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US Foreign Policy: Transactional or Value-Based

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The 2016 elections presents a divergence in US foreign policy between the two major candidates. On one hand is the continuance of the status-quo by Hilary Clinton, who is pushing for a value-based foreign policy, as all presidents have done for decades while Donald Trump is looking for a shift in US foreign policy that hearkens backs to a time when the US was less interventionist and more explicit about its interests rather than claiming to cultivate democratic governments.

While many critics harangue Trump’s plans as isolationist and destructive, in reality, his policies appear to be more in line with realism or power-politics, where foreign engagements are intended to be more transactional and in favor of the nation’s interest.

Whether one argues one way or another for either philosophies, it can be contended that a value-based foreign policy would be prudent for any major power but especially for a superpower to set a global agenda as long as they acted in such a manner. The United States foreign policy is enunciated via the State Department’s mission statement:

“The Department’s mission is to shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere.”

Echoed throughout the statement are the ideals of peace, stability, and a just world. This value-focused statement projects to the world what the US stands for and how its actions are contextualized on a global scale. Yet, this continuous claim by US officials on how the importance of a systematized foreign policy based on a set of beliefs is essential to world peace has yet to manifest itself in reality. This false belief propagated by many US politicians on the need for such a policy and abhorrence towards Trump’s approach is perhaps one answer to the continuously asked question, “Why do they hate us?”

Despite America’s help in the progression and development of global societies, US foreign policy, in particular, has been largely a false narrative painted by politicians to the American people. Instead, it might be prudent to have a more power-centric foreign policy as proclaimed by Donald Trump rather than a false goal propagated for the last few decades that has had anything but positive returns.

US Foreign Policy

While the State Department explicitly states a mission to sustain democracy, stability, and peace for everyone, the actions of the US abroad largely contradicts its mission. In this context, the world sees a double standard that sometimes Americans become largely blind to. While Americans believe the government is intervening in their interests and benevolence of other nations to further the cause of democracy and peace, in reality, the opposite is happening. Instead, if the US explicitly claims to be more transactional like China, there would perhaps be less resentment of US actions around the globe and fewer Americans asking, “Why do they hate us?”

Instead unbeknownst to most Americans unfortunately, politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, have dragged the US into useless wars at the cost of American treasure and more importantly, American blood. While these wars are perceived by the public, thanks to the mainstream media, as wars of necessary to ensure the continuity of American values and way of life, in reality, these wars have created more instability, precarious and less democratic regions.

While the protagonists will argue that the world will be amiss without American leadership, which is true to an extent, the continual proclamation that American leadership and actions exhibit the necessary values for peace is farthest from the truth. This gap between values and actions is what is typically not impressed upon the overwhelming majority of Americans due to the ineptness of mainstream media. As a result, Americans are bewildered and sometimes even angered, justifiably, by what they perceive as ungratefulness by foreign nations and people in their vitriol hate for the US, but what they do not see is that the actions of their government does not align with the words necessarily.

A brief review of America’s action in recent decades will all but demonstrate that American intervention has been an impediment to peace and contradicts many of America’s values and moral standards. These wars have resulted in nothing but death, destruction, instability, and a great waste of money:

Restoration of the Shah in Iran – The US-led overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran was a direct contradiction of the State Department supposed policy goals. While the CIA led the overthrow, the State Department was not blind to what was going on. The US instigated an uprising that led to the downfall of a populist leader and ushered a dictatorial king back into power, which eventually led the way for Khomeini and his group of religious fanatics to take over. This led to the transformation of the US’s greatest ally in the Middle East after World War II to one of its most contentious enemies.

Vietnam – One of the most infamous wars the US has fought was purely based on a false premise, the North Vietnamese attack on US military ships or Gulf of Tonkin incident never took place. Yet under the guise of a false attack, almost 60,000 Americans died in a war that ended in defeat for the US and a loss of credibility amongst its allies and enemies. The war was supposedly fought in the name of safeguarding freedom and democracy instead more than 2 million Vietnamese died and Communism was further emboldened after the war. The war was concocted to be a necessary battle to stop the onslaught of Communism. A fear of sorts was fabricated that helped make everyone become sympathetic to the war initially only later when more information came out did the public rail against it.

