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Lula vs Bolsonaro: The populist moment in Brazil

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] S [/yt_dropcap]ince the election victory of Donald Trump, many have tirelessly talked about populism. It is not a first appearance. This phenomenon has been recently experienced in Latin America, it has also been the spirit of the interwar period of fascism in Europe and it has happened in Russia in 1917. In fact, it has happened many times, in many different places.

Since the emergence of so-called left-wing populism in Greece and Spain, with SYRIZA and “citizen platforms” in union with Podemos, up until more recent right-wing populism from the National Front in France, Donald Trump and the Alt-Right, and Brexit and the UKIP, Geert Wilders (in addition to Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Norway) etc; the “western” world seems to be haunted by the specter of populism. Finally, has Brazil, which lived its personal drama between the reelection of Dilma Rousseff (November 2014) and her impeachment (August 2016), also achieved this international trend?

Crisis, House of Cards, and more crisis.

In Political Science, especially in International Relations, a large technical vocabulary is used to refer to Brazil’s position in the International System. It has varied recently from the euphemistic use of the term “peripheral nation” to the ambitious “emerging power.” In both cases attention is drawn to the geography and mechanics used. It is almost unnecessary to point out that these are relational terms; Someone is peripheral to something or someone, as well as who emerges, does so from one environment to another. It is derived from this physics that waves originating in the “center” propagate to the “periphery”, as well as that turbulences in an environment can transfer to a neighboring environment.

President Lula da Silva, for example, referring to the 2007-08 Financial Crisis, once said that it was a “tsunami” in the United States, but Brazil would only have a “marolinha” (a wavelet). History proved him wrong, but the analogy still holds some value, after all something arrived in Brazil at last, although late. One can propose another vision for the mechanics envisaged by Lula if only we look back at the major historical events of the last century. Namely, that the great historical characters and facts, according to Marx, seem to repeat themselves – first as tragedy, then as farce.

Does this mean, for instance, that the tragedy of the 1929 Crisis and its “superstructural” (political and ideological) effects on international politics, of a transnational populist “moment” in the 1930s and 1940s simply returns today as a farce? Difficultly. World political history does not seem to follow a single unvarying and identifiable flow. In fact, those who are well acquainted with history and politics in general know that there are flows and reflows, movements and counter-movements, revolutions and counter-revolutions. But the ebbs don’t ever mean a return to the exact previous status quo, but rather a dialectical and historical overtake. The “movement” of history, therefore, is more like a war of position, of trenches, of gains and losses, rather than a frontal, immediate and unequivocal irruption, as Gramsci would say.

Yet, just as so-called “right-wing populism” spread throughout the European scene of material scarcity and personal hopelessness in the first half of the last century, something similar (but not the same) is happening today in Europe itself and in the United States. But how has the “wavelet” arrived in Brazil?

Let us make a rather superficial summary of the last years of Brazilian political life, justified only by the impracticability of dealing fully with the historical conformation of the Brazilian crisis conjuncture. In 2010, Dilma Rousseff (PT) is elected president after running against José Serra (PSDB) in the second round. In her campaign, Rousseff presents herself as a continuation of her and President Lula’s party policies (such as the welfare program Bolsa Família, which aimed at providing financial aid to poor Brazilian families on condition that children attended school and are vaccinated) – as Lula leaves the presidency with a record approval rating of 87%. What followed was a slowdown in the Brazilian economy during her first term (2011-2014), a desertion from the counter-cyclical measures taken by the PT government since the end of the Lula administration to combat the international crisis and finally the great protests of June 2013 (Jornadas de Junho). Nevertheless, Rousseff is re-elected at the end of 2014, defeating Aécio Neves (PSDB), also in the second round, with a difference of only 3% of valid votes.

