Lavrov putin biden
© Peter Klaunzer - Pool/Keystone via Getty Images
Members of the media film as U.S. President Joe Biden, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet during the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange on June 16, 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland.
On the surface, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his American counterpart, Joe Biden, didn't agree on very much when they met on Wednesday for talks, but getting along isn't actually as important as trying to work together.

If they had a healthy partnership, Moscow and Washington would be able to work together as the world's two most foremost nuclear powers to put in place a framework with clear rules and mechanisms for shoring up international security. However, in a dysfunctional state of affairs, irreconcilable differences make that work nearly impossible.

That said, even with troubled ties, cooperation can continue in selected areas of mutual interest. The real danger lies in a collapse of relations, where even mutually beneficial moves get cut off in the hope that it causes more harm for the other side.

Over the past few years, that is exactly where things have been headed, with the Americans suspending initiatives that had once been backed by both sides. This has been the explicit policy of the US since 2014, with Washington's insistence that it negotiate from a position of strength rather than coming to the table as equals.

More specifically, the American side has looked to assert its dominance, viewing any agreements with Russia as a battle for concessions, rather than learning to live by the same rules. This has manifested itself in US leaders losing their diplomatic vocabulary, save for the language of ultimatums and threats.

Biden argued that the purpose of the meeting with Putin in Geneva on Wednesday was to establish "basic rules of the road" - a Modus Operandi. In the three hours of talks, both leaders agreed to cooperate in areas of mutual interests, which should be maintained even against a backdrop of fundamental differences.

After the summit, Biden confirmed that threats and ultimatums hadn't been a feature of the conversation, and Putin said that there hadn't been "any kind of hostility." This can only be seen as progress, with relations potentially set to shift from being in a state of free fall, to simply being tense, but at least in a stable and predictable way.

Benefits to both sides

The meeting resulted in renewed commitments to avoid the prospect of nuclear war and to work towards preserving and strengthening mechanisms for arms control. It was recognised that both the US and Russia share an interest in preventing terrorism from spiralling out of control in places such as Afghanistan; mechanisms for addressing cybersecurity should be established and ambassadors will return to their posts to keep the diplomacy alive. In short - cooperation should be revived in areas of mutual interests.

Comment: Sadly those running the US cannot be trusted - at all - to uphold their side of the deal in any of these areas.

The absence of focus on China, talk of red lines, NATO activity, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Iran and other areas of contention suggests that both sides worked hard to ensure the mountain of disagreements did not overshadow the minor areas where they could find common ground.

This is quite possibly as good as it can get. The former US ambassador to NATO, Kurt Volker, claimed ahead of the summit that "success is confrontation," implying that any improvement in relations or even the tone of the exchange would be a victory to Moscow. This zero-sum mentality holds that whatever is good for Russia is bad for the US - a recipe for collapsing relations.

Areas of impasse

There are, however, some areas where irreconcilable differences cannot be ignored, and are simultaneously beyond negotiation. Biden focused heavily on the US's self-described commitment to stand up for democracy and "human rights," which he argued is not negotiable as "this is who we are."

The problem is that the US treats the issues as hegemonic norms and instruments of its foreign policy. These non-negotiable values that "will always be on the table" are, despite the commitments, only ever applied selectively. The only thing that is consistent about the policy is that it is inconsistently applied when it serves American national interests.

The language of human rights is somehow absent when it comes to states aligned with the US, while adversaries are denied the same sovereignty. For example, human rights issues are ignored in the Gulf monarchies, Israel, Colombia, Ukraine and other states with which Washington maintains friendly ties, while the US always decides to "stand up" for real - as well as exaggerated or imagined - breaches by adversarial states such as Russia, China, Belarus and Iran.

Hegemonies rely on ideologies that promote sovereign inequality, which is why America so often uses democracy and human rights to exempt itself from international law and replace it with the Kafkaesque and Orwellian "rules-based international system."

Under this model, the US has the prerogative to interfere in the domestic affairs of other states under the auspices of promoting liberal democratic values, toppling democratically elected governments in the name of "democratic revolutions," and invading countries in defiance of the UN under the "human interventionism" doctrine.

Needless to say, Russia as an object in the rules-based international system has no such rights. Kosovo can secede from Serbia, but Crimea cannot turn its back on Kiev. Jailed activist Alexey Navalny is supposedly a political prisoner and the "leader" of the Russian opposition, while Viktor Medvedchuk, the actual leader of the Ukrainian opposition, belongs in prison.

Moscow's demands to be treated as an equal, and insistence that agreements are based on mutual constraints in the area of democracy and human rights, will always be unacceptable to Washington. Putin, for his part, brought up the issue of American human rights abuses with the apparent attempt to prevent values from being used as an instrument of power politics.

Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia, dismissed Putin's criticism of US human rights abuses as "whataboutism" - a propagandist term to reject all comparisons and hypocrisy. Simply put, the US is the teacher, while Russia is the student, and any comparisons or equal application of rules must be rejected as it suggests common standards should actually apply to both.

Towards stability and predictability?

When there is an absence of common rules and mechanisms to implement these rules, states are left with only tit-for-tat punitive actions to resolve disputes. The main achievement of the summit has been the effort to segment mutual interests and irreconcilable differences, to slow down or stop relations from collapsing further. Simply put, even if they disagree, Moscow and Washington can still work together.

However, without an agreed format to address democracy and human rights issues, renewed tit-for-tat actions like sanctions could eventually escalate into suspending cooperation in mutually beneficial areas. From Moscow's perspective, democracy and human rights should not be used as hegemonic norms - insisting these issues are only discussed in keeping with the principle of sovereign equality, or taken off the table by leaving them out of international security discourse.

The summit achieved little in the short term, but sometimes less is more. Any agreement by Biden to respect Russian sovereignty in discussions of democracy and human rights, or ignore them altogether, would have received a fierce backlash in Washington. Such a move would have been seen as a betrayal and surrender, and so Biden would be compelled to initiate more hostilities towards Russia to restore the anti-Russian credentials required in American politics.

With these realities in their countries' domestic politics, relations will remain poor. However, the meeting between Putin and Biden could be at least the first step towards poor relations being more stable and predictable.
Glenn Diesen, Professor at the University of South-Eastern Norway and an editor at the Russia in Global Affairs journal. Follow him on Twitter @glenndiesen