Somali War – Under the auspices of President Clinton, the US engaged in a short-lived war with a faction of Somali forces in their internal conflict that ended badly. While Somalia still remains a failed state decades after that intervention, the root of the problem lies in the fact that different regional and global powers pawned different factions against each other instead of forcing them to a peace table.

Rwanda and Bosnia – While the intervention of the US in the Bosnia genocide cannot be denigrated and more so applaud, the US was not solely being a gracious power, it had to do with regional geopolitics in the Balkans as well as a balance of power issue between Russia and Europe. While there was a massacre in Southeast Europe, a larger genocide was taking place in central Africa but was neglected because it did not matter. Such a large negligence on the part of a nation self-appointing itself as the guarantor of global security and democracy has left many to beg the question, what happened there?

Afghanistan – While the war in Afghanistan was perhaps the only war in the post-World War era that was justified in terms of national defense, it has evolved into a dismal failure based on how the US conducted the entire situation. Promising to rebuild the war-torn nation and helping create democratic institutions, the US turned a blind eye and allowed corrupt warlords to run the country with a blank check from the American taxpayers to fund their lavish and decadent lifestyle. As a result, many Afghans that use to abhor the Taliban now see them as the lesser of two evils.

Iraq – Arguably the biggest blunder in US history, Iraq epitomizes the failed US foreign policy narrative of being value-focused. The nation was to be a bastion of democracy in a corrupt region of the world. Instead, it went from being a stable poor country ruled by an impotent dictator, who wielded no power after his decimation in the first Gulf War, to a region that churns out fanatics and terrorists by the day. As a result of the false narrative that ushered America into war, the region has spiraled into chaos, masses of immigrants have flooded Europe from the afflicted nations, terrorists are emboldened, and the US’s regional enemy, Iran, is greatly empowered. No conflict can attest more to the failed value-centric goals of the State Department than the war in Iraq. It is this failure that Secretary Clinton thinks was a necessary war and potentially can get the US embroiled in more similar situations in the name of democracy and nation building.

Egypt – As the Arab spring swept the region, no nation was greatly affected by the events than Egypt. After decades of dictatorial rule by the Mubarak dynasty, Egypt finally had democracy. For whatever reason, the democratic rule led to the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was shortly deposed by General Sissi and his military junta. Instead of the US condemning the overthrow of a democratically-elected government, it remained largely quiet. Despite contravening US laws of not providing financial aid to a coup sponsored government, the US continues to work with Sissi to this day. Once again, the Obama Administration claiming to be more value-focused contradicted what they claim to adhere to.

Syria and Libya – Two other nations, Libya and Syria, came out worse after the US intervention in their nations. Despite being promised liberation from tyranny, the nations are both now worse off than prior to the US intervention and totally decimated. Europe and the US failed to learn from the Iraq war. Instead, they repeated the mistakes of President Bush, which both President Obama and European leaders largely condemned. Today the immigrant afflictions that are endured mainly by Europe are largely a result of Europe and the Obama administration’s unnecessary actions in these nations. These events were largely led by then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

Ukraine – A democratically elected government was overthrown by a portion of the country who disagreed with certain actions of the government. But that is democracy, if you disagree with your government; you take to the ballot box to voice your grievance not initiate a civil war and kill people. Here was a situation the US could display its commitment to its stated values by supporting the existing democratic government but instead it supported the insurrection since it was more pro-West than the government at that time. Today, Ukraine is still mired in a civil war and much worse off than prior to its conflict, this is due to power politics between Russia and the US.

While the premise of world peace and stability are great notions, the reality of the world and human nature has demonstrated time over that perpetual peace can never be achieved. Instead, the world operates under a zero-sum game in which if you are not advancing your nation’s interest then you are losing out. Operating under such a notion, a nation can ensure their interests are not only safeguarded rightly so but advanced when needed. Despite what people think of Trump, his foreign policy approach of letting the world know that he is more focused on America’s interest rather than other nations is a better approach than doing the same thing but cloaked under a veil of values. Being focused on power politics and stating explicitly so would be more prudent for the US since the world and American public would know how each action pertains to its interests. Rather the US creates a false illusion of a value imperative integrated with its actions but in reality, almost all of America’s actions in the foreign policy realm have acted in the opposite manner.