From the beginning of 2015 onwards, what took place was politics in its purest form. In addition to a dramatic intensification of the effects of the international crisis in Brazil (greater than a wavelet), Brazil experienced an endless series of unpredictable events of greater drama than the Latin American soap operas themselves. In short, it was part of the everyday life of the Brazilian citizen (and it still is), when opening the newspaper in the morning, to come across: Some new arrest of a high-influence politician or a billionaire from the construction industry as a new phase of Operation Car Wash (Operação Lava Jato); Some new plea bargain agreement that compromises politicians of almost every party; Conspiracy theories involving people of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches; Leaks from secret audio recordings of these same people which would prove right or wrong some of the theories; Accidents and tragic deaths of key figures in the investigations; More conspiracy theories; Motions for impeachment directed to the President of the Republic (Dilma Rousseff); Motion to remove the President of the Chamber of Deputies (Eduardo Cunha, PMDB) who ironically had just accepted the motion against Rousseff and eventually got arrested by Lava Jato; A suspension order issued by Justice Mello to the President of the Senate (Renan Calheiros, PMDB) who simply decided to ignore it; Impeachment motion directed to the governor of Rio de Janeiro (Luis F. Pezão, PMDB) and the arrest of two former governors of the same state (Garotinho, PR, and Cabral Filho, PMDB); Protests against the government; Protests supporting the government. Finally, an almost endless chain of events resulted in the Senate vote in August 2016, for the removal of Dilma Rousseff from office. This marks the start of then Vice President Michel Temer’s (PMDB) presidency, raising a heated public debate about the legitimacy of his government.

Populism in Brazil: There and Back Again

On February 15, 2017, the National Transportation Confederation (CNT) and the MDA Research Institute announced the results of their poll regarding voting intention for the 2018 presidential elections: Lula da Silva (PT) leads with 30.5%, followed by Marina Silva (REDE) with 11.8% and, most impressively, Jair Bolsonaro (PSC) with 11.3%.

What is surprising? The accumulation of forces of right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro. Although it’s true little attention has been given to Marina Silva, this is justifiably so. Silva is a former senator from the Amazonian state of Acre, with moderate or unclear positions on most major political issues. Located at the center of the political-ideological spectrum, Marina Silva is affiliated with the hardly relevant REDE, a party with environmental outfits, but with little theoretical formulation or practical action. The senator’s performance most likely results from her performance in the 2010 and 2014 presidential elections, ranking third in both and presenting herself as the “middle way” between left and right. Her seasonal appearance every four years in Brazilian electoral politics usually fails to build up momentum and hardly presents her as a viable political alternative.

The 30.5% obtained by Lula does not fail to impress. As it is widely known, Lula was president of Brazil for two terms: 2003-2006 and 2007-2010. His name is both the most controversial and the strongest of the current political left in Brazil. The progressive field also counts on probable candidates that are critical of Lula. Namely, Ciro Gomes (PDT), former governor of the state of Ceará, a national-developmentalist, owner of an eloquent and aggressive discourse. Lastly, it is likely that a new candidate will still be announced by PSOL, a party that is more ideological than PT and PDT, but of little strength outside the intellectual and academic circles.

The big news, however, is the inclusion of Jair Bolsonaro in the list. His rise to third place outperforms all other leaders traditionally associated with the political right, such as former candidates Aécio Neves and José Serra (both from PSDB). But who is Bolsonaro? Member of the Christian Social Party (PSC), Bolsonaro is a former captain of the 8th Artillery Group of the Brazilian Army, a federal deputy for the state of Rio de Janeiro and father of the also politicians Eduardo, Flávio and Carlos Bolsonaro. The Bolsonaro family, in general, is unquestionably associated with far-right ultraconservatist politics and they carry out polemic statements ranging from the defense of the Military Dictatorship in Brazil (1964-85), to positions considered intolerant, sexist and homophobic. In 2015, for example, when asked about an Amnesty International study of the country’s public security crisis (in 2014, more than 3,000 people in Brazil were killed by the police), Jair Bolsonaro literally stated: “I think the Military Police of Brazil should kill more”. It is unnecessary to clarify that Bolsonaro is critical of the notion of Human Rights and regards it as the creation of socialists seeking cultural hegemony.

In this electoral framework, with no intentions of underestimating Marina Silva, what strikes the attention is the dispute between the populism of Lula and that of Bolsonaro. Is it an “old” populism of the South American Pink Tide against a “new” far-right populism? What do they have in common? And more importantly – what is populism?

Definitions and non-definitions

Many definitions and interpretations have emerged or been recalled since Donald Trump’s victory. Namely, in December 2016, after the outcome of the American presidential election, Time magazine devoted an entire article, “The Populists” by Simon Shuster, to deal with the populism of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage (UKIP), however, without caring about defining or explaining the phenomenon. This lack of conceptual clarity on populism is not exclusive to Time. As Ernesto Laclau explains in his book “On Populist Reason” (2005), most of the time, intellectual understanding is replaced by appeals to an “unspoken intuition” or by descriptive enumerations of a variety of “relevant characteristics”.

