That grand encounter of Presidents Biden and Putin in Geneva way, way back last week proves by many measures a nonevent. Correspondents assigned to cover the summit had to chicken-scratch for something to write as to its significance, and I will say from long experience that conjuring “news” and “analysis” when there is none and nothing to analyze is not any kind of funzies. If restoring ambassadors to their embassies in Washington and Moscow is the matter of greatest substance, we have a forgettable occasion on our hands. That bit of business could have been managed by way of an exchange of diplomatic notes.
Joe Biden’s first encounter with Vladimir Putin: b.f.d., one is tempted to conclude.
Our mainstream correspondents ran miles with the notion of “strategic stability,” which must, somehow or other, be more important than “stability” by virtue of the extra syllables. (So far as I can make out it means “Let’s not nuke one another,” a major, major advance in bilateral relations.) Biden was tough and stood up to Putin. Biden told off Putin on human rights and cyberattacks. Biden drew 16 red lines and trotted out the old “There will be consequences” bit. Biden, following Barack Obama, rerated Russia as a minor power.
The entire European tour, I read in a New York Times analysis, was a success: Biden showed the Europeans “America is back.” Biden reaffirmed NATO and guaranteed its future. Biden lined up the European Union behind America’s Sinophobic plans to confront the People’s Republic as Enemy No. 1.
If only some of this were true. None of it is, quite.
As I have written severally over the years, one reads The Times not to find out what happened but to find out what one is supposed to think happened. Then one goes in search of accurate accounts of what happened. So often, we find, Times correspondents (and of course those of the other major dailies) are unable to report what happened in a given case because so much of what happens in our time does not conform to the fantastic version of reality we are offered as reality. This is why the foreign sections of The Times and the others are so remarkably thin these days.
Parenthetically, I have never met an American exceptionalist who is not a dreamer, in some measure deluded, and at some level of consciousness a paranoid. Scratch an exceptionalist and you find beneath the skin a nostalgist who, like all nostalgists, cannot bear things as they are. Most correspondents, as those Americans they report upon, are reliably exceptionalist.
What, then, happened in Geneva?
To begin at the beginning, Geneva requires us to face a fact most of us have either flinched from, buried altogether, or noted in an offhand manner not devoid of mockery. The fact is this: We have a president who suffers some measure of senility and is in consequence incapable of fully executing his duties. Geneva brought this home in the starkest of circumstances.
I do not write this in a spirit of partisanship, or to ridicule, having no interest in the former and no inclination toward the latter. It is time we put all such ancillary things aside and look squarely at this reality: Our forty-sixth president, the latest in a long line indicating a declining direction in our leadership (and I do not exclude the clownish Obama), is not entirely competent. Looking at things squarely is not, of course, a favored or encouraged activity in our troubled republic. But given the magnitude of the implications here, it behooves us to consider this question carefully.
We can go on pretending otherwise if we wish, and many of us will, surely, but we cannot plausibly assume the rest of the world pretends with us. Does anyone assume the Europeans, to say nothing of the Russians and Chinese, do not notice the condition of our president? Some wise-guy reporter in Washington predicted pre-summit that Putin would cravenly cast Biden’s mental condition in the worst possible light. He was dead wrong. Putin went out of his way to note that he found Biden fully in command of himself and his policies.
Putin in part after the summit, this broadcast on Russian television:
Mr. Biden is a professional, and you need to be very careful when working with him so as not to miss something. He himself does not miss a thing, I assure you, and this was absolutely clear to me. Let me say it again: he is focused, he knows what he wants to achieve and does it very skillfully, and you can instantly sense it.
Think about the nature of these comments and the Russian president’s subtext. There can be only one reason Putin bent so far backward to praise the very things so evidently missing in Joe Biden’s capacities. I suspect others world leaders will act similarly to spare Biden and 325 million other Americans embarrassment in so extraordinary a circumstance as ours. But this, of course, does little good at the horizon. It does not make Biden any more capable.
Flubs in press conferences, more malapropisms than you’ve had hot dinners, Biden’s failure to remember what the Declaration of Independence is called—“the, you know, you know, the thing”—are small stuff in the end, the stuff of the jokes. An inability to conduct the affairs of state with a major world power is quite another. No room for ridicule or YouTube segments here. The matter is simply too grave.
Two highly consequential treaties—Open Skies and New START—tensions NATO provokes on Russia’s western flank, the Syria mess, the Ukraine mess, Russia’s hypersonic weaponry, Israel’s apparent intent to go for broke this time with the Palestinians, all the cyberbusiness—little to nothing got done in Geneva on any of these questions. Given how thoroughly Biden’s people scripted his appearance, I am convinced this was intentional. Get out there and posture for the “folks” back home, Mr. Prez. We’ll take care of the substantive stuff later.
Who, then, are the “we” to whom fall matters of state? There are three categories of unelected (and mostly unqualified) people to consider: There are the visible (Antony Blinken, et al,), the partly visible (Jake Sullivan et al.), and the invisible (comprised of a long list of et als). So far as one can make out, Sullivan has taken to the dugout since the fiasco in Alaska last March. Defense Secretary Austin seems to take orders rather than give them. And let us not speak of Kamala Harris, whose proximity to the Oval Office when its occupant is 78 is too frightening even to contemplate.