Whether a Trump presidency is something to fear is another argument, but a shift in foreign policy towards a more explicitly stated realist-based approach to the international arena would help create a less unstable world as well as a government that is more transparent and accountable to the American people. The world would then understand the US’s intention in interventions rather the belief it is there for democracy and nation building, which has been anything but great. Perhaps then people would know the answer to the long asked question, “why do they hate us?”

Luis Durani is currently employed in the oil and gas industry. He previously worked in the nuclear energy industry. He has a M.A. in international affairs with a focus on Chinese foreign policy and the South China Sea, MBA, M.S. in nuclear engineering, B.S. in mechanical engineering and B.A. in political science. He is also author of "Afghanistan: It’s No Nebraska – How to do Deal with a Tribal State" and "China and the South China Sea: The Emergence of the Huaqing Doctrine." Follow him for other articles on Instagram: @Luis_Durani

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Biden: No More “Favourite Dictators”

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

 Former US President Donald Trump shared a strong personal rapport with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. Trump made no bones about the fact, that he got along well with authoritarian leaders – especially in the Middle East. At the G7 Summit in 2019, Trump while looking for Egyptian President had even said, “Where’s my favourite dictator?”

Statements made by Biden before taking over as US President

On the other hand, Joe Biden before taking over as US President had repeatedly criticized Erdogan, MBS and Sisi for their poor human rights record, and had unequivocally stated that none of them would have a free pass in a Biden Presidency.  Biden had on numerous occasions flagged the dismal Human Rights record of Saudi Arabia, especially MBS’ involvement in the murder of Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and lashed out at Trump for soft pedaling on the issue because of his personal rapport with MBS. Similarly, in August 2020, Biden had dubbed Erdogan as an ‘autocrat’ and also expressed the view that the US needed to lend support to opposition parties in Turkey. Biden had also issued a warning to Sisi, saying that there would be “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favourite dictator’.”

How President Biden has approached relations with the three leaders

During the Biden Administration, ties with Saudi Arabia have witnessed a change. A report which clearly points to MBS’ role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was released (Trump had refused to release this report). The US has withdrawn support for the Saudi war in Yemen, and defence agreements signed between the US and Saudi Arabia, during the Trump Administration have been put on hold. Yet, Biden while sanctioning Saudi officials in connection with the Khashoggi case, in addition to those sanctioned by the Trump administration, refused to impose sanctions on MBS owing to the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East (Saudi support is essential for the revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal/Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action-JCPOA) and the strong US-Saudi relationship. It would be pertinent to point out, that Biden’s decision not to impose sanctions on MBS has drawn strong criticism from many including members of his own party.

If one were to look at the case of Turkey in recent months, the Turkish President has himself toned down his Anti-West rhetoric and described his meeting with Biden on the sidelines of the recent NATO Summit as fruitful. While commenting on the meeting with Biden, Erdogan stated that ‘ We believe there is no problem that cannot be resolved in Turkey-US relations,’

The US President also said, that the meeting with Erdogan was positive and expressed hope that the bilateral relationship would improve in days to come.

While the meeting between Biden and Erdogan was positive, differences between both sides still persist over Turkey’s purchase of S400 missiles (the Trump administration had imposed sanctions in its final days and Turkey had also been removed from its F-35 fighter jet program)

Turkey’s strategic relevance

Turkey has stated that it is willing to play a role in security in Afghanistan, and guard Kabul airport, after the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Turkish President did say that Turkey would require diplomatic, logistic and financial support that the United States. The Biden administration’s outreach to Turkey indicates that in spite of differences over key issues, Istanbul’s potentially important role post the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is something, the US will not ignore. Erdogan on his part needs to have a reasonable relationship with US, given the fact that the Turkish economy has slowed down significantly.

