President Biden is scheduled to meet with Vladimir Putin in Geneva next week. Their June 16 meeting is unlikely to be as harmful to U.S. interests as Donald Trump’s Helsinki summit in 2018, when he infamously sided with the Russian tyrant over the U.S. intelligence community. Still, while Biden, unlike his predecessor, is not a buffoon, he is still a human and hardly immune to error, including when going against a former KGB colonel with a broken soul.
Biden’s humanity is his greatest strength and arguably the single greatest reason he won in 2020. But at a summit, soullessness could be a situational strength. In an odd coincidence, exactly twenty years to the day before Biden’s scheduled meeting with Putin, President George W. Bush, another innately humane person, met with Putin and reported that “I was able to get a sense of his soul,” a comment he later regretted.
It’s not just Putin; summits generally favor autocrats. The word “Yalta” still inspires indignation in former Soviet satellites because it was at the Yalta conference that Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt ceded half of Europe to half a century of Soviet oppression, genuinely believing that Stalin would withdraw his forces from the region at the end of the war. While there’s no consensus among historians on whether a better agreement with the Soviet dictator was possible, there is an overwhelming agreement that the American president allowed himself to be duped into believing that “Uncle Joe,” as Roosevelt referred to Stalin, was negotiating in good faith. Had Roosevelt been a little more skeptical, the history of Eastern Europe in the twentieth century might have been much sunnier. (By six weeks later—just three weeks before his death—Roosevelt had become disillusioned with the Soviet dictator, saying “We can’t do business with Stalin. He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta.”)
Sixteen years after Yalta, President John F. Kennedy met Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, and the results were again disastrous. Kennedy had been warned to avoid at all costs debating ideology with Khrushchev. Nonetheless, he waded into a philosophical back and forth. The Harvard-educated political scion likely underestimated the revolutionary peasant who had risen through the ranks of the Soviet Communist Party through intelligence, agility, and political cunning. After the summit, Kennedy told a confidante that Khrushchev “beat the shit out of me.”
Khrushchev concurred. Before the summit, both sides laid claim to West Berlin, with the allies insisting it remain a free city, and the Soviets insisting it be incorporated into East Berlin. Perceiving Kennedy to be weak, Khrushchev issued an ultimatum, calling on the Western powers to evacuate Berlin just as Kennedy was about to leave the summit. Kennedy rejected the ultimatum but conceded the partition of Berlin as official American policy. A military standoff ensued, culminating with the construction of the Berlin Wall just two months later. To overcome the embarrassment of his failed ultimatum that had cost him the confidence of the Politburo, the following year Khrushchev approved the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles to Cuba, which brought the world to the brink of thermonuclear war.
Of course, there have been some benign summits. The Reykjavík summit in 1986 did no harm: After it became clear that the Soviets and the Americans were at an impasse on nuclear arms control, Ronald Reagan walked away. Henry Kissinger recalls asking a Soviet diplomat years later about why the Soviets kept pushing for more, even though they had gotten everything they had asked for. The Soviet responded, “We had thought of everything except that Reagan might leave the room.”
The Reykjavík summit, though, was one of the few such meetings that produced positive results. Reagan and Gorbachev came to agree on the foundations of what would become the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, ratified in 1988. Their achievement was possible because both were negotiating in good faith, and they were consummating years of careful arms control negotiations.
But why is it that the best that leaders of liberal democracies can expect from summits with autocrats is building trust without doing harm?
For one thing, liberals almost always negotiate in good faith. In the long run, this is an advantage; it is one reason free democracies tend to get along with each other so well. But it is a disadvantage during a summit with a strongman who bullies everybody to maintain power. Liberals benefit from predictability. Due to the open nature of American society and the intense scrutiny inherent in a presidential campaign, there is very little that autocrats don’t know about a U.S. president. The lives of autocrats, by contrast, often remain opaque to U.S. intelligence services, policymakers, and historians. Putin is no exception: His rise from KGB middle-manager to Russia’s president in just a few years remains something of a mystery.
Summits also bypass the bureaucracy. The United States’ diplomatic and military establishments—career servants and political appointees in both parties—are the best in the world. U.S. presidents’ expertise is not in Russian, Chinese, or Iranian politics. These are the expertise of the relevant country-desk officers inside the national security apparatus and assistant secretaries. Summits bypass the specialized skills and subject-matter expertise that the U.S. government so painstakingly recruits, trains, retains, and equips, sacrificing a key American advantage.
The advantage of the principal-agent setup is the ability to undo mistakes. The secretary of state can always overrule whatever tentative agreement an American diplomat might negotiate. In extreme cases, even the president could overrule the secretary. But, unless Congress refuses to ratify a treaty, which is rare, no one can overrule a president who makes a commitment in the moment, even if the president himself comes to regret it.
Intelligence officers and policy experts are already briefing both Biden and Putin in preparation for their private meeting. Biden is experienced and clear-eyed about his counterpart. But it’s hard to think of an outcome that can be accomplished better this way than through normal channels.
If nothing comes of the summit, it will have been a ringing success.