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The Biden-Putin meet in Geneva is a spill-words summit

The fact of the meeting apart, there are all indications that this will be a spill-words meet where what is not said or seen will most likely be more important than what is.

By Chitra Subramaniam
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The Biden-Putin meet in Geneva is a spill-words summit

Expectations are low and much of the story will be behind as United States (US) President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Geneva for their first summit on Wednesday. The fact of the meeting apart, there are all indications that this will be a spill-words meet where what is not said or seen will most likely be more important than what is. President Biden arrives in the city on the last leg of a punishing schedule (G7 meeting, EU Summit, NATO) while for President Putin it is a flight from Russia to Switzerland.

The leader of the world’s most powerful democracy has an impossible remit. Not only does the world expect him to repair the damage inflicted on all major institutions and some countries by his predecessor Donald Trump, he also has to deal with a not so tongue in cheek comment by Putin who said he likes Trump with whom he shared a good rapport. Biden has an international and domestic audience dissecting his every gesture and word while the tsar has no such issues. A seasoned hand had this to say: “President Biden is a male among alpha males with extraordinary listening skills and empathizes with people – he brings a healing touch”. Unquestionably the world can do with some serious healing but that calls for joint responsibility or what diplomats say shared values. Do countries share basic human values today?

“It is unlikely that any major breakthrough will take place or will be announced. My anticipation, ranked according to the importance of the issues is Covid-19 and post crisis situation; talks on Iran’s deal JCPOA in Vienna, Austria and a New Start lll where the American interest goes even further in bringing China to the negotiating table with Russia’s help,” says Velina Tchakarova, Director, of the Vienna based Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy. Climate change and settlement of regional conflict due to increasing interference of other external factors will also be in discussion, she says, adding that the rise of China, the Arctic Ocean and military presence in Africa may not make headlines, but will certainly be spoken about.

In other words, the summit will be laced with spill-words because the last thing Biden wants is for the talks with Putin to fail and he is also expected to show that “America is Back” - three words that pundits around him have been repeating tediously for the last 72 hours. And let us not forget that China has a good view and keen interest in all that’s happening.

Even before the G7 summit ended the government in Israel fell. That was preceded by a perpetually restive Turkish President Recep Erdogan who has behaved like a power unto himself, cocking a snook at NATO periodically and expressing his desire to take over the airport in Afghanistan as US troops leave.

When US President Ronald Reagan and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev met in Geneva in 1985, it signalled the end of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall fell soon after and much has changed since, not always for the better (this writer believes NATO lost its raison d’etre then). Some may even say that things are decidedly worse and point to absence of global leadership as the main problem. Is global leadership possible today?

Rarely if ever has geopolitics been torn to shreds by a series of events over the past few years made worse by a pandemic that continues to push us all to question the very basics of human decency, democracy, individual freedoms and multilateralism. New maps and allegiances have been drawn and erased with each passing moment and what we currently have is a quarrelling European Union (EU) split over how to tame China, a Washington trying to pick up the pieces that former President Donald Trump has littered the world with and the vast majority of the world hoping that they will get vaccines before it is too late. Western democracies are yet to come to terms with China’s long hands and deep pockets wrapped increasingly aggressively in open ambition. They are unable to swallow the march of the Chinese juggernaut and unwilling to spit out Chinese money that has made major inroads in many European economies.

The best thing India can do now is to wait and watch. “Among Indian diplomats and scholars of geopolitics, there’s a sense that it's unwise for India’s interests that the US is preoccupied with Russia as that will take away precious time from China,” says Ullekh NP, Executive Editor, Open Magazine. “The US and Russia have had a tit-for-tat diplomacy lately, expelling diplomats, shutting down consulates and engaging in a war of words over Russian interference in American elections,” he added. Russia is an old and tested ally, and New Delhi is romancing the west - the last thing it wants is to get into cross hairs between the Kremlin and Washington as China snarls at us on a daily basis.

As part of the world seeks to put the second wave of Covid-19 behind them, greater attention will return to the other major problem of our times – climate change and the imperative to achieve net zero global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The G7 statement makes copious references to this and even sets timelines. “After four years of Trump-led climate denial earlier this year, President Biden brought the US back into the Paris Climate Agreement earlier this year. This, and the appointment of John Kerry as his special Presidential Envoy for Climate has buttressed the ongoing international action on climate change,” says Akshay Jaitly, Founder of Trilegal, a leading law firm.

European courts are telling governments to follow their own international and domestic climate related commitments and India needs to keep its eye on the ball. A series of global actions within multilateral and bilateral institutions will have consequences for India’s plans to develop and continue to operate and finance coal-fired power plants in the short and medium term. “The availability of private debt or equity for these projects is drying up. Indian banks seem to have a case of once bitten twice shy: they have a number of NPAs on their books relating to past financings for failed coal-fired power projects. Finally, it is hard to see Indian promoters putting up any significant equity for a coal fired power project in the future,” Jaitly adds.

At the meeting there will be at least two issues that are vital for global public health. “The US and Europe are alarmed at how Russia and China are practising vaccine diplomacy. “In my opinion it’s a bit of an over reaction since both Russia and China are charging premium prices in poor countries and some of the Chinese vaccines look as if they don’t work terribly well,” says Mark Chataway of Hyderus, an Ireland based company that works in the health and development space.

Hacking will be another key issue. The immediate point is that Russian hackers have disrupted healthcare systems across Europe and North America in search of ransoms. Most recently they brought the entire Irish health system to a virtual halt. “Why Russia permits this is a bit of a mystery: it might be that those behind it are too powerful to stop or it might be that Russia is developing skills that could be useful in the event of any future cold or hot conflict,” he added.

The last is truly worrisome – no one knows what the long-term impact of these cyber attacks will be. “We’re just at the beginning of an era in which big data and new technology will transform diagnostics. The next great steps in cancer research and autoimmune diseases are going to come from early detection rather than revolutionary treatments. If people and governments lose faith in the ability of health systems to manage data, this era of watching and then acting will be delayed,” says Chataway.

Whichever way you roll the dice, international policy makers have articulated vaccine policy as trade policy or economic policy. Undoubtedly, vaccine policy has been driven by geopolitical considerations including the very recent unease at the G7 about which countries should and should not get free vaccines (read China’s friends). “From arguably slower regulatory approvals of certain vaccine candidates by prominent regulators, to donations of doses along colonial lines, the provision of vaccines has been more tightly determined by political considerations, than epidemiological ones,” says Priti Patnaik, Founder Editor of Geneva Health Files.

“The west came in late into the vaccine diplomacy game that China, India and Russia defined early on. But having control over manufacturers will mean the west is likely to be more powerful and decisive going forwards,” she adds.

As the crow flies, just a kilometre separates the World Trade Organisation (WTO) from where the two gentlemen will be meeting. If they travel by road to the WTO, they will cross the magnificent Chinese embassy. The irony is complete.

Chitra Subramaniam | The Probe

Chitra Subramaniam is an award-winning Journalist and media entrepreneur, best known for her path-breaking investigative stories on Bofors scam. She is the founder of Geneva-based CSD consulting and writes on public health, media, development and geopolitics.