Millions of American children have been fascinated by the folktale The Little Engine That Could, which has circulated in numerous media forms since the early 1900s. It is about a small locomotive that succeeds in pulling a heavy train up a steep hill. The moral is about optimism and true grit. The engine sings out the mantra “I think I can, I think I can” as it chugs uphill. Once the climb is over, the train moves on to further hills and valleys. This Wednesday’s Russia-U.S. summit in a Swiss villa will have some of the qualities of that little engine.
After months of defiant talk dating back to Joe Biden’s inauguration, and after the tangled web woven by the Trump administration, it has taken an act of will for the two leaders to decide to meet at all. As recently as a few weeks ago, there was debate in both capitals about whether it would happen.
Vladimir Putin’s incentives not to meet were far from trivial. He may have few challenges or challengers in his immediate political environment, but he has a lengthy and mixed record in foreign policy to uphold, zero inclination by personality to admit past or present wrongs or oversights, and a reflex to stonewall when pressed. Publicly, at least, he kept Biden waiting on the meeting: although the U.S. president proposed it in a video call on April 13, the invitation was not publicly accepted or plans announced until May 25.
Biden for his part might easily have taken a pass. His White House team took pains earlier this year to insist that Russia was going to be a lower priority for them than for its predecessors, somewhat of a lost cause that should not get in the way of tackling more serious and intriguing challenges like China and climate change. Biden could have chosen to bow to those in the Washington executive branch, Congress, and think tanks who see any contact with the present-day Kremlin as pointless or harmful. Or he could have pled some variant of the “sacred obligation” to threatened NATO partners that he mentioned the other day in Brussels.
So both leaders, and Biden in particular, invested some precious capital in even setting up Wednesday’s rendezvous with the adversary.
The British scholar G. R. Berridge has noted that “an astonishing degree” of diplomacy now takes place in face-to-face encounters between heads of state and government such as the one that is about to occur in Geneva. Around for centuries, summits gained sharply in importance in the 1960s and 1970s. Although important business may be transacted at some meetings, summitry in Berridge’s view “is valued chiefly for its enormous symbolic or propaganda potential.” Television made summits news festivals, and the social media now generate echoes worldwide. Summits may be multilateral, like the G7 and NATO confabs Biden has just attended, or bilateral. In each category, Berridge distinguishes among three subtypes: the “serial summit” occurring at regular intervals, the “ad hoc summit,” and the “high-level exchange of views,” frequently on the sidelines of another event.
There is nothing new or fresh about an American-Russia summit per se. After a slow start, there were many such meetings—fifty-six, to be exact—during and after the Cold War, falling variously into the boxes drawn by Berridge. The Office of the Historian in the U.S. State Department has a useful though sloppy chronology on its website, with several ludicrous omissions.
To look at it from the American angle, President Dwight Eisenhower got together with his Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, twice, and canceled plans for a third meeting after the U-2 shootdown of May 1960; John F. Kennedy met Khrushchev once, in Vienna; Richard Nixon sat down with Leonid Brezhnev three times (for one hundred hours all told), and Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter had one meeting apiece. Ronald Reagan picked up the pace, conferring with Mikhail Gorbachev on six occasions. George H. W. Bush had three meetings with Gorbachev and two with the first president of the new Russia, Boris Yeltsin. With Yeltsin, Bill Clinton had ten one-on-ones, striking up a personal rapport despite the age difference, and with Putin he had two. Then came the highwater mark of George W. Bush’s twelve meetings with Putin and one with Dmitrii Medvedev. Barack Obama and the “reset” of the day produced seven summits with Medvedev and two with Putin after Putin’s reinstatement as president. Donald Trump managed but two meetings with Putin, although the pair had about twenty private long-distance conversations. To enumerate it from the Russian angle, Putin is the champion summiteer, with eighteen, followed by Yeltsin’s twelve, Gorbachev’s nine, Medvedev’s eight, Brezhnev’s five, and Khrushchev’s three.
Turning to the forthcoming meeting fifty-seven, it is a matter of interpretation whether it squares with Berridge’s second or third group, or with neither. Bilateral ad hoc summits are usually prepared by “sherpas” well in advance, take place over a couple of days or longer, and often feature the inking of a substantive agreement or agreements hashed out by the players’ bureaucracies. Biden-Putin fits poorly with a strict definition of ad hoc summitry, as the detailed preparations have been rushed, the meeting will be limited to part of a single day, and no word has leaked of pre-cooked deals to be formalized.
Like the classic high-level exchange of views, this summit will have a miscellaneous agenda and will be devoted to some extent to getting acquainted—not for the first time, naturally, but in a process of feeling out the stance of the other in his current position (Putin was prime minister and Biden vice president when they met in Moscow in 2011) and under current circumstances. On the other hand, the meeting is unlikely to fulfill the role Berridge feels exchanges of views are best suited to, namely, nudging forward continuing talks or rescuing negotiations deadlocked on a particular point.
How fruitful will the Geneva meeting be? All concerned have taken the advice tendered by virtually every expert on the topic: keep expectations low so that a poor result does not disappoint. “We’re not expecting to have a huge outcome,” Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said last week. The odds are overwhelmingly in favor of her being right.
However, the meager expectations here are not just a result of media management.
A key reason why the summit of 2021 is unlikely to yield a big-splash outcome is that the underlying relationship, as all concede, is as stressed as it has been since the 1980s, and keeps on getting worse. Success, in other words, tends to breed success, and failure to breed failure. Russia professes a desire for a better relationship, but accuses the United States of seeking to change its regime and tars radical oppositionists as Yankee dupes. The United States preaches a rules-based international order but imposes a plethora of sanctions that frequently have little to do with rules, and has recently been coercing its allies into working harder to coerce Russia into compliance (case in point: Nordstream-2, where admittedly the Biden administration has let up the pressure somewhat in recent weeks). Russia’s political stagnation makes Putin the only Russian leader most American officials have had to contend with, encouraging an unhealthy personalization and at times demonization of perceptions of the Other.
Russia, of course, was evicted from the G8 in 2014, after Crimea and the Ukraine crisis, thereby removing a reliable serial summit where the two chieftains could at a minimum touch base. Sanctions, countersanctions, and counter-countersanctions have hollowed out both countries’ ambassadorial and consular presence in the other, thereby stifling people-to-people communication and expert networks, including networks of individuals and institutions that know about international security. Covid-19 has made it worse, and Zoom is not enough to fill what is becoming a near-vacuum.
On the positive side, both governments have repeatedly declared an interest in “strategic stability” and a more predictable and manageable relationship. Some of this is hot air, but not all.
Three prospects include a start on restoration of diplomatic representation in Moscow and Washington, on a reciprocal basis; announcement of an expert group to work on a replacement for the New START nuclear-arms treaty, already extended by Biden and Putin for five years; and some kind of mechanism for considering the combustible intersection zone between weapons of mass destruction and cyber technology.
The little summit that could may at best bear modest results. Like many things in life, that would be preferable to the alternative.