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Analysis: Biden finally finished a week of summits and diplomatic pageantry, but did any of it matter?

A week of summits, diplomatic pageantry and media blitzes ended when Joe Biden climbed the stairs onto Air Force One at Geneva airport. “I did what I came to do,” the US President said, after warning Vladimir Putin to halt cyberattacks on American infrastructure and making clear that he didn’t want a new Cold War but would firmly defend US interests and values.
His comment sums up the rest of a trip on which he mended relations with US allies traumatized by Donald Trump, launched his global crusade to save democracy and offered belated US leadership on the Covid-19 pandemic. He acknowledged it would take months to learn whether his talks result in US prisoners in Russia being freed, whether a cybersecurity showdown cools and strategic clashes with Moscow in Ukraine and elsewhere ease.
By then, his first foreign trip will be a distant memory — reflecting that while presidential travel may be effective in forging incremental progress, it’s often overhyped. (Does anybody remember Barack Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo?)
Biden finds his comfort zone on the world stage in first international trip as presidentBiden finds his comfort zone on the world stage in first international trip as president
But Biden’s reassertion of US leadership was welcome in Europe. A united West may be more effective at countering Putin, the pandemic and even China. It’s better for everyone when the US President doesn’t set out to destroy long-standing alliances.
But Biden’s encounter with the Russian President was also a reminder of how America’s own political turmoil has rendered it an unreliable global power. Putin, on his fifth US President, has run the Kremlin for more than 20 years. In that time, the US has gone into the Middle East and tried to get out again. It joined the Paris climate accord, left it and went back in. It forged an Iran nuclear pact, tried to destroy it and now wants to revive it. It pivoted to Asia and back again. This head-snapping record explains some of the skepticism with Biden’s “America’s back” roadshow.
Republican Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana — a devotee of Trump, a President who slavishly toadied to Putin — has complained it is time for Biden to “stand up” to the Kremlin strongman. His reminder that irony is dead exemplifies the political fracture Biden must now confront at home.
Until America decides what kind of country it wants to be, it cannot be a true force for international stability. And that’s not happening anytime soon.
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