The Biden-Putin upcoming summit in Geneva is being compared to the ground breaking 1985 meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev. The circumstances surrounding the summits are very different. 2021 is not 1985. While there are tensions between the United States and Russia, we are not in the midst of a Cold War. The United States and Russia are important geopolitical players, but China is not at the table, nor are billionaires Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg or others whose wealth cannot be excluded in serious global negotiations.
Today’s world is pluricentered. The United States-Soviet Union domination is over. Private actors, individuals as well as multinationals, are the new geopolitical heavyweights.
Joe Biden opened his first foreign trip as president by announcing that the “United States is back.” What the president didn’t clarify was to where the U.S. was returning. The obvious answer was that the United States was returning to working with its allies. Biden’s scheduled meetings with the G7, NATO and European Union leaders confirmed this. After Donald Trump’s erratic go-it-alone diplomacy, Biden declaration asserted that transatlantic relations were being reset and stabilized with Biden, as president, re-assuming America’s traditional leadership role.
While this obvious answer may satisfy those who have longed for the post-1945 U.S. “indispensable” role after four years of Trump’s creative destruction, nostalgia has its limits.
What United States was Biden referring to? The first euphoric 100 days of his presidency are over. The success of the vaccination program has not translated into a sweeping political leverage. The infrastructure bill is bogged down. Republicans are determined to keep major changes they initiated during the Trump administration. Biden’s proposed reforms have met aggressive opposition.
The Trump era has not ended. Not only is Mar-a-Lago the capital of the opposition, but those who followed the 2020 election closely saw how Republicans did very well in local and state elections. The consequences of those Republican successes are now playing out across the country.
And, if needs to be noted, despite whatever slim margins Biden may have in today’s Congress, history tells us that they will be wiped out in the upcoming mid-term elections. It is quite possible that the Democrats will lose at least one house of Congress in 2022 which would leave Biden further hampered in whatever changes he proposes.
So whatever return to American leadership Biden may be announcing, the reality at home is far from his declaration. And the allies know this. Biden is on less solid ground than Ronald Reagan when he met Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva in 1985. The United States in June 2021 is far from the opening line of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign: "It’s morning again in America."
The United States is back with whom? Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron? Prime Minister Johnson is under domestic pressure after a series of scandals as well as facing a potential vote for Scottish independence. Chancellor Merkel, the most solid European leader for decades, has decided to retire with no obvious candidate of similar stature to replace her. French President Macron's term in office ends in May 2022 and he is not assured of defeating Marine Le Pen in the upcoming presidential election.
Back in the multilateral system? Much is being made that Biden is returning the United States to the multilateral system after the Trump hiatus. And since the summit is being held in Geneva, there is reason to be hopeful here. But again, this may seem too obvious. Biden has yet to name an ambassador to the international organizations in Geneva. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was unanimously approved for another term in a recent Security Council vote, although this was a foregone conclusion since there were no other official candidates. The U.S. may be back in the multilateral system, but is that something to brag about?
“The United States is back” is a sentence that warrants reflection. It implies that time has stopped, and that the current situation can go back to the way it was before. But time moves on. The United States is not the same as it was in 1985. The Soviet Union no longer exists. Geopolitics and diplomacy have changed.
President Biden’s declaration is noteworthy for its nostalgia. A serious examination of the current summit and previous Geneva meeting reveal profound differences. As Thomas Wolfe wrote in You can’t go home again, you can’t go “back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time...”