Nyet, Vladimir! No More Flaccid Compliance

Confronting Putin may be the most important part of Biden's European adventure

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It’s hard to overstate the importance of President Biden restoring the US relationship with G7 allies in Cornwall, UK this past week. It’s also hard to overstate the refreshment, the sheer delight, in the visuals that documented this: Biden enjoying a laugh with France’s Emmanuel Macron, Biden and Britain’s Boris Johnson palling around, Joe and First Lady Jill Biden savoring warm smiles from Queen Elizabeth.

In dark contrast, the Trump operation was aggressive in its efforts to undermine the Western alliance, exit the Paris climate accord and raise serious doubts about America’s commitment to NATO and democracy itself. And his personal behavior exacerbated the grim decline of America on the world stage: pushing fellow leaders out of the way, never hiding his obvious hostility toward long-time allies, failing to show up to meetings, demonstrating an utter absence of humor.

But it’s Biden’s meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in Geneva that is arguably the more important piece of his European adventure. This encounter is where a hungry nation yearns to see an American president stand toe-to-toe with this Russian adversary, view him with cold-eyed clarity, and let him know that the days of flaccid compliance and democracy-damaging servitude are over.

No kowtowing to cyberattacks, election interference, assassinations of political opponents or overtaking the territory of sovereign nations. No more bemused indifference toward his deadly assaults on journalists and critics. No more betrayal of American interests by attacking American intelligence while heaping sycophantic praise on the former KGB officer. No more silence toward Russian bounties on the heads of American troops. No more preferential treatment for murderous dictators.

Such a shift in the relationship with Putin and his minions not only sends a message to the Kremlin. It also should give notice to all the Republicans who’ve spent at least the last four years cozying up to the Russians, acting as if there’s nothing wrong with heading to Moscow for handouts (on July 4, no less), and talking up Russian propaganda intended to sow division and damage democracy in America.

I don’t know about you, but nary a day goes by that I don’t want to hear from the American interpreter or anyone else who can shed light on the private Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki in 2018. The public betrayal of America that day—when Trump sided with Putin and turned his back on the work of US intelligence confirming Russian interference in the 2016 election—remains a pivotal moment in the country’s history.

We have yet to learn what possible kompromat Putin proffered, what Trump promised in return, or how explicit and long-term their private deal making was or still is. We should expect that answers to these questions are on Biden’s agenda, be it for this meeting or in the months ahead.

It’s heartening to see the shift in global attitudes toward the US now that Trump has been severed from the levers of power and Biden is at the helm. Last year, according to new Pew Research, 17 percent of respondents from a dozen nations had confidence in Trump to do the right thing in world affairs. This year the number more than quadrupled: 75 percent expressed confidence in President Biden to do the right thing. Sweden topped that list with a swing in confidence from Trump (15 percent) to Biden (85 percent.) Overall favorability toward the US rose to 63 percent with Biden in the White House from a Trump low of 36 percent.

This is a start. But let’s not underestimate the lingering wariness of our European friends. They may not have lived through the last four years in quite the same way Americans have, but the seeds of doubt about American reliability caused by erratic, reckless leadership have surely grown.

“Don’t underestimate the Trump years as a shock to the E.U.,”  Rosa Balfour, the director of Carnegie Europe, told New York Times reporter Steven Erlanger. “There is the shadow of his return and the E.U. will be left in the cold again. So the E.U. is more cautious in embracing U.S. demands.”

Who can blame them? They too saw the insurrectionists attack the Capitol, America’s symbol of democracy. They too have seen complicit Republicans deny the seriousness of that day, continue to appease Trump and admire the strongman tactics of Putin. (See “Republicans Side with Team Putin.”) But standing strong against the Kremlin boss and the grim tilt toward autocracy will surely help the doubtful imagine once again that the US can be a beacon in the world.

Our democracy is battered and facing terrible turbulence ahead, but it’s in Biden’s power to employ the full weight of American government and the full force of the bully pulpit to advance the cause for democracy. A failure to do so will only hasten the gleeful desires of the enemy within to end the self-governing ideals of our republic that have been such a positive global force for more than two centuries.

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