Biden-Putin may bear in mind the Kennedy-Khrushchev summit in 1961
Don’t expect President Biden to point out that his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday coincides with the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s disastrous Vienna summit with Kremlin chief Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961.
But nothing could give Biden a more useful warning than the story of this two-day meeting, the first such summit of the television-era superpowers, which I found in my book “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth.”
Kennedy’s unwarranted self-confidence and inadequate preparation that, like Biden, came to the meeting when he was only a few months in office clashed with Khrushchev’s ideological determination and brutal rhetorical offensive. Moscow’s leader pounded relentlessly on Kennedy’s determination to defend US interests in Europe, and especially in Berlin, whose freedom had become the defining theme of the Cold War.
Khrushchev believed that Kennedy was basically weak and indecisive, a view fueled by the failed Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles just two months earlier, an operation Kennedy had reluctantly and then half-heartedly backed.
Khrushchev also left Vienna confident that he could permanently close the open border between East and West Berlin, through which his East German allies let refugees bleed to the jobs and prosperity of the West. Two months later, East German forces began building the Berlin Wall with Soviet support, and it would stand for the next 28 years as a symbol of what unfree systems can impose when free leaders do not resist.
This in turn was followed a little more than a year later in October 1962 by the Cuban Missile Crisis, perhaps the United States’ scarcest escape route from a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Kennedy had hoped that by agreeing to the construction of the Berlin Wall he could ease tensions with Moscow and advance nuclear talks, but instead Khrushchev’s perception of Kennedy’s weakness convinced him that he could move nuclear weapons within 90 miles of the U.S. border without consequences .
After the Vienna meeting, Kennedy called the legendary New York Times journalist James “Scotty” Reston into a private room in the US ambassador’s residence to tell him “the gloomy picture” and the “seriousness of the situation”.
“The worst of my life,” Kennedy told Reston. “He devastated me.”
Kennedy considered the dangers that this posed. “If he thinks I’m inexperienced and lacking the guts, we won’t get anywhere with him until we remove these ideas.”
In Reston’s New York Times report protecting the confidentiality of his source, he wrote that the president “was amazed at the rigidity and harshness of the Soviet leader”. He wrote that Kennedy was leaving Vienna pessimistic on all issues and that he had “definitely got the impression that the German question would come very close”.
He was right about that.
Fast forward to today, and it would be naive to conclude that Biden’s much shorter meeting with Putin on Wednesday, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact military alliance, is without similar dangers.
No doubt Biden’s years of experience in dealing with Moscow will help, along with his sober recognition that Putin is a “murderer”. Kennedy came to Vienna at 44, the youngest president ever elected in the United States, and Biden, the oldest, to Geneva at 78.
The dangers, however, lie in the understandable focus of the Biden government on China as the competition of our time and in the insufficient awareness of the increased challenges that Russia poses.
As Michael McFaul, US ambassador to Moscow during the Obama administration, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, Russia is not “the weak and shabby state it was in the 1990s. It has re-emerged … with a lot more military, cyber – “economic and ideological power”. than most Americans estimate. “
McFaul wrote: “Putin has invested heavily in nuclear modernization, but the United States has not. He has also devoted enormous resources to upgrading Russian conventional forces.”
These troops served to rescue the murderous Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, they are ready to cause further damage near the Ukrainian border, and they “pose a significant threat to Europe and even outperform NATO in some measures, including Number of tanks “. , Cruise missiles and troops on the NATO-Russia border. ”At the same time, Russian-backed cyber and influence operations on the United States and other Western democracies escalated.
White House officials have gone to great lengths to limit the time Biden and Putin will meet and he will not include Putin in a joint press conference afterwards. You have lowered the expectations of “deliverables” and emphasized that it is a “meeting” of executives and not a “summit”. (One US official has called it “more of a cave,” considering how far the relationships have plummeted.)
Knowing that strength is in numbers, President Biden was also wise to precede the Putin meeting by rallying democratic allies, first in his meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and their signing of a new Atlantic Charter, then with the G-7 partners this weekend, and finally with other NATO members and then with leaders of the European Union.
In Geneva, Biden has the chance to initiate a strategic stability dialogue which he hopes will bring more predictability in relations with Moscow. The officials also hope for the return of ambassadors from each country to their posts, a relaxation of the diplomatic and consular activities of the other, and the release of one or more Americans held in Russian prisons.
The most significant test, however, will likely not be published until years later by historians studying declassified documents. What will Biden say or not say, do or not do to either contain Putin’s disruptive ambitions or to further promote them?
As Garry Kasparov, Russian chess grandmaster and political activist, wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “History has shown time and again that appeasing a dictator only convinces him that you are too weak to resist, which provokes further aggression . “
Perhaps this fact, although so much else has changed, is the strongest connection between Vienna sixty years ago and Geneva this week.
Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, award-winning journalist, and President and CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked for the Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant editor-in-chief and senior editor for the European edition of the newspaper. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times bestseller and was published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his view every Saturday of the top stories and trends of the past week.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misrepresented President Kennedy’s age when he met Khrushchev in Vienna. He was 44.