Appealing to intuition and enumerating “relevant characteristics” is precisely what Forbes does, in its January 24, 2017 article entitled “Why Populism Is Rising and How To Combat It” and signed by IESE Business School. Astonishingly enough, the article begins with the statement: “Readers relax, I’m not going to talk politics.” What follows are some painful paragraphs of pure ideological verbiage and, finally, a list of characteristics that, in short, associate populism with a deviant practice that divides people between “us” and the “elite”.

Examples multiply. We could also mention the part of the specialized media that tried to deal with the subject with less common sense. Foreign Affairs, in the article of the well-known Fareed Zakaria “Populism on the March” of November / December of 2016. Zakaria points out to economic factors are not the most important to explain contemporary populism, but cultural factors are. Problems arise here concerning the idealistic ontological foundations of Zakaria. Why, for example, is populism manifesting only now if the cultural components of Western democracies have not changed since the recent past, and more importantly, if these cultural components have recently changed, what made that happen?

We are finally left with a definition that seems to embrace the different types of populism in geography and history as well as to understand it from a process that is historical, conjunctural and comprises changes. On November 9, 2016, Pablo Iglesias, Secretary General of the Spanish left-wing party Podemos (and a populist himself), describes populism in his article “Trump y el momento populista” in his column “Otra Vuelta de Tuerka” at “Diario Público”. According to Iglesias, populism is not an ideology nor a “pack of public measures”, but rather it is a way of constructing the political from an “outside” which expands in moments of crisis. He also claims that populists are outsiders and they can be located anywhere on the political spectrum. However, that should not suggest that the “extremes” (right and left) join together or are similar in any way.

“Trump is not close to Sanders”, Iglesias explains. Rather, Trump’s immigration policies are close to the ones of the Republican Party and the European Union. Therefore, populism doesn’t define political options but political moments. Trump simply took advantage of the moment.

Conclusion – Back to Brazil

The clash between Lula and Bolsonaro is therefore not simply a Brazilian peculiarity. It is contained within a larger logic. One that results from a conjunction of historical factors that go beyond abstract constructs like national boundaries. It is not our intention, as opposed to cultural variables, to present the international political economy as the “ultimate determinant” of the populist phenomenon, but to understand it as the construction of the political. Tautologically, it emerges when the conditions for it emerge, that is, it occurs in its moment. This moment, indeed, is constantly found between an “old” and a “new” world orders, that is, between different “historical blocs”.

No doubt an “old” social, political, and economic arrangement has already died in Brazil. The “Jornadas de Junho” in 2013 were a prelude to its deterioration, all the mobilization and all the conspiracies that followed the 2014 elections indicated a worsening of its clinical condition and its death was finally declared by the impeachment in August 2016. Any deeper analysis to be made of this moment must therefore consider the hegemonic dispute in question. That means it should be taken into account the dialectics “structure” and “superstructure” in the context of a serious economic crisis, as well as the dialectics “political society” and “civil society” in the context of a populist dispute for “empty signifiers”.

In conclusion, some theses can be proposed about the current Brazilian situation. Firstly, the political form based on the polarization PT vs PSDB has reached exhaustion, just as the economic and neo-developmental form ends in the neoliberalism of Michel Temer. Secondly, Lula’s strength is greater than the strength of his party, and it has to do with his populist political construction, which again finds a favorable moment. Lastly, the emergence of Bolsonaro has little to do with the content of his politics and policies, but only with the populist moment.

Only in the coming months shall we see the development of our crisis, little can be anticipated. Variables that intervene to any predictions may arise from the most diverse possibilities; from a new Lava Jato arrest (and there are those who guarantee that Lula is next in line) to some event that sparks the political violence that lies latent in Brazil. In any case, politics continues in Brazil as it has never ceased to be: the farce of tragedy and the tragedy of farce

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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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Trump’s legacy hangs over human rights talk at upcoming Biden-Putin Geneva summit

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biden-syria
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Two days after the NATO Summit in Brussels on Monday, US President Joe Biden will be in Geneva to hold a much anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders are meeting at the shores of Lake Geneva at a villa in Parc la Grange – a place I know very well and actually called home for a long time. The park itself will be closed to the public for 10 days until Friday.

