Biden’s Incremental Gains

Terry H. Schwadron

June 18, 2021

We’ve had a week of practical Joe Biden either seeking to make friends, deliver personal warnings or re-insert America into world events.

As we’ve read a lot about Biden’s style, possible gaffes, personal relationship-building, and his ability to disagree while he and Russian President Vladimir Putin stared at one another and shook hands for the cameras. Overall, their talks did not show a lot of desire to improve the two countries’ standing with one another.

What did happen was incremental or foundational, not splashy.

One headline in The New York Times read “After Putin Meeting, Biden’s Stubborn Optimism Shows Itself Again,” while the Washington Post headline read, “Biden’s strategy of pessimism ekes out a few gains with Putin.”

Of the Biden-Putin talks, The Washington Post said, “The modest technocratic gains stand in contrast to the grander ambitions of previous presidents, who sought fundamentally to overhaul the United States’ troubled relationship with Russia.”

It is more difficult to tally the actual actions we can see happening outside of a U.S. effort to kickstart international vaccine donations — a campaign that seemed less than robust with a relatively small response from America’s industrialized partner countries.

Here’s what I took away as practical matters:

Airplanes. After 17 years of trade dispute over national subsidies for Boeing and Europe-based Airbus, Biden and European Union leaders extended a suspension of billions of dollars in tariffs for another five years. But tariffs imposed by Donald Trump on European, Canadian or other foreign steel and aluminum remain in place.

Unions and companies involved in airplane manufacture cheered, but this deal means that Europe will keep in place tariffs on U.S. whiskeys in retaliation for the metals tariffs.

Cybercrime. Russia and the United States will open talks on what the international rules of the road should be — a first step perhaps, but one that is well short of agreement to adhere to what 20 other countries signed onto — stamp out domestic hacking operations.

In their one-on-one talks, Putin denied Russian responsibility in the recent corporate and government hacks in the United States, and, turning the tables, said U.S. hackers had snarled a Russian health system and yearly oil pipeline problems. He claimed that the Kremlin had sent 45 requests about digital attacks to “relevant bodies” in the U.S. last year, compared to ten such requests from America. There was no evidence presented, of course, and Russia is seen internationally as housing and cultivating hacking operations or not clamping down on those criminals who do so.

Arms: Russia and the United States have agreed to talks on possible changes to their recently extended New START arms limitation treaty, an historically area for agreements. The current issue, however, is that China does not want to play nicely with either Russia or the United States. Meanwhile, Putin showed little appetite for moving away increased military presence near Ukraine’s eastern border, and Biden underscored a commitment with NATO leaders to resist any attack on a single member country.

China: Grudgingly, Europe decided to fall into step in a general way with pushing back against China’s economic, human rights and possible pandemic-origin transgressions. But the communique was a lot more talk than action. What Biden said was, “The U.S. and EU will work together in specific ways that reflect our high standards, including collaborating on inward and outbound investment and technology transfer . . . It’s a model we can build on for other challenges posed by China’s economic model.”

Sound like something to take to the bank?

Not Addressed

The list of things not addressed through actions or simply rejected is far longer.

Human Rights, for example. Putin deflected criticism over the jailing of political rival Alexei Navalny by comparing it closely with prosecution of insurgents at the U.S. Capitol inspired and engaged by Donald Trump to pursue his continuing Big Steal campaign. The comparison is absurd, of course, but Trump handed Putin yet another gift by inventing the Jan. 6 mob riot.
Nuclear weapons development in North Korea and Iran never got to the top of an agenda. Nor did world hunger or even much about climate.

It’s hard to judge what role international economic agreements had altogether since more localized disputes broke out over how Brexit will be implemented in Northern Ireland.

And there seemed no focused discussion about the growing international issues arising over refugees and immigration laws and agreements, violence in Afghanistan, the precarious ceasefire, or not, in the Middle East, and important next steps for anticipating the next pandemic.

Biden did manage to finish his trip without the bitter note that Vice President Kamala Harris faced the previous week for immigration-related talks in Guatemala for flubbing why she has not visited actual border facilities.

Assessing the trip

Put it together and there was more here about relationships than actions that have economic, security or other significant effect on our American lives.

None of this stops partisan political parties in the United States from calling this week a huge success or a dismal failure.

Republicans from Sen. Rick Scott of Florida to Donald Trump were willing to criticize the trip. Scott said Biden went without a real plan, and that coming home with nothing real to show was problematic. Trump being Trump labeled the trip a failure and insisted that Biden was making bad deals that he would not have made, though none were listed.

Democrats seemed mostly focused on domestic issues, and while supportive, recognized that Biden had to reestablish relationships shunned by his predecessor.

But for the rest of us, it seems a necessary first step, particularly following the isolationist, disruptive and rude international relationships that Trump left, but a first step with no particular destinations in sight.

It was progress for Washington, but hard to judge if any of it leaves you and me better off than in the week before the trip.


Journalist, musician, community volunteer