By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Trump’s America First foreign policy gave Putin an advantage in discrediting American democracy. Putin had nothing to lose at the summit. It made him a winner before it began by putting Putin at the center of the world’s attention; but Biden made the best of a bad situation by restoring confidence in European and NATO leaders on the way to the BIden-Putin summit.
Biden left the American economy in limbo after proposing trillions of dollars in new domestic spending on top of an astronomical $28.3 trillion national debt. That doesn’t bode well for the future of American democracy, but Biden has now refuted Trump’s foreign policy and opened the door for a reset. Even so, Biden has a long way to go to clean up Trump’s mess.
Biden’s foreign policy is a study in contrast with that of Trump, who favors demagogues like Putin over America’s traditional allies and praises supporters while condemning his critics. Trump remains unfit to be president by putting personal loyalty over loyalty to his country; and he has corrupted the Republican Party by demanding the same loyalty test of all Republicans.
Cyber War has superseded the Cold War. America seems weak against cyber threats, with hacking a major threat to critical infrastructure, essential services and large American corporations. Ransoms are paid in untraceable cyber-currencies rather than dollars, and there are inadequate defenses and no effective countermeasures against cyber threats.
Until America develops adequate defenses and countermeasures against cyber threats, it’s too soon to make accusations against putative sponsors like Russia or China. America must produce reliable evidence identifying perpetrators of such threats before it can respond to them from a position of strength, and the jury remains out on those defense capabilities.
Since World War II American exceptionalism in foreign policy has declined, and Putin has used the many deficiencies in America’s democracy to promote Russia’s interests. If America expects its democracy to regain the global respect it once had, it will have to control its national debt to provide a stable global dollar, and clean up its many other domestic problems.
Among America’s other domestic problems that reflect poorly on its democracy are the January 6 insurrection prompted by Trump’s polemic rhetoric, hopelessly polarized partisan politics, increasing hatred and violence, and an uncertain political future with Trump’s continuing support of most Republicans. It’s not a pretty picture of what was once a shining city on a hill.
Biden’s performance at the summit was lackluster, but it was a welcome departure from the flawed performance of Trump at the 2018 summit. Most importantly, it revealed an uncertain future for America’s democracy. Will it remain the world’s ideal form of government, or lose ground in its global contest with powerful authoritarian regimes like those of Russia and China?
The media offered a mix bag of impressions on the Biden-Putin summit:
The editorial board of The Washington Post opined that Biden offered Putin the benefit of the doubt and should have known better. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/biden-offered-putin-the-benefit-of-the-doubt-he-should-know-better/2021/06/16/d68436d4-cec4-11eb-8cd2-4e95230cfac2_story.html?utm.
Frida Ghitis at CNN concluded it was a big loss for Putin. See https://www.cnn.com/2021/06/16/opinions/putin-geneva-summit-big-loss-ghitis/index.html.
Tom Nichols at USA Today concluded “it was a success for both sides” and US moral clarity is back. “Biden reminded Putin – and the world – what was really at stake in Geneva. The democracies are facing a dedicated offensive from autocracies in Russia, China, Iran and other nations. For too long, the democratic coalition has been without a leader; worse, the most powerful state among them was led by a man who himself was openly hostile to democracy. That time is over. Biden told Putin that ‘no president of the United States could keep faith with the American people if they did not speak out to defend our democratic values,” and that human rights are “always going to be on the table.’
There is plenty more work to be done in mending the damage to American foreign policy, but whatever else might come from this first meeting in Geneva, the return of moral clarity about America’s role in the world is something for Americans and their allies to celebrate.” See https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2021/06/16/joe-biden-restores-american-moral-leadership-putin-meeting/7708499002/.
Masha Gessen of The New Yorker questioned the moral clarity of the summit. Recognizing Putin as a deceiver and illusionist, Gessen concluded, ”The world is probably a slightly safer place following the summit. The Presidents agreed to return ambassadors to their respective postings. It’s likely that Alexey Navalny is a little safer now, too. But President Biden and this country paid a high moral price for it.” See https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-high-cost-of-bidens-meeting-with-putin?utm_source=nl&utm_brand=tny&utm_.