A big chunk of the lakeside part of the city will be closed off, too. Barb wire and beefed up security measures have already been put in place to secure the historic summit. The otherwise small city will be buzzing with media, delegations and curious onlookers.

I will be there too, keeping the readers of Modern Diplomacy updated with what’s taking place on the ground with photos, videos and regular dispatches from the Biden-Putin meeting.

The two Presidents will first and foremost touch on nuclear security. As an interlude to their meeting, the NATO Summit on Monday will tackle, among other things “Russian aggression”, in the words of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Last week, Stoltenberg said that he “told President Biden that Allies welcome the US decision, together with Russia, to extend the New START Treaty, limiting strategic weapons, and long-range nuclear weapons”. To extend the treaty is an important first step for Stoltenberg. This will be the obvious link between the two summits.

But Biden also has to bring up human rights issues, such as the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and Putin’s support for the jailing of Belarusian activists by Lukashenko. Human rights have to be high on the agenda at the Geneva Summit. And indeed, Biden has confirmed officially that pressing Putin on human rights will be a priority for the American side.

Biden and Putin are not fans of each other, to say the least. Both have made that clear in unusually tough rhetoric in the past. Over the years, Biden has said on numerous occasions that he has told Putin to his face that he doesn’t “have a soul”. Putin’s retort was that the men “understand each other”.

Right at the beginning of his Presidency, earlier this year, Biden also dropped the bomb calling President Putin a “killer” for ordering the assassination of political opponents. The Russian president responded to the “killer” comment on Russian television by saying that “it takes one to know one”. Putin also wished Biden good health, alluding to the US President’s age and mental condition which becomes a subject of criticism from time to time.

Understandably, Putin and Biden are not expected to hold a joint press conference next week. But we weren’t expecting that, anyways.

For me, this Summit has a special meaning. In the context of repression against political opponents and critical media voices, President Biden needs to demonstrate that the US President and the US government are actually different from Putin – if they are any different from Putin.

This week, we were reminded of Trump’s legacy and the damage he left behind. One of Trump’s lasting imprints was revealed: Trump had the Department of Justice put under surveillance Trump’s political opponents. Among them House Democrats, including Congressman Adam Shiff, who was one of the key figures that led Trump’s first impeachment that showed that Trump exerted pressure on Ukrainian authorities to go after Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.

In the context of Trump’s impact, President Biden needs to show that there has to be zero tolerance towards the cover up by the US government of politically motivated attacks against voices critical of the US government. If President Biden wants to demonstrate that the US government is any different from Putin’s Russia, Secretary of State Blinken and FBI director Chris Wray have to go. Biden has to show that he won’t tolerate the cover up of attacks on political critics and the media, and won’t spare those that stand in the way of criminal justice in such instances.

Biden is stuck in the 2000s when it comes to Eastern Europe, as I argued last week but he needs to wake up. President Biden and the US government still haven’t dealt effectively with Trump’s harmful impact on things that the US really likes to toot its horn about, such as human rights and freedom. Whether the upcoming Geneva Summit will shed light on that remains to be seen.

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Will Geneva Be Any Different Than Helsinki?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Any meeting between the leaders of Russia and the U.S. is inevitably an important international event. At some point in history, such summits decided the fate of the entire world, and the world held its collective breath as it followed Kremlin-White House talks on strategic arms or the two sides seeking agreements on urgent regional problems or any political signals coming from the superpower capitals prior to another round of negotiations.

The bipolar era has long been gone, and the Russia-U.S. relations are no longer the principal axis of international politics, although the suspense over bilateral summits remains. As before, the two countries are engaged in “top-down” interaction. Summits give the initial impetus to Moscow and Washington’s cumbersome bureaucratic machines, then diplomats, military personnel and officials start their assiduous work on specific issues, collaboration between the two countries’ private sectors and civil society perks up, the media gradually soften their rhetoric, bilateral projects in culture, education and science are gradually resumed.

Still, there are annoying exceptions to this general rule. In particular, the latest full-fledged Russia–U.S. summit in Helsinki in July 2018 failed to trigger improvements in bilateral relations. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Finland’s capital aroused massive resentment among the anti-Russian Washington establishment. Ultimately, on returning home, the U.S. President had to offer awkward apologies to his supporters and opponents alike, and relations between the two countries continued to rapidly deteriorate after the summit.

