President Joe Biden’s summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Switzerland may end up being a study in the projection of strength, or lack thereof.
And although the two heads-of-state met ostensibly to discuss significant matters such as cybersecurity, the future of Ukraine independence, human rights, territorial issues related to the Arctic, and impediments to trade, the reality was that the meeting was an extended opportunity for both men to puff their political chests and exercise their diplomatic muscles in an attempt to project confidence and transparency while communicating a command of the details that underlie the complex and thorny issues that divide the countries.
So, how did they do, respectively?
The Handshake: A Symbol of Confidence
It’s hard to underestimate the power and impact that confidence brings to any situation. As Mahatma Gandhi put it, ““Man often becomes what he believes himself to be.” President Biden seemed to believe in himself, and got off on the right foot at the summit through the power he communicated in his handshake.
And before you dismiss the importance of a handshake, consider the following words of Joe Navarro, M.A., a 25-year veteran of the FBI where he served on the National Security Division’s Behavioral Analysis Program:
“In the span of a few seconds, we lay the foundation for how other perceive and feel about us — and we about them. In an instant really, we are seeing, sensing, observing, and feeling another person. Nothing to scoff at, which is why every culture has greeting rituals — opportunities to see what this person is about, what they represent, and whether they are a threat.” To his credit, Biden seemed aware of the message communicated in a handshake.
As reported in Clarion news, CNN’s Jim Sciutto made the following observation about the presidential pressing of the flesh:
“‘You know, these moments are about moments, and I’ll tell you one moment I noticed there in the Biden-Putin interaction,” Sciutto began. “The handshake – Biden looked Putin in the eye with a smile. Putin looked away,’ Sciutto said. ‘Again, you don’t want to read too much or too little, but again, these are about public posturing, it’s about how you project strength, and that was a notable moment to me, as you watch them shake hands.’”
The Transcripts: An Exploration of Confidence
However, it appears from the transcripts of each man’s press conference that President Biden may be holding the proverbial shorter stick. After analyzing the text of the speaking transcripts for their press conferences, Biden loses out on several measures. To begin with, Putin’s word count exceeds 6500 words.
True, some of these words are from reporters and a few are headings identifying the speakers, but this accounts for less than 10% of the word count total.
By contrast, President Biden’s word count maxed out at a paltry 1700 words, nearly four times less than Putin’s. Moreover, Putin spoke with the press for nearly and hour, while Biden spoke for just over ten minutes. Now, of course I recognize that sheer volume does not indicate mastery of issues nor prove that you command the room, but such an imbalance is likely indicative of other problems related to perceptions of strength and confidence.
Confidence: What’s Underneath the Surface?
Scott Ritter, a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer and author of Scorpion King: America’s Suicidal Embrace of Nuclear Weapons from FDR to Trump, had this to say in his Op-Ed article Biden wants NATO to project the strength it doesn’t have:
Biden has shown no real appreciation for the state of affairs he has inherited, formulating a foreign policy premised on the mantra of “America is back” without having an appreciation of what “back” means.
His rhetoric and posturing suggest that he believes the dominance and prestige America enjoyed in 1991 can be replicated today simply by willing it to be so. This is irresponsible fantasy, something even Biden seems to realize in the aftermath of his “Putin is a killer” comments to the US media.
This nearly glib, dismissive style of politicking prior to the summit seemed to be reflected in Biden’s overall behavioral performance. His outburst at a reporter confirms this weak, if not petulant display, as reported in a CNN article.
Angered by questions posed by CNN’s chief White House correspondent, Kaitlan Collins, who pressed the President If he was confident Putin would change his behavior following their meeting, Biden lashed out, saying, “’To be a good reporter, you got to be negative, that you got to have a negative view of life, it seems to me.’”
In an awkward attempt to clarify his perspective, Biden stepped in it again, stating, “What I said was — let’s get it straight — I said, ‘What will change their behavior is if the rest of the world reacts to them and it diminishes their standing in the world,’ adding, “I’m not confident of anything. I’m just stating a fact.” Well, if they’re giving out confidence awards somewhere, possibly at a Toastmaster venue, Biden isn’t getting a ribbon, much less a trophy.
Ironically, part of the frustration Biden is dealing with may be his and his allies own doing. For four straight years, Biden and the majority of his fellow Democrats incessantly beat the drum that Trump was essentially a foreign spy, a Putin puppet who danced to the beat of his Russian overlord.
Of course, this was red meat to his political base and gained traction throughout the mainstream media, bolstering Biden’s ascension to the White House. However, in doing so, Putin became oddly elevated to something akin to a sinister menace that threatened to tear apart the democratic ideals and systems that have kept our nation humming for more than two centuries.
An article from The Hill sheds some light on this dynamic. “For four years we had this extraordinary situation where Russia was a domestic political issue,” said Angela Stent, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies. “I think [Biden] would like to remove that and have Russia being what it normally is, which is a foreign policy problem.”
The problem is, however, that the only thing more difficult than creating a monster is destroying one. In fact, the President’s behavior is probably playing right into the hands of Putin. Political analyst Lilia Shevtsova echoes a similar theme in a BBC article: “Putin definitely wants to be equal to the US president. He wants to be respected on his terms. Putin wants to demonstrate macho muscle and to be a member of the club.”