Netting this out, Secretary of State Blinken is charged with managing America’s international relations these next three and a half years. Blinken, as previously noted in these pages, is, like many others, a lifelong adviser suddenly handed executive responsibilities. And I challenge any reader to counter this assertion in the comment thread: This man has not articulated one original thought—and depending on how one counts maybe no thoughts at all—since taking the seventh floor at Foggy Bottom.
Blinken is all bromides on Twitter, and how tone-deaf he proves to be: We’re here to protect the people of Venezuela? We defend “the rules-based international order” while the U.S. pirates Iranian ships in international waters and sells stolen oil in the open market? Crocodile tears for Syrian children while Israel bombs Damascus nightly, the U.S. burns the nation’s wheat fields, and rather proudly blocks international reconstruction aid? Madeleine Albright, a Mr. Blinken on line one.
The Biden administration did not have a foreign policy prior to the Geneva summit, as also noted previously in these pages. Post–Geneva we are on notice that we will not have a foreign policy for the duration of Big Joe’s term. We will have a crew of Russophobes, Sinophobes, and what-have-you phobes, declared exceptionalists in all cases, looking backward rather than forward and making it up as they go along. Something else to focus the mind, I would say.
It was the separate press conferences after the (truncated) summit that prompted me to think through this piece. Putin fielded questions for nearly an hour, no notes, no choreography, international correspondents welcome. Biden appeared for 11 minutes, no Russian correspondents allowed, all questions pre-screened, those called upon listed on one of the cue cards Biden depended upon throughout.
There is, of course, that doozy Biden delivered during those 11 minutes, when castigating Putin for Russia’s no-evidence-to-date intrusions into the American electoral process.
From the White House transcript:
Let’s get this straight: How would it be if the United States were viewed by the rest of the world as interfering with the elections directly of other countries, and everybody knew it? What would it be like if we engaged in activities that he is engaged in? It diminishes the standing of a country that is desperately trying to make sure it maintains its standing as a major world power.
And so it’s not just what I do; it’s what the actions that other countries take—in this case, Russia—that are contrary to international norms. It’s the price they pay. They are not—they are not able to dictate what happens in the world. There are other nations of significant consequence—i.e., the United States of America being one of them.
Esquire and The Hill picked this up. NBC News called it “such a bad look.” All the major dailies declined to touch it. A little while into his term, Trump called a television interviewer who was setting him up to denounce the Russians on this matter: “Do you think we are so innocent?” Wow. A major rip in the veil. Now we discover our mainstream press has not surrendered an inch in its defense of those exceptionalist mythologies that have led us into our quagmire of violence, subterfuge, interventions, and, indeed, meddling in the elections of countless other nations. Still against the rules to note what is to be found in any serious history text.
What in hell is this? How Soviet can an American president and the clerks posing as reporters covering him get—in front of a Russian counterpart no less? It used to seem a touch o.t.t. to suggest a comparison between the American press and Pravda. I do not think this is any longer so. The American correspondents in Geneva assumed their assigned roles with evident enthusiasm—we have this in full view now. A Bloomberg correspondent who could not be more than 30 or so badgered Putin on the Navalny question, got nowhere, but professed delight when Biden “flashed me a toothy smile.”
You go, girl. Foreign correspondence now comes to heckling those the U.S. designates enemies, dignity and professionalism having nothing to do with the job. What correspondent still in possession of these attributes will not sleep soundly knowing the profession now rests in hands such as yours? Always remember: You are not a correspondent, you are an American correspondent—acting, of course, in the interests of the state you serve. Forget this and you will not find work.
I am reading a very worthy book by a man named Rudolf Rocker. (Hard to find, I should warn you.) Rocker was a 19th century German anarchist of the most interesting kind: a non–Jew who learned Yiddish as he made common cause with Jewish radicals in Germany, England, and finally America—that superb Jewish tradition all but erased from the histories now. Rocker’s great book is called Nationalism and Culture. In it he makes the argument that the state is antithetical to authentic culture and cannot (and does not) tolerate it. Culture that serves the state survives. Culture that does not does not.
The press in any given context is a cultural artifact, to state what is obvious. Now you know why NPR made its deal with the budget minders on Capitol Hill and turned itself into a broadcaster of happy talk and lousy reporting. (It is now down to reciting The Times’s front page for the morning news programs.) Now you know why The Timeshas turned itself into America’s Pravda (and I am no longer shy of the comparison).
We have no leadership: We have a superannuated man of fading competence in the White House who takes a lot of naps in the Ron Reagan mode. We have no foreign policy: We have amateurs rummaging day-to-day through the past in search of the present. We have no genuine press: We have more amateurs serving the state who think this is what they are supposed to do.
All of this might have been said prior to the Geneva summit, I suppose. As we flinch our way forward, most of us, Geneva leaves us with an idea of what the perils and costs will be.