“Politics stops at the water’s edge,” was the maxim of Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican sponsor of the 1948 Senate resolution that bore his name. The Vandenberg Resolution made possible Harry Truman and Secretary of State George C. Marshall’s vision of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It was an example of bipartisan comity, enabled by the deliberate separation of America’s domestic politics from its foreign policy.
Yet within barely a year, as civil war in China tipped to the Communists and the Soviet Union tested nuclear weapons, Washington’s political furies were unleashed. For four years, between 1950 and 1954, Senator Joseph McCarthy implied that the United States was losing. The international situation could only be so bad, he tacitly argued, because of some internal American defect, some disloyalty metastasizing within the American body politic, a Communist sabotage of America’s natural vitality. McCarthy exploited disorienting international crises to terrorize Washington. As David Halberstam so brilliantly conveyed in The Best and the Brightest, his magisterial study of the Vietnam War, McCarthy’s evisceration of the State Department and his castigation of those he branded “soft” on Russia led to the diplomatic myopia and military overreach that eventually landed the U.S. in the Vietnam quagmire.
Here, in 2021, no new Cold War has yet broken out, but the U.S. is indulging some of the same forces that so unsettled the body politic nearly a half-century ago. President Joe Biden will have the chance to regain some of the lost balance, as he holds his first summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin next week in Geneva. It would be naïve to expect that all or even any of the rifts between the two sides might be mended. But as an heir to Truman’s statesmanship and to Vandenberg’s wisdom, Biden may yet restitch an American civic fabric left in tatters by the Trump era’s Russia hysteria.
When Russia meddled in the 2016 election, it accomplished one of its aims, which was to bring instability to the U.S. Candidate Donald Trump had provided the opening through his curious ties to the Russian government and his praise for Putin. Most likely, it was not Russian interference that swung the 2016 election, though this is not a matter that can be definitively assessed. Whether or not it was Russia’s intent, Trump’s legitimacy was undermined, and “Russia, Russia, Russia”—as Trump was fond of saying—became an acute domestic political concern. Trump added fuel to the fire by trawling Ukraine for damaging information on Joe Biden’s son, Hunter: information quite possibly furnished by Russian intelligence. For this, Trump was impeached.
Large swaths of the American media did not cover these stories well. Disinformation was often presented as news, and because both Trump himself and Russian interference were such magnets for acrimony, Russia was not just criticized—it was often demonized. As was the case at the troubled outset of the Cold War, perspective was lost. Hyperbole carried the day.
President Biden is not the source of this twenty-first-century Russia hysteria. Yet it has touched his career at many points. He was the vice president in 2016 and is intimately familiar with the details of Russian meddling, which was directed at his party’s candidate in the presidential election. His son was the target of Trump’s Ukraine misadventures, and to the degree that Russia sought to help Trump in the 2020 election, it also aimed to harm Biden’s prospects. In the face of this brazen and bizarre onslaught, Biden has maintained admirable equanimity, even if he has referred publicly to Putin as a “thug” and a “killer.” Biden has scrupulously kept his distance from the whole Trump soap opera. This has served him well. When he meets with Vladimir Putin in Geneva, on June 16, he should stick to his tendency not to personalize policy. In fact, he should go one step further: He should do what he can to make the meeting as boring as possible. If he does so, it will be a step in the direction of decoupling foreign policy from domestic politics, at least where Russia is concerned.
Biden faces a U.S.-Russian relationship riven by rival interests and worldviews. While there are a few areas of potential agreement—nuclear arms control and nonproliferation, addressing climate change in the Arctic, and moving beyond the Covid-19 pandemic all come to mind—these points of affinity are overshadowed by clashing interests. Seen from Washington, Russia has violated the sovereignty of several countries (Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia). It has rescued the bloodthirsty tyrant Bashar Al Assad in Syria. It regularly uses its intelligence services and media apparatus to meddle in U.S. and European politics, and it both embodies and promotes an authoritarian form of government. Meanwhile, in the Kremlin’s telling, the U.S. has been an irresponsible steward of global affairs at least since the Iraq War of 2003. It exploited Russian weakness to enlarge NATO to the East, and under the guise of promoting democracy, it is trying to ring Russia with pro-American clients with an ultimate goal of ousting Putin from power. Hence, each country has come to believe it must contain the other.
Alternate worldviews help to explain these colliding interests. The U.S. sees itself as the guarantor of a rules-based liberal international system, having interpreted the revolutions of 1989 as a validation of the American model and of a particular international order established after 1945. The great confidence with which the U.S. expanded this order in the 1990s has dissipated, and Trump tried unsuccessfully to replace it with a more zero-sum vision of great power competition. Now the Biden administration sees its task as restoration, perhaps less sweeping and less universal than was hoped for earlier but no less urgent or necessary a project today than it was in 1945.
