Message to Biden and Putin: Don’t waste historic opportunity
Photos: AP / Illustration: PW

A simplistic and dangerous narrative has emerged in the press in our country around the coming Geneva meeting of U.S President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The narrative is that Biden must use the meeting to “lay down the law” to the dangerous autocrat Putin who was allegedly able to control former President Donald Trump to enact his will in the United States.

The narrative seizes on the very real moves by Russia to interfere in our elections while at the same time ignoring the fact that U.S. troops are present now inside former Soviet republics—right on the Russian border. Both of these realities are indeed serious ones, but as dangerous as they are to world peace, they are not as serious as would be a failure by the United States and Russia to cooperate on solving critical world problems.

To begin with, it is important to note that Trump’s policy toward Putin did no real favors to Putin, Russia, the United States, or the people of either country and the world. Before Trump, there were entire teams of U.S. and Russian diplomats and functionaries in touch with one another daily about the status of all of their mutually harbored nuclear weapons. These practical contacts which were so critical to preserving real peace go back to the days when Russia was part of the Soviet Union.

Trump actually destroyed the very negotiating mechanisms that for many decades prevented problems between the U.S. and Russia, and prior to Russia, the Soviet Union, from spiraling out of control. The threat of military confrontation between the world’s two biggest nuclear powers actually grew during the Trump years, and the narrative in the media now about how Biden must lecture to Putin does not help reduce that danger.

Productive U.S.-Russian cooperation has a long history, including in the joint effort to defeat fascism. Here, a Soviet soldier, right, hugs a soldier from the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, May 1945, in Grabow, Germany. | U.S. Army via AP

The only route to reducing the danger of nuclear war is through dialogue between the U.S. and Russia. This does not mean Putin bowing to Biden’s demands. The dialogue has to be around areas of mutual concern, and there are more than enough ways both countries can benefit from cutting nuclear weaponry. It may not happen overnight, but it must happen and realistically can happen with respectful mutual dialogue on the issue.

It would be a boost and a victory for both sides if the two presidents agree immediately to extending the New START Treaty with absolutely no additional conditions. Such a move would meet both U.S. and Russian security interests. And it could serve as the basis of additional future agreements that serve the security interests of both countries. If the two really are serious, they could come out of the meeting with the creation of a new permanent negotiating mechanism on arms control.

We must remember that this would not be something entirely new. During the 1960s and ’70s, and again in the 1980s and later, the United States and the Soviet Union (and later Russia) were in touch with one another this way. Hundreds of hard-working American, Soviet, and later Russian negotiators and operatives on many levels daily enacted the kind of moves that kept the peace. It is such mechanisms that Trump, unfortunately, blew up.

With the rapid advances in military technology and the pressure from armament companies to have U.S. taxpayers pay for the purchase of their wares, such mechanisms are needed now more than ever. Only this week, on Monday, it was revealed that Boeing is pumping money into the campaigns of right-wing Republican senators who voted to overturn the 2020 elections and who are supporting the slow moving insurrection against democracy in the U.S. Successful dialogue between Russia and the U.S. then is actually going to be beneficial to those who support our democracy in the U.S. It is the warmongers and enemies of democracy in both countries that benefit from hostility between the two countries.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sign a nuclear weapons treaty in 1987. The Trump administration killed the agreement. | Bob Daugherty / AP

This critical dialogue can open the path for discussion in other areas whereby both the U.S., Russia, and war-torn regions of the world can all benefit, including places like the Middle East. Cooperation between Russia and the U.S. helped create the Iran nuclear weapons deal, which of course Trump also blew up. Cooperation between the two can help restore that agreement and perhaps lay the groundwork for some solutions in the other conflict areas, like Syria. Neither the people of the U.S. nor Russia benefit from these conflicts.

The U.S., Russia, the UN, and the EU might then be able to work together regularly to help resolve issues important to the entire planet.

Another area where U.S.-Russian cooperation is needed is the climate. Candidate Joe Biden’s statements during the election campaign clearly pointed towards the United States returning to a policy of international cooperation on global climate change. If President Joe Biden starts to make good on his promises, then opportunities for a dialogue on this issue will present themselves in the meeting with Putin.

Stellar cooperation: Members of the space shuttle Atlantis crew and Russian space station Mir crew together onboard Atlantis in July 1995. | NASA TV via AP

Another related area is the Arctic. Competition for influence in the Arctic among regional and non-regional countries is growing. And if this is not turned into adequate international pro-peace regulation, it could lead to increased tension and even direct confrontation in the region over the coming years. Later this year, Russia will take over as chair of the Arctic Council until 2023, and this could give a new impetus to dialogue and constructive cooperation in the region. Lack of engagement now can easily turn that situation into one that is anything but beneficial to the world.

Of course, in all the discussion of past episodes of cooperation, mention has not yet been made of the biggest one. U.S.-Soviet cooperation in the last century defeated fascism, working together as allies to crush Hitler and liberate Europe from Nazi domination. And there are of course many other areas where Russia and the U.S. actually have a long history of cooperation and where collaboration is needed today—ranging from space and science to education and culture. Let’s hope Biden and Putin both build on some of these areas.

The opportunities are there, but they are meaningless if they’re squandered in accordance with the will of those who think Biden’s big job in the coming meeting is simply to “lay down the law” to Putin.

Continued confrontation with Russia does not serve the interests of the U.S. or Russia. We are at a historic point in the relations between the two countries. For the sake of the people of both nations, and for the sake of the planet, let’s hope Biden and Putin are both up to the tough but critical tasks they are facing, tasks that far outweigh any urge they might have to lecture to one another.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.