If one were to look at the case of Egypt, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi role in the ceasefire between Israel and Palestine, was acknowledged by the Biden Administration. While the US President during a telephonic conversation hailed Sisi for his ‘successful diplomacy’ in the Israel-Palestine ceasefire, the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said:

‘We have had in Egypt a real and effective partner in dealing with the violence, bringing it to a close, relatively quickly. And now, we are working closely together to build something positive’

It would be pertinent to point out, that during his telephonic conversation with Sisi, in May 2021, Biden did flag the need for a ‘constructive dialogue’ on human rights in Egypt

Conclusion

While it is easy to criticise Joe Biden, he has the onerous responsibility of striking a  balance between values, which he has repeatedly referred to even after taking over as President, with US interests. Given the complex geopolitics of the Middle East, Biden while refraining from taking steps, which may be counterproductive has flagged his concerns with regard to Human Rights, and sent out a strong message that bilateral relations will be dictated by substance and not mere personal chemistry or optics. At the end of the day it is important not to forget Miles’s law — ‘where you stand depends upon where you sit’.

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The liberal international order has not crumbled yet

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Since 2017 when Donald Trump took office, the “liberal international order” erected in 1991 has been under serious challenges raised by the United States’ relative decline, the Trump administration’s isolationist policy, and on top of that, the outbreak of COVID-19. Indeed, this order is greatly plagued, which is evidenced by its dysfunction. Against this backdrop, its endurance in the upcoming time is questionable. Nevertheless, the liberal international order has not collapsed yet. It will even revive, and endure in the post-pandemic era.

The victory of Biden 

Notwithstanding facing great threats, the liberal international order is far from crumbling. On the contrary, it is gradually reviving. In the Western world, countries are making effort to reform their order that is on the verge of collapse. This is true in the US – the world democracy’s leader. Joe Biden’s victory against Donald Trump may be a positive signal for the US and the global democracy. As a strong advocate for values including democracy, multilateralism and international trade, at no doubt, President Biden will be opposite to Trump in his policy, both domestic and foreign ones. Indeed, during his first 100 days, Mr.Biden has implemented some meaningful things. Regarding the pandemic, he has a stricter approach than his predecessor’s: Mandatory mask wearing, a $1.9-trillions bill, historical vaccination campaign, to name a few. All of Biden’s actions have been so far effective, when the new cases and deaths are steadily declining, and the number of vaccinated people is substantially high. This lays a foundation for Biden to reinvigorate his country’s ruined democracy and governance system, as his efficiency in countering COVID-19 may help him regain American people’s trust on the future of American democracy.

In terms of foreign policy, President Biden has some radical changes compared to that of Trump, which might be favorable to the Western world. At first glance, Biden embraces multilateralism much more than his predecessor, with the hope of saving the American global leadership. He supports Washington’s participation in international institutions, which is illustrated by the rejoining of WHO, Paris Agreement and several multilateral commitments. In tandem with this, Biden values the US’ alliances and strategic partnership as vital instruments for the US’ hegemony. Unlike Trump’s transactional approach, Biden prioritizes early and effective engagement with allies to tackle regional and global issues, especially major ones like NATO, G7. In Asia, he also seeks for further cooperation with traditional allies such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand and deepening partnership with Vietnam, Singapore, India and ASEAN countries.

More importantly, President Biden’s policies towards the US’ competitors and “rogue states” are far different from Trump’s. Granted, despite seeing China as the biggest threat to the American global leadership, Biden adopts a more flexible and multilateral policy. His administration looks to cooperate and compete with China, which implies a different trajectory of the US-China relationship in the upcoming time. Additionally, as noted above, instead of unilaterally escalating tensions with China as Trump did, Biden has been forging relations with traditional and potential Asian allies to contain China together, given China’s increasing assertiveness. With regard to Iran, Washington is now working on the Iran Nuclear Deal with other six parties, promising a potentially positive future on the relations of Iran with the US and the West. The bottom line is, a radical change in Biden’s foreign policy will be a clear message to the world that the US will still try to save the liberal international order and make this world safer for democracy.