Confidence and Transparency
Biden’s words also communicate a sense that transparency, something he demands of Putin, is not a priority, at least in his dealings with the press. President Biden had this to say at the press conference when questioned about what his specific policy stances would be with regard to Putin: ”But it makes no sense for me to negotiate with you. It makes no sense for me to tell you what I’m about to do, not because I want to hide anything from you. Why would I telegraph that?”
Compare that statement with how Biden wrapped up the press conference, saying, ”as long as I’m president, we are going to stick to the notion that we’re open, accountable and transparent.” This has to be the most opaque example of transparency since President Nixon quipped, “I am not a crook.”
Confidence and Vision
It’s not a giant psychological leap to intuit that not only does Biden seem to have a general disdain for and distrust of the media, he lacks personal confidence in his ability to communicate his vision for peace and stability. Want proof? The President in his own words:
I’m of the view that in the last three to five years, the world has reached a fundamental inflection point about what it’s going to look like in 10 year’s time. I mean it literally. It’s not hyperbole. It’s not like I’m trying to pump it up. I think it’s a genuine reality. So each of the countries around the world, particularly those who’ve had real power at one time or still do, are wondering how do I maintain and sustain our leadership in the world? That’s what the United States is going through right now.
Do you get the sense that Biden knows the score, that he has the lay of the land? Biden comes across not as a sheep that has lost his way, but is running headlong into the mouth of the Russian wolf.
Need more evidence? Consider the following statement from President Biden, which at best could be described as loosely coherent: “Russia’s in a very, very difficult spot. They are getting squeezed by China. They want desperately to remain a major power. You all are writing about, not illegitimately, Biden already gave Putin what he wants, legitimacy. He’s standing on the world stage with the United States.”
Such verbiage makes it difficult to understand where Biden stands in relation to hegemonic aspirations of Russia.
Putin: Confidence Personified
Let’s contrast this weak and inaccessible tone to the words of Putin. When asked to elaborate on the threat that cybersecurity breaches pose (an by implication, Russia’s role as a perpetrator), Putin had the following to say:
I don’t want to make a mistake here as to the name of this organization, but the US sources claim that the majority of cyber attacks are made from the US territory. The second one is Canada, then two Latin American states, and then the UK. As for Russia, it is not listed in this ranking of countries that see the most significant number of cyber attacks from their territory.
That’s one thing. We face the similar threats when it comes to one of the key Russian regions and it’s healthcare system, and we see where these cyber attacks are launched from, we see that these attacks are coordinated from the United States territory. I don’t think that the United States authorities are interested in such manipulations. We need to get rid of all kinds of insinuations and innuendo, and we should launch the expert work for the benefits of the United States and the Russian Federation. We have reached an agreement in principle and Russia is ready to do that.
And when questioned about Russia as an unstable actor by reporter Stephen Rosenberg, Putin made no bones about his stance:
It was difficult to follow the logic, I’m really envious. It’s like a contradiction of terms, you said the west believes, and the second part, are you ready to forego this? Well if the west believes this then it doesn’t mean that this is the objective truth. Let me address your question in parts to dissect it.
You said that the west believes that Russian policy is unpredictable, well let me reciprocate the US withdrawal from the ADM Treaty in 2002 was unpredictable. Why would they do that and undermine the basis of the strategic stability? The [inaudible 00:47:44] treaty withdrawal in 2019, is that what you call stability? The Open Skies Agreement withdrawal, is that what you call stability? There is almost no legs to stand upon…”
Whether it was the accusations of human rights violations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay, or highlighting the civil unrest over race, by calling out the inconsistencies of U.S. foreign policy, Putin made the United States look hypocritical at best, and unstable at worst.
And the reality was that for every issue, Putin had clear, defensible arguments which he communicated with a powerful command of the facts and a keen sense of history, all the while poking holes in the inconsistently woven fabric of American foreign and domestic policy.
I want to be very clear about my point of view as I wrap up this article. I do not support Putin nor favor him as a leader over President Biden. I assume that Biden has the best interest of Americans in his heart, and that Putin is indeed a “killer” as Biden so accurately accused him of recently. And I want President Biden to succeed, to elevate America’s interest on the global stage, to see our preeminence reestablished in the international community.
I do wish that Biden would articulate a clearer, more coherent vision for America, including our relationship with Russia, that seemingly unending “ riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” At the end of the day, we need America to succeed, to be the “shining city upon the hill” whose light offers hope for all who hunger for freedom.
But we also have to be realistic, as problems with Russia are reflective of bigger issues that are being edified in the consciousness of the United States, which are the result of a series of political and philosophical blunders that preceded President Biden, and will likely succeed his tenure in office if we don’t make systemic changes to our foreign policy. After all, to be confident, you need to have confidence in your policy. Put simply, confidence begets confidence. I think the words of officer Ritter capture this ethos perfectly, so I will leave you with them:
This storm is still raging, and despite all the rhetoric and flexing being done by the administration of President Joe Biden, will continue to do so, unabated, for the foreseeable future. One of the root causes of this storm is the disconnect between policy and action on the part of the US over the course of the past 30-odd years. In 1991, the US had the world’s most powerful economy backed by the world’s most powerful military, sustained by the world’s most vibrant democracy.
The deterioration of these three pillars of US credibility and strength was gradual yet steady, unnoticed by most outside (and internal) observers who opted to dig no deeper than the gilded façade offered up by the American establishment, rather than examine the deteriorating framework that held the American behemoth together.
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