The June Biden-Putin summit has long vanished from the mainly superficial but often hysterical news cycle. Bemused and undisturbed, the Russian dictator faced an American president struggling to remain conscious yet heavily armed with unilateral concessions, allied disarray, and a defense budget declining in real terms.
Flacks at the White House and in the press declared that the reason for this exercise was to read Russia the riot act and restore faith in the supposed magic of “goodness” diplomacy. But though God blessed Lincoln and Churchill with the virtues of a number of great men packed into each, and quickened the result with the lightning of synergy, this did not happen when he came up with Joe Biden. Our president went to Geneva not with demands from a position of strength, but like a supplicant pitching an idea to a venture capitalist. What ensued was an unrecognized debacle so deep as to be tectonic.
We begged for the meeting, the true purpose of which other than domestic political froth was to offer Putin the American iteration of a proposal floated by French president Emmanuel Macron: Abandon your growing alliance with China and look west. We will accommodate you as a partner in, or at least a neutral onlooker upon, the nascent resistance to le défi chinois.
Nice work if you can get it, but you can’t. The frog agrees to ferry the scorpion to safety from rising waters knowing that the scorpion will drown if he stings. Midway, the scorpion stings. Both will die. “Why?” the frog asks. The scorpion replies, “Because it’s my nature.”
Is it surprising that an administration so witless as to believe that human nature can be wrenched from its roots and conscripted in service of a simple-minded, flow-chart utopia would misread both past and present? The president’s and his advisers’ ability to perceive threats, hyperactive domestically, stops dead at the water’s edge. Like Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a study in weakness, and climate “czar” John Kerry, a study in pompously getting everything wrong perhaps since birth, they are oblivious of historical patterns, the balance of power, the military balance and its implications, and present dangers not involving atmospheric temperature variations. Apparently they simply cannot see that Russia has already gotten most of what it wants from Europe, envisions little obstruction to getting more, and has a realistic view of precipitously declining American power—upon which view it acts and will act in the future.
While we school our military in how horrible is the country it defends, and our ships rust, collide, burn, and are not replaced, Chinese warships slip steadily off the ways in mass production. As America’s elites drag the country into self-hatred and national suicide, every concrete measure of national power—from the military, to energy, manufacturing, education, the sciences, and even the constitutional system—is subject to willful and ongoing opposition and destruction. An enemy army could not do better. Putin believes he has seen this not long ago in his own country, and has merely to wait. In regard to cooperation with China, better to appease the tiger than to lie down with a dying horse.
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As in the Obama-Biden approach to Iran, the administration attempts with displays of weakness and accommodation to lure an opponent impressed only by strength. Had the U.S. arrived at the summit having added even half, or a third, of one of its many suspect extra trillions to the current military budget, the result might have been very different. But the mouse that went to Geneva was blind to reality.
Because it fails to preserve, much less to augment, its strengths, the United States certainly can be faulted for its inability to achieve a new concert within the international system, but not for wanting it. Were Russia to ally with the West, the West could more efficiently marshal its resources (supplemented by Russia’s out-of-proportion military and nuclear forces) to deal with China. Central Asia might turn westward rather than fall under Chinese domination. Russia would prosper. South American Marxism would lose an important patron. And, in a global re-write, China would be thrown onto its back foot.
But despite his craftiness, Putin was as blind as his feeble interlocutor. With the Belt and Road Initiative, China is buying and cajoling its way into the Middle East and Europe, an economic undercut and strategic left hook of which Putin should be most wary. He will be outbid in Central Asia. And eventually China will eat Siberia, which, like the South China Sea, it considers its own. Far eastern Russia’s distance from the Russian heartland and the constricted communication links between them make defense difficult other than by Russian nuclear brinkmanship, soon to be offset by China’s waxing nuclear arsenal. But were Russia to join the West it could concentrate its conventional forces in the east as a bulwark against Chinese adventurism.
Putin, the supposedly excellent player of diplomatic chess, is making the same mistake Stalin made when, via the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, he gave Germany, suddenly unthreatened from the east, an almost two-year window in which to build up its forces and win victories in the west. Until, to Stalin’s shock and disbelief—surprise!—it invaded Russia. Putin now recapitulates the spectacular error of his most powerful predecessor.
At the very summit, then, these men, one a product of a dictatorship, the other of a democracy, disastrously misread history and the workings of the present. They are merely the latest entries in a tragic line of presumptuous incompetents whose ignorance and impure rule seldom fail to lead to the death of millions. It has long been said that a country gets what it deserves, and, to quote H.L. Mencken, it gets it “good and hard.” Perhaps not just a country, but the world.