The European Union is recovering 

Things are happening in the same pattern in Europe. European leaders are also closely cooperating, both inside and outside the bloc, to defeat COVID-19. That said, they are ardently supporting multilateralism. So far, the EU has spent billions of dollars in vaccine development as well as humanitarian support, demonstrating its solidarity in the battle against COVID-19. As such, if EU leaders can successfully lead their bloc out of the current crisis, they can reform this currently plagued institution in the post-pandemic era. Not only seeking further intra-bloc cooperation, but also European leaders are working with other major actors around the world to substantiate the global battlefront against COVID-19. Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged her country and China to jointly develop COVID’s vaccine in an open, transparent way, and to a further extent, maintain good and stable bilateral partnership, regardless of two sides’ differences.

Similarly, the EU has been putting the Transatlantic relationship among the priorities of its foreign policy agenda. After Biden’s election, the European Commission has proposed refreshing the US-EU alliance and establishing a Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council, being seen as an informal tech alliance with the US to prevent China from dominating this critical sector. The Transatlantic relationship is perhaps one of the pillars for the liberal international order, given its long history and its contribution to maintain the global stability. In the last decades, this axis has been damaged by numerous issues, from economic to security, which is one of the main causes for the decline of liberal international order. Thus, a fresh Transatlantic relationship is conducive to the re-emergence of this order. In this respect, the EU’s effort to strengthen the Transatlantic alliance, despite being questionable in terms of feasibility and outcome, is still paving the way for reinvigorating of liberal international order. More notably, the most recent G7 Summit has illustrated the Western’s solidarity, when there is a convergence in most issues related to global governance and maintaining the Western-based order. This may be a harbinger of the liberal international order’s revival, at least in a foreseeable future.

Non-Western world is struggling 

The dynamics outside the Western world is also changing in a more favorable direction. Many non-Western countries, once were effective in combating against the pandemic, are now struggling with a greater threat. Taiwan, in spite of being praised as one of the most successful states in the battle against COVID-19, is currently facing another wave of pandemic when the new cases in this island are surging recently. Other successful stories, let us say Thailand, Japan or South Korea, are questionable of maintaining their momentum in preventing the virus, showcased by their relatively inefficiency during this new wave, in implementing strong measures and getting their people vaccinated. This raises question about these countries’ model of governance, which was used to be praised as a better alternative for a plagued, dysfunctional Western one, thanks to its merits in helping those above-mentioned states contain COVID-19.

Major non-Western blocs are in the midst of COVID-19 crisis as well. The clearest example is the BRICS. Except China, all other countries in this bloc have been tremendously suffering from the pandemic. Due to this, they are far from being recovered quickly. This failure in dealing with the virus undermines the bloc’s previous effort in establishing its position as a major, effective one, not to mention building a new, non-Western international order. This is also the case with ASEAN, as the organization was sharply divided by COVID-19. There are countries doing well with controlling the pandemic such as Vietnam, Singapore, but the Philippines and Indonesia are unable to do so, making this bloc suffering from institutional sclerosis without having any coherent COVID-19 policy. Therefore, non-Western blocs and countries are far from being more efficient than Western ones, implying they are unable to come up with any better international orders than the current liberal international one.

More importantly, Western values underpinning the liberal international order are universal. This is noteworthy when arguing for the long-lasting of Western order, as its existence and endurance mainly hinge on the universality of Western values. These values have been embraced by many countries for a very long time. Hence, despite being deteriorated in recent years, they cannot be easily changed. On the other hand, non-Western values are also not as highly embraced as Western ones. China, desiring to topple the US, is initiating numerous projects and agreements to spread its values around the world, making the world less Western and more Chinese/Asian. Nonetheless, Beijing has yet achieved any remarkable achievements in making their values more widespread and embraced by the rest of the world. Even worse, its image has been tarnished due to its rising assertiveness. Its projects in developing countries, especially BRI-related projects, have been notorious for a large number of problems related to environment or local corruption, and it is raising strategic uncertainty in the region by its increasing militarization, particularly on the South China Sea. These movements have turned China into a “malevolent” major power, hindering its process of disseminating and socializing its values to the world.

