Let’s try to clear up any remaining confusion about the short-lived summit right here.
But wait a second! Here’s the Washington Post headline: “Biden’s Strategy of Pessimism Ekes Out Progress with Putin.”
So which is it? Optimism, stubborn or otherwise, or pessimism?
If the assessments of the Biden-Putin sitdown seem all over the map, that’s because they are. The outcome was so ambiguous that the whole thing is like a Rorschach test. Or maybe vaporware is a better analogy since there was nothing tangible to hang onto.
It will not surprise you to hear that those on the right generally thought the summit was a bust, while those on the left found it reasonably successful – and most everyone agreed that Biden shouldn’t have unloaded on CNN’s Kaitlan Collins. But this goes beyond the usual partisan divide. All but the fiercest conservative partisans could not argue that Biden did any real damage to the country. And even the most enthusiastic liberal partisans couldn’t claim the meetings produced significant achievements. It was more a matter of optimism and pessimism.
What’s clear is that the media pumped this thing up into a superstar event when it was actually quite ordinary.
When Biden came away with nothing concrete—talks that were about having more talks—the more sympathetic media people had to pivot to why it was good to have a boring summit (this, of course, followed by the obligatory denigration of Donald Trump’s more volatile meetings). Boring is good! It showed they were both professionals. It laid the groundwork for a constructive working relationship. Even Putin said there was no hostility.
Score one for Team USA!
Well, when there’s not even a commitment to do anything about cyber hacking—with Putin denying any responsibility for the digital criminals based in Russia—there’s not much to cheer.
Still, most of the press pivoted to Biden’s position that he was laying the groundwork for future progress—even as he admitted there was no assurance such progress would come over the next year.
The president asked reporters what would happen if he had said before the talks, “You know, I think it’s going to be really hard. I think it’s going to be really difficult. I’m not so optimistic about – I don’t see anybody really changing?” That, he said, would guarantee failure.
He added that there was no point in making “threats” because Putin doesn’t want another Cold War. “Look, this is not about trust; this is about self-interest and verification of self-interest.” That’s what, in the days of staring down the Soviets, we called realpolitik.
But you can look at that same philosophy and say without commitments, agreements or treaties, it’s all just hot air.
“To listen to Mr. Biden at his news conference, one could easily conclude that the meeting with Mr. Putin had been a resounding success…That kind of unrestrained positivity has already opened him to the charge that he’s naïve, unwilling to see the reality staring at him across the table,” said The New York Times.
“President Biden has seen American presidents from both parties try to transform the U.S. relationship with Russia only to leave office disappointed. In his first meeting as commander in chief with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden intended not to make the same mistake,” wrote the Washington Post.
If you set expectations low enough, I suppose, you can always clear the bar.
Trump said in a call to Sean Hannity that “I guess the overall is, we didn’t get anything. We gave a very big stage to Russia, and we got nothing,” which is precisely what critics said about the former president when he repeatedly gave the world spotlight to Kim Jong-un and, in the end, got nothing.
And that’s why, while the media are wedded to news cycles, history may judge the first Biden-Putin meeting differently. If we reach agreements with Moscow, it will be seen as an important first step. If there is no progress and the tensions keep building, it will be viewed as a waste of time.
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