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The first and last thing to say about summits like the one on Wednesday between President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, is that they’re nonsense. They’ve always been and they will always be nonsense.
Significant changes in policy and practical politics among great powers haven’t taken place and will never take place as a result of personal encounters between leaders.
We know this because we know how often such changes haven’t happened during summit meetings — most notably, the time when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to stymie Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative by cleverly proposing a ban on all nuclear weapons. Reagan refused, SDI continued, and the technological advantage of the United States as demonstrated by SDI played a key role in the collapse of the USSR five years later.
Summits can enshrine changes that have already begun due to actual events, or they can begin the formal process of drawing up documents that will formalize those changes.
But those alterations in history’s course will always be the result not of the meeting, but of a profound alteration in the hearts or minds or perspectives of the leaders (or that of the people who live in the nations they represent). The meetings themselves are immaterial.
I believe great men can change history — but one of the classic delusions of our time is that great men change history through play-acting. They do so through determined action over time. We turn our leaders into car salesmen if we allow ourselves to believe they can work their wills on our behalf through face-to-face negotiations in which they marshal charm and fox-like intelligence.
Biden seems to believe in the car-salesman theory of the presidency. He and Putin both said at their end-of-meeting news conferences that Biden talked about his mother and her wisdom, which is exactly the kind of homespun wisdom we’ve all had to sit through when trying to get past the efforts to up-sell us into the deluxe trimmings package.
“There’s no substitute for these face-to-face meetings,” Biden declared, even as he basically acknowledged nothing really came of the face-to-face meeting except his ability to say he’d had a face-to-face meeting. I’m sure he means it; it’s the kind of line he used successfully during the primaries in 2019 and 2020 to demonstrate his preparedness for the presidency (“I sat across from President Xi,” he said every chance he got).
What matters is how he represents America both in the room with Putin and outside it when talking about what went on in the room. And in that respect, Biden passed his first serious test abroad as president with flying colors.
In policy terms, he made it clear to Putin that the United States had advanced capabilities it could use to answer and address the cyberattacks Putin denies having been a part of — and about which he’s surely lying.
And in broader terms, he made it clear he still understands he has a role to fill as leader of the Free World.
Biden told Putin that “no president of the United States could keep faith with the American people if they did not speak out to defend our democratic values, to stand up for the universal and fundamental freedoms that all men and women have in our view. That’s just part of the DNA of our country. . . . How could I be the president of the United States of America and not speak out against the violation of human rights? I told him that unlike other countries, including Russia, we’re uniquely a product of an idea. . . . What’s that idea? We don’t derive our rights from the government. We possess them because we’re born, period, and we yield them to a government.”
This is something Biden’s ex-boss, Barack Obama (who insisted that America was only exceptional to Americans), didn’t say. It’s something that former President Donald Trump (who semi-defended Putin in 2017 by saying America had done bad things, too) didn’t say. But it’s something every president should say — especially now that people in Biden’s own party are talking down America as a white-supremacist evildoer born in original sin.
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