Surely, nobody is willing to see another Helsinki scenario in June 2021, this time in Geneva. Yet, do we have good reason to hope for a different outcome this time? To answer this question, let us compare Donald Trump and Joseph Biden’s approaches to Russia-U.S. summits and to bilateral relations at large.

First of all, in Helsinki, Trump very much wanted the Russian leader to like him. The Republican President avoided publicly criticizing his Russian counterpart and was quite generous with his compliments to him, which inevitably caused not only annoyance but pure outrage in Washington and in Trump’s own Administration. Joe Biden has known Vladimir Putin for many years; he does not set himself the task of getting the Russian leader to like him. As far as one can tell, the two politicians do not have any special liking for each other, with this more than reserved attitude unlikely to change following their meeting in Geneva.

Additionally, in Helsinki, Trump wanted, as was his wont, to score an impressive foreign policy victory of his own. He believed he was quite capable of doing better than Barack Obama with his “reset” and of somehow “hitting it off” with Putin, thereby transforming Russia if not into a U.S. ally, then at least into its strategic partner. Apparently, Biden has no such plans. The new American President clearly sees that Moscow-Washington relations will remain those of rivalry in the near future and will involve direct confrontation in some instances. The Kremlin and the White House have widely diverging ideas about today’s world: about what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, what is fair and what is unfair, where the world is heading and what the impending world order should be like. So, we are not talking about a transition from strategic confrontation to strategic partnership, we are talking about a possible reduction in the risks and costs of this necessarily costly and lengthy confrontation.

Finally, Trump simply had much more time to prepare for the Helsinki summit than Biden has had to prepare for Geneva. Trump travelled to Finland eighteen months after coming to power. Biden is planning to meet with Putin in less than five months since his inauguration. Preparations for the Geneva summit have to be made in haste, so the expectations concerning the impending summit’s outcome are less.

These differences between Biden and Trump suggest that there is no reason to expect a particularly successful summit. Even so, we should not forget the entire spectrum of other special features of the Biden Administration’s current style of foreign policy. They allow us to be cautiously optimistic about the June summit.

First, Donald Trump never put too much store by arms control, since he arrogantly believed the U.S. capable of winning any race with either Moscow or Beijing. So, his presidential tenure saw nearly total destruction of this crucial dimension of the bilateral relations, with all its attendant negative consequences for other aspects of Russia-U.S. interaction and for global strategic stability.

In contrast, Biden remains a staunch supporter of arms control, as he has already confirmed by his decision to prolong the bilateral New START. There are grounds for hoping that Geneva will see the two leaders to at least start discussing a new agenda in this area, including militarization of outer space, cyberspace, hypersonic weapons, prompt global strike potential, lethal autonomous weapons etc. The dialogue on arms control beyond the New START does not promise any quick solutions, as it will be difficult for both parties. Yet, the sooner it starts, the better it is going to be for both countries and for the international community as a whole.

Second, Trump never liked multilateral formats, believing them to be unproductive. Apparently, he sincerely believed that he could single-handedly resolve any burning international problems, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to North Korea’s nuclear missile programme.

Biden does not seem to harbor such illusions. He has repeatedly emphasized the importance of multilateralism, and he clearly understands that collaboration with Russia is necessary on many regional conflicts and crises. Consequently, Geneva talks may see the two leaders engage in a dialogue on Afghanistan, on the Iranian nuclear deal, on North Korea, or even on Syria. It is not at all obvious that Biden will succeed in reaching agreement with Putin immediately on all or any of these issues, but the very possibility of them discussed at the summit should be welcomed.

Third, Trump was not particularly fond of career diplomats and, apparently, attached little value to the diplomatic dimension of foreign policy. The Russia-U.S. “embassy war” had started before Trump—but not only did Trump fail to stop it, he boosted it to an unprecedented scale and urgency.

Sadly, the “embassy war” continues after Trump, too. Yet President Biden, with his tremendous foreign policy experience, understands diplomatic work better and appreciates it. Practical results of the Geneva summit could include a restoration of the diplomatic missions in Washington and Moscow to their full-fledged status and a rebuilding of the networks of consular offices, which have been completely destroyed in recent years. Amid the problems of big politics, consular services may not seem crucial but, for most ordinary Russians and Americans, regaining the opportunity for recourse to rapid and efficient consular services would outweigh many other potential achievements of the Geneva summit.

From our partner RIAC

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