It is also worth noting that although Western values have declined, they have been proven to be benevolent for this world. Most recently, it is Western countries that have successfully developed good COVID-19 vaccines to save themselves and save the world from this unprecedented health crisis. Non-Western countries, for instance China and Russia, have their own vaccines, but they are not as welcome as other developed countries in the West in the vaccine race, because their vaccines are relatively less effective than Western-produced ones. Democracy, liberty, lassaiz faire are values that help Western countries or ones embrace such things able to produce massive amount of effective vaccines, and more broadly to develop a strong science and technology foundation. Producing and distributing vaccine for the rest of the world would make the West become a savior, which is good for saving the liberal international order.

Without doubt, the liberal international order has been in its worst time since 1991 when it reached its heyday. However, thanks to its merits, the liberal international order will not die. Instead, most countries will jointly save it, because they have been benefitting from this order for a long time, and will be so in the future. The order’s founding members are recovering, and cooperating closely to reform it, as well as there are no better international orders that can replace the existing one. Given these circumstances, the liberal international order would re-emerge as a dominant form of ordering this world after the pandemic, and would be perpetuated.

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Who benefits more from the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva?

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With the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva around the corner, the question is who actually benefits more from the meeting in the small Swiss town.

Mainstream media and right-wing foreign policy thinkers alike have argued that a joint press conference would “elevate” President Putin to the level of the American President.

Ivana Strander, the Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, argued that the upcoming Geneva summit is actually “a gift” to Putin.

In a CNN story, Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak mention that “officials who have been involved in arranging past US meetings with Putin say the Russian side often pushes for a joint press conference, hoping to elevate Putin’s stature by having him appear alongside the American leader”.

Whether as a subconscious bias or an actual reflection of attitudes, prevalent is the idea that coming close to the US President is a privilege that other leaders can only dream about. But who gains more from the upcoming summit?

In fact, it is the American President who is vying for other leaders’ approval and acceptance once again after a humiliating period – not the other way around. American is emerging from Trumpism, which revealed the other, ugly face of America. Trumpism is not gone and the other face of America is still there.

This week, US President Joe Biden is eager to show the world that America is “back”. In meetings with the G7, NATO countries’ top leaders, the NATO Secretary General, the Queen of England, and President Putin in the same week, Biden is asking the world to forget the last four years. And he is not doing this from the position of power or superiority. That’s why assuming that other heads of state, be it Putin or anyone else really, can only gain by coming close to the superiority of the American President is a misplaced and misguided. The US President is asking the international community to take America back – not the other way around.

President Putin doesn’t need the US President’s acceptance – Putin already got that. That happened back in 2018, in Helsinki, when President Trump sided with Putin over the US government’s own intelligence agencies, by rejecting the idea of Russia’s meddling in the US presidential elections. Trump slapped across the face and humiliated the US intelligence community in front of the whole world. Ever since, the US intelligence community has tried to figure out ways to prove Trump wrong and show him otherwise. And they have gone to incredible lengths, only so that they can get their pay pack of a sort, and prove Trump wrong. So, Putin already got what he wanted. He doesn’t need more “elevation”.

What’s also striking is that in Geneva, the UN is absolutely missing from the action. Geneva is the home of numerous UN agencies and international organizations, and not one is actually involved, which speaks volumes to questions of relevance. It is the Swiss government from Bern which is organizing the Summit. The UN is nowhere to be seen which is also indicative of the current Biden priorities.

If Trump was about “America First”, then Biden is about “America is still number one, right?”. But as the United Kingdom learned the hard way recently, it is sometimes best for a declining power to perhaps elegantly realize that the rest of the world no longer wants to dance to its tune, or at least not to its tune only. Discussions about how much Putin gains from coming close to the presence of the US President are misguided. In trying to climb back on the international stage on crotches and covered up in bruises, America is not in a position to look down on other big powers. And as regards who benefits more from the Summit, it seems like one side is there with a clear request asking for something. My understanding is that it is Biden who wants Putin to hand cyber criminals over to him. Putin still hasn’t said what he wants from Biden, in return.

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