It’s been three years since an American president met with Vladimir Putin, and the last time was an unmitigated disaster. Then-President Trump met with Putin in Helsinki in the summer of 2018, while Washington was eyeballs-deep in Robert Mueller III’s investitagion into whether Trump and his campaign worked with Russian operatives to throw the 2016 presidential race. Asked whether he pressed Putin about Russia’s election interference, Trump infamously sided with Putin over American intelligence agencies. “President Putin says it’s not Russia,” Trump said from the lectern. “I don’t see any reason why it would be.” The Russians laughed, the Americans were horrified, and Republicans were forced to condemn their party’s leader while doing absolutely nothing to give any heft to their disapproval. Even South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, the most truculent of the Trump toadies, had to tisk-tisk the man to whom he had snuggled up like an eager pilot fish.
Now, a new American president is heading into a meeting with his Russian counterpart and everything has changed without anything having changed at all. In the intervening years, both countries have been through a lot: a presidential election, a global pandemic, and a whole lot of clarity as to what these two leaders represent.
Biden heads into Wednesday’s summit in Geneva as hardly more than a caretaker of the world’s oldest and most prominent democracy, even as it is becoming less democratic by the day. Two decades ago, when Putin met his first U.S. president, George W. Bush, America was fresh off a blithe few years when prominent American thinkers could assure themselves and policymakers that history had run its course and settled the score entirely in Washington’s favor. These days, America has scored enough own-goals—the twin disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2008 financial crisis, the Trump presidency—to walk onto the pitch as a far less credible adversary. In four years, Trump managed to alienate our allies while drawing closer to the world’s worst actors: Putin, Kim Jong-un, Xi Jinping. I remember attending the Aspen Security Forumright after that mortifying Helsinki press conference, and listening to the best and brightest of the national security establishment wonder what America’s relationship with its allies would look like after Trump. Would they forgive and forget? Or would they scan the horizon over our shoulder even as they allowed themselves to be enveloped in our relieved embrace?