a longtime aide to Biden, is staying in Washington to keep those priorities on track.
Biden has more experience on the world stage than the last four American presidents combined. And while his focus in the opening months of his presidency has been squarely on solving problems within US borders — principally the pandemic and its incumbent economic crisis — foreign policy remains his “first love,” according to aides.
When Biden was vice president, he traveled to more than 50 countries; the 1.2 million air miles he logged would have taken him around the Earth’s circumference 48 times. He became so well-known at the Shannon Airport — an airstrip in western Ireland where American planes often refuel on their westerly return — that staff once organized a special Mass for him on a holy day of obligation.
While he will be one of the newest members around the table at the G7, to be held over the weekend in England, he’ll also be the oldest. When he becomes the 13th American president to meet Queen Elizabeth II on Sunday at Windsor Castle, they will be able to compare notes on the eight he’s met himself.
And though his meeting in Geneva next week with Putin will be their first as equals, it will hardly be Biden’s first encounter with the man he once claimed to have told, inches from his nose, that he had no soul.
Trump’s shadow lingers
With a dramatic rise in recent cyberattacks on the United States, the stakes are far higher for the meeting with Putin than any likely tangible outcome. But administration officials say that one of the biggest reasons to go forward with the summit is to boldly define the contrast from Trump’s highly derided session with Putin in Helsinki three years ago.
As American officials began planning for the summit with Putin, they knew the talks would require the better part of a day. Biden’s two previous phone calls with Putin, described by officials as respectful but candid, stretched out as the two men went back and forth over the long list of diplomatic disputes — often prolonged by Putin’s habit of raising events unfolding in the United States as examples of hypocrisy when challenged on human rights.
“I have been in the room with Putin many times when I was working for President Obama. And whataboutism is always a characteristic of these summit meetings,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former deputy national security adviser.
“That whataboutism is meant to engender cynicism, that nothing really matters, it’s not worth even challenging this, that everybody’s just as corrupt as everybody else. And I think it’s incumbent on Joe Biden to draw the clear distinctions between what America stands for in the world and what Vladimir Putin has been up to for the better part of over two decades now.”
Administration officials also said they were mindful of avoiding any comparisons with Trump, starting with ruling out Helsinki as a location, despite Finland’s offer to host as it did three summers ago. Asked whether Biden planned to meet one-on-one with Putin without any aides present, as Trump did, Sullivan said the details were still being finalized.
And then there is Trump himself, whose baseless claims of election fraud have permeated the Republican Party and caused the very democracy Biden is in Europe to defend to appear to be hanging on by a thread.
“Will the democratic alliances and institutions that shaped so much of the last century prove their capacity against modern-day threats and adversaries?” Biden wrote in a weekend op-ed in The Washington Post. “I believe the answer is yes. And this week in Europe, we have the chance to prove it.”