Perhaps Fareed Zakaria best summarized the summit: Under Biden, American diplomacy is back. But America isn’t. “The biggest news out of the Biden-Putin meeting involves cyberspace. The problem of cyberattacks, cybercrime and ransomware has grown exponentially. And yet governments have appeared either unable or unwilling to do much about it. Biden has moved policy in this realm significantly forward, for the first time signaling that the United States would be willing to use its considerable cyber capacities to retaliate against a Russian attack. Biden gave Putin a list of 16 critical systems that should be considered off limits, hinted that the retaliation could take the form of crippling Russia’s oil pipelines, and agreed to have U.S. and Russian experts begin discussing these issues to define some rules of the road. This a policy shift that is likely to last.
One aspect of the United States’ power remains substantially diminished: its role as a beacon of democracy. Among countries surveyed, 57 percent of people said the United States is no longer the model for democracy it used to be. Young people worldwide are even more skeptical about America’s democratic institutions. After Watergate, many looked up to the United States for facing and fixing its democratic failures. It was a sign of the country’s capacity to course-correct. But imagine if after that scandal, the Republican Party, instead of condemning Nixon, had embraced him slavishly, insisted that he did absolutely nothing wrong, settled into denial and obstructionism and proposed new laws to endorse Nixon’s most egregious conduct? Imagine if the only people purged by the party had been those who criticized Nixon?
The decay of American democracy is real. It’s not a messaging or image problem. Until we can repair that, I’m not sure we can truly say America is back.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/06/17/biden-american-diplomacy-vs-american-reality/?utm_campaign=wp_todays_headlines&utm.
The image of America as a city on a hill was born in a 1630 sermon by John Winthrop. “Beginning in the 1970s, Ronald Reagan placed that line...at the center of his political career. Tracing the story of America from John Winthrop forward, Reagan built a powerful articulation of American exceptionalism—the idea, as he explained, ‘that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage.’ In 2012, American exceptionalism—as summarized by the phrase ‘city on a hill’—became an official plank in the platform of the Republican party.”
What happened to America’s image as a shining city on a hill?
“John Jessup, a prominent journalist, wrote, “Is there not a connection between the rise of nations and great purpose, between the loss of purpose and their decline?” The problem, it seemed, was complacency. Wealth had made Americans weak. ‘Part of our problem,’ John W. Gardner declared, ‘is how to stay awake on a full stomach.’ Nothing was being asked of the American people. Having achieved material success and world power, the United States seemed content to let citizens go about spending and consuming, little caring about a higher cause. The historian Henry May once summarized the extensive works of Perry Miller on Winthrop’s city on a hill as ‘illustrating the slogan that nothing fails like success.’ Wherever Miller turned, he saw the same laws of history replayed, and, in his mind’s eye, the beginning of demise could be read in the modern riches of America’s rise.” In tracing the evolution of American culture from 1630 to the 20th century, Miller omitted a major factor. “At the opening of Miller’s career, W. E. B. Du Bois published Black Reconstruction in America (1935). The next year, 1936, Langston Hughes wrote “Let America Be America Again”—a plea that the promises of America extend themselves to African Americans at last. In 1941, the same year that Henry Luce published “The American Century” in Life magazine, Richard Wright documented the diverse lives and hopes of 12 Million Black Voices in the Great Depression. A decade later, the civil rights movement erupted. “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line,” Du Bois prophesied in 1903. Yet the problem of the color line appears nowhere in all the mighty works of Perry Miller. Miller explicitly set himself the task of explaining the “meaning of America,” and that meaning never touched on one of the most vital issues engulfing the nation. If he felt that he had failed—if he felt that his story of America was increasingly hard to hold together and decreasingly important to the American people—he was right. The irony of history—one that Miller might well have appreciated—is that in promoting Winthrop’s sermon, he caused it to become the key statement of all that he most feared and lamented. In the years to come, Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” sermon would become “the shining city on a hill” of President Reagan: a celebration of individual freedom, material prosperity, and American power—above all, a call for Americans to renew their optimism and believe in themselves again. Nothing breeds failure like success. And no one was more successful than Perry Miller in making Winthrop’s sermon the cornerstone of American culture.” See https://www.neh.gov/article/how-america-became-city-upon-hill.