Shadow Government

Biden commits a truth about Russia

By Peter Feaver Vice President Biden recently gave a fascinating interview on Russia to the Wall Street Journal. The central thrust was that Russia’s hand in the diplomatic game was weaker (because of economic and demographic challenges) than many commentators believe and, because of this, the United States was well-positioned to elicit more cooperative behavior ...

By Peter Feaver

Vice President Biden recently gave a fascinating interview on Russia to the Wall Street Journal. The central thrust was that Russia’s hand in the diplomatic game was weaker (because of economic and demographic challenges) than many commentators believe and, because of this, the United States was well-positioned to elicit more cooperative behavior from Russia over the next couple years. The interview is full of the quotable sound-bites for which Biden is justly celebrated in pundit circles:

Russia has to make some very difficult, calculated decisions…. They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they’re in a situation where the world is changing before them and they’re clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable.

And: "I think we vastly underestimate the hand that we hold." 

And: "It’s a very difficult thing to deal with, loss of empire."

But the quote and the insight that really stands out concerns Russian pride and the dangers of drawing public attention to their predicament:

It won’t work if we go in and say: ‘Hey, you need us, man; belly up to the bar and pay your dues…It is never smart to embarrass an individual or a country when they’re dealing with significant loss of face. My dad used to put it another way: Never put another man in a corner where the only way out is over you.

In other words, Biden said that the United States was going to be able to bend Russia to our diplomatic position but we should not say so publicly.  This raises the obvious question of whether Biden, in this very interview, had done just that. That question occurred to the Wall Street Journal, and they apparently posed it to a Russian spokeswoman who declined, diplomatically, to comment even while largely affirming Biden’s analysis.

I am inclined to give the Vice President a pass on this “gaffe” for two reasons.  First, I think he is more right than not in terms of his geopolitical analysis; Putin has overplayed the Russian hand and deft American statecraft should be able to do better. Second, for years I have been giving a version of this provocatively contradictory message in talks about relations between the United States and our transatlantic allies (or, as I puckishly label them, our transatlantic "in-laws").

I point out that one important and under-appreciated source of transatlantic friction during the first Bush term was President Bush’s willingness to do roughly what Biden described — telling them to “belly up to the bar and pay their dues” — when it came to dealing with the security problems bequeathed from the previous administration (rogue state proliferation, state-sponsorship of terrorism, the Afghanistan sanctuary for Al Qaeda, the second intifadah, etc.). This, I argue, was tantamount to asking an adolescent heading out on a date to pay his own way, and doing so publicly in front of his girlfriend even when it was clear that he couldn’t afford to pay. The result was predictable: adolescent tantrums.  

The key to dealing with adolescents is to treat them in public as if they were responsible adults, but privately to hedge against expected irresponsibility. Of course, the way to deal with adolescents is not to call them adolescents. So that part of my talk is self-consciously contradictory and provocative. As a nobody professor, I can get away with the contradictions in order to generate the intellectual discussion (and generate it always does!). While I was a nobody White House advisor, I could not and, I am pretty sure, I never gave that part of the analysis during those years. 

Biden has, by several orders of magnitude, a bigger megaphone, and so I would not be surprised if this interview generates lots of secondary commentary with snarky asides about “smart power.” More’s the pity, because for me, speaking only as a nobody professor looking for snippets for lectures on foreign policy, Biden’s interviews tend to be among the most interesting ones out there.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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