Putin’s worldview is very different. He tries to project Russia’s problems outward, to situate them as far from Moscow as possible and to navigate a menacing world in which Russia is the weaker counterpart to the U.S. and China. Putin strives to keep the U.S. off balance, on its heels, so it can neither hem Russia in nor actively pursue regime change. Where all of this matters most is on Russia’s periphery, in the post-Soviet space, which Putin aims to dominate and from which he wishes to exclude non-Russian instruments of influence and power.
When Biden meets with Putin on June 16, his job will be to defend American interests. He can expect that Putin will defend Russian interests as he interprets them. There is little Biden can do—and nothing he would want to do—to reconcile clashing Russian and American worldviews. Biden must operate within a limited set of expectations, meaning that no breakthrough moment is in the offing. There will be no handshake signing ceremony to cap off the summit and leave the press penning optimistic narratives.
The meeting, if it takes place, is still meaningful, and it presents Biden with a serious opportunity to begin the work of crisis management. The U.S. and Russia are the world’s major nuclear powers. They are pushing up against one another in Syria, Ukraine, Belarus, and in cyberspace, where the rules of engagement are either nonexistent or have eroded to a dangerous degree. For the past 10 years, U.S.-Russian diplomatic contact has been narrowed to a bare minimum. The potential for misreading, for accident, escalation, and unintended catastrophe is disturbingly reminiscent of the summer of 1914—but with nuclear weapons. That is all the justification Biden needs to meet with Putin and to begin a conversation.
Avoiding war is an excellent pretext for diplomacy. Biden has another important task where Putin is concerned: make Russia boring again. The attendant high stakes cannot be quickly or magically lowered. Quite the opposite: The work to be done is hard and long term. Progress will be at best incremental. The Biden administration should lean in to these realities, set modest expectations, lower the temperature, and keep our ongoing diplomatic wranglings with Russia neatly compartmentalized. Biden can only lose out if the optics and the politics of Russia policy continue to dominate the rest of his agenda.
Biden’s presidency will be defined by another set of homegrown and transnational challenges altogether. The accelerating pace of global climate change, mass migration, pandemic disease, and trafficking of the world’s most dangerous weapons signals that time is running out for the rich world, which Washington aims to lead, to take the rest of the world’s problems seriously. Not coincidentally, this realization is dawning on American politicians amid a period of reckoning over systemic racism, economic inequality, and injustice here at home. The solutions Biden has promised to these challenges are achievable only against a backdrop of more stable—not more confrontational—geopolitics, which is why the Biden administration has emphasized the need for “guardrails,” “stability,” and “predictability” in the U.S.-Russian relationship.
An ordinary, even boring summit between Putin and Biden would have a calming effect on domestic American politics. As the Soviet Union once did, contemporary Russia can too easily fall into metaphysical categories in American political culture, an axis of evil all unto itself: Putin the Bond villain, the mastermind spy, the autocrat who bestrides the world like a colossus. But Russia as a spectral symbol for evil is a distraction from Russia as a real-world foreign policy challenge. Evil demands a confrontation with Good, and this Lord of the Rings view of the world results in simplistic binaries, dividing those Americans who are “hard” on Russia from those who are “soft,” those who are tough from those who have inherited Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella and his useful idiot’s phrases about “peace in our time.” Better than combating evil is eradicating it altogether, the foundation for a fantasy foreign policy.
There will be a Russia after Putin. Its foreign policy may well shift, but it will not shift 180 degrees, and a considerable space between Russian and American interests is sure to remain. The unspectacular reality is that Russia and the U.S. will have to learn to live with each other. They should start figuring out a way to do so sooner rather than later. In this self-consciously boring approach, Russia would resemble any number of other countries whose political cultures and provocations vex American policymakers, but which are not perceived as nemeses.
This list would include Pakistan, Turkey, Vietnam, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. The democracy and human rights deficits in these countries are significant. In the case of Vietnam, there is a painful history of war and conflict. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have ties to terrorist entities that have killed Americans; they continue to invest in violent extremism. Turkey is a NATO ally that has no qualms about undermining American interests when it believes this to be necessary. Egypt has long vacillated between Washington and Moscow. It did its bit to terminate and reverse the Arab Spring.
The U.S. pushes back against each of these countries. It is in tension with them, but rarely do they roil domestic American politics, and day by day America’s diplomats quietly work to manage the relationships with these countries. Biden’s summit with Putin will be a success if he can pull Russia down from the pedestal of a fairy-tale enemy and put it on this drab and difficult list of foreign policy headaches.