Subtle art of diplomacy: Biden and Putin engage in verbal spat

New Delhi, Delhi, IndiaEdited By: Gravitas deskUpdated: Mar 19, 2021, 11:16 AM IST
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A file photo of US President Joe Biden meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photograph:(Reuters)

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Both sides are on the offensive but they are also leaving the door open for strategic cooperation

Diplomacy is a subtle art. American journalist Isaac Goldberg called it the nicest way of doing the nastiest things. By and large, world leaders have followed this. Even while condemning their counterparts, there is a semblance of respect, but sometimes they drop the pretence, and when they do, there can be consequences.

The already strained ties between the US and Russia are on the verge of collapse because Joe Biden let loose in a recent interview and said "I do" when asked if he thinks Putin is a "killer". He also called Putin a "man with no soul".

Biden was addressing the US report that accused Russia of meddling in the 2020 elections while cheering for Donald Trump.

Putin, a former KGB officer, a survivor of the cold war and Russia's ruler for the past two decades, too, returned the compliment. "Takes one to know one," is what Putin told Biden.

Both sides are on the offensive but they are also leaving the door open for strategic cooperation. Putin says Russia will work on its own terms and Biden is talking about making Russia pay.

However, truth be told, the US president may have crossed a line and Russia is not going to let this go. The Kremlin wants an apology from the president of the United States. In addition to this, Russia has recalled its envoy to Washington. It says it wants to halt the irreversible deterioration of ties.

While both the presidents are well within their rights to criticise each other and sanction each other, language plays an important role in diplomacy.

In 2006's UNGA, the speaker, Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez, called the then-US President George Bush a "devil". 

Understandably, America was outraged. Democrat Nancy Pelosi defended her Republican president, who had rock bottom approval ratings at that point.

While Biden has Russia to deal with now, he also got belligerent China and North Korea to tackle.

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Meanwhile, America is shoring up its alliances in Asia. Top diplomat Antony Blinken and Pentagon Chief Lloyd Austin are wrapping up the second leg of their tour in South Korea. They held 2+2 dialogues with their South Korean counterparts and also met president Moon Jae-in.

The top priority was denuclearising the Korean peninsula. Secretary Blinken said the US was considering its options but the problem is that North Korea doesn't seem interested. The US has been reaching out since mid-February but Pyongyang calls it a cheap trick.

US-Japan-South Korea alliance is the bulwark against the north but as they exert more pressure, North Korea is moving closer to its only ally — China.

On his return journey from Seoul, Antony Blinken will make a stop in Alaska where he will meet top Chinese officials including foreign minister Wang Yi. This will be the first meeting between the two sides under the Biden administration.

Chinese officials have already clarified two issues: no compromise on Xinjiang or Hong Kong, but the US will most likely raise them anyway. Beijing wants a rollback of Trump-era policies which Biden will not be willing to agree to because Biden and Trump disagreed on most issues but China wasn't one of them.

Blinken will arrive in Alaska with a lot of momentum. He's just been to Japan and South Korea — key Pacific allies of the US. It's almost certain that the White House choreographed the visit this way.

Many are raising the question if a meeting of the two presidents is on the cards, but both sides are tight-lipped. However, US media reports indicate China is interested. If the meeting goes well, China could seek a summit.

The date April 22, which is celebrated as Earth Day, keeps popping up. Climate change will be the focus. However, the rest remains to be seen.