What Brought Biden to the Table?

No one knows whether the recent talks between the US and Russia will produce results. But they happened. And they have led to the promise of further talks. What, after a quarter century of Russian cries, brought Biden to the table?

The US long ago left its place at the table. Diplomacy has yielded its seat to military pressure and economic sanctions. America now always insists on the need to use force: Putin only understands force; Iran only responds to sanctions. Antony Blinken himself, America’s top diplomat, has said that “force can be a necessary adjunct to effective diplomacy.” "We must supplement diplomacy with deterrence," he added. "Words alone will not dissuade the Vladimir Putins and Xi Jinpings of this world.” 

He’s wrong, though. Diplomacy has consistently worked with China; it accomplished the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran when sanctions, sabotage and threats failed; it has worked in the many arms controls agreements with Russia, and it has worked, when honored, with North Korea.

The US thinks the world only respects force and not reason because the US only respects force and not reason. They assume of others what they discover in themselves. The US long ago exchanged diplomats for torturers and arm twisters, whether it is the torture of military threats or the arm twisting of economic strangulation.

If diplomacy has failed the US, it has failed for only two reasons. Either they have broken promises that were showing promise, as they did with Iran, or they have not engaged in diplomacy sincerely, demanding that the other country make the core concession the US demands without being willing to make the core concession the other country desires.

So what brought the US to the table this time when Russia demanded they come? Two things: leverage and the reality of the new multipolar world.

Because the US only thinks in terms of force and only engages in diplomacy with the "adjunct of force" and the "supplement of deterrence," America’s interlocutors have learned from bitter history that you cannot enter into negotiations with the US from a position of weakness with no leverage. The US will talk at the table, but you have to have something to make them listen too. If you want the US to give something up, you have to create something that the US will want you to give up.

The Iranians starting spinning centrifuges; Russia moved troops near the Ukrainian border. Suddenly, America was capable of understanding: if you want Russia to stop positioning troops near the border, you have to stop doing something or risk war.

Iran and Russia had both learned that bargaining with the US from a position of weakness with no leverage leads to humiliation. When Iran started enriching uranium, the US listened, and diplomacy resulted in an agreement. The strategy had worked for Russia before too. Less than a year ago, in the spring of 2021, Russia moved around 100,000 troops toward the Ukrainian border. That elicited a call from Biden to Putin. Suddenly, the US was listening as well as talking. A summit was arranged for two months later, and Russia ended its military exercises near the Russia-Ukraine border. Putin’s massing of troops near the border with Ukraine today is more likely about stopping the US and NATO from invading Ukraine than it is about Russia invading Ukraine.

But it is likely that it was not just leverage that brought Biden to the table. Alone, Russia may not possess enough leverage. But Russia is no longer alone. US confrontation, sanctions, expansion, interference and pursuit of a US led unipolar world has accelerated the forging of the Russia-China strategic partnership. That partnership is not by design nor intention hostile to the US. But it is very much by design meant to counterbalance America’s unipolar world.

Putin did not stand up alone and demand security guarantees from the US. His voice was amplified by the reality of the Russia-China pole in the increasing reality of a multipolar world. On December 15, Putin sent the US a proposal on mutual security guarantees and a request for immediate negotiations. On that same day, Putin attended a summit with Chinese President XI Jinping and informed him of the security guarantee proposal. It was in response to that information that, during the summit, XI said “We firmly support each other on issues concerning each other’s core interests” and proposed that Russia and China cooperate to “more effectively safeguard the security interests of both parties.”

Biden was not only listening this time, he was listening to Russia and China. American reliance on force and sanctions instead of diplomacy has brought about the beginning of a multipolar world that is weighty enough to produce a counterweight that Biden may have to have listened to. Biden may have come to the table, in part, because the growing Russia-China pole in the world was strong enough to draw him there.

Ironically, US reliance on sanctions and force to supplant diplomacy with Russia and China may have created the very international environment to force the US to engage in diplomacy with Russia.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.