GENEVA – A year ago, Geneva was largely down on its diplomatic luck: The Trump administration had an “America First” policy that shunned the internationalism the Swiss city epitomizes, and blasted some of its top institutions like the World Health Organization, the Human Rights Council and the World Trade Organization.
That's all in the past.
The lakeside city, known as a Cold War crossroads and a hub for Swiss discretion, neutrality and humanitarianism, returns to a spotlight on the world stage Wednesday as U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin come to town for a summit.
It will mark the third time that Geneva has hosted U.S. and Russian leaders' talks: The first was a multilateral meeting involving U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1955. The second came 30 years later, when President Ronald Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev — an important icebreaker that some say paved the way toward the end of the Soviet Union.
Both times, the two sides made progress toward defusing tensions. This time, hopes loom for even a modest improvement on the current U.S.-Russia chill over issues like Ukraine, human rights and cyber attacks.
Soviet and Russian studies expert Robert Legvold, a professor emeritus at Columbia University, said Geneva hosted crucial U.S.-Soviet talks on strategic nuclear arms control and has had a relatively good track record as a venue where the two countries can cooperate.
If there’s any city “where business has been done ... it has been Geneva,” Legvold said of the two rival countries.
Legvold noted how Eisenhower used the 1955 meeting to launch what became known as the “Open Skies” agreement, which called for U.S. and Soviet militaries to exchange maps to boost transparency and defuse tensions.
That eventually led to a treaty in 1992, which let each country carry out surveillance flights over the other’s territory. Under Trump, the U.S. pulled out of the Open Skies Treaty, and the Biden administration announced last month that the U.S. would not rejoin it — alleging repeated Russian violations.
Putin has lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” and has sought to rebuild Russia's Soviet-era global clout and prestige. He often has been critical of Gorbachev’s legacy, saying that the U.S. and its Western allies cheated the Soviet Union by pledging not to expand NATO eastward following the reunification of Germany — and then breaking their promise.
Today’s Geneva is not the den of Cold War espionage and intrigue that it once was. But while Switzerland has in many ways cleaned up its reputation as a hub for the rich and powerful to squirrel away funds and avoid taxes, experts say many autocrats are still drawn to the discretion and stability of Swiss banking.
Nevertheless, the city has painstakingly built a reputation for diplomacy, humanitarianism and multilateralism. The International Red Cross was founded here in 1863 to help victims of conflict. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson helped set up the League of Nations — the U.N. predecessor that the U.S. Congress shunned — to foster dialogue. The Geneva Conventions set rules about humanitarian conduct in war.
More recently, Geneva has been home to the United Nations’ European headquarters, its human rights office and scores of U.N.-affiliated bodies, multilateral institutions and humanitarian and advocacy groups — often with U.S. support.
Still, in this city of about 200,000 people, Trump casts a long shadow. He pulled the U.S. out of the U.N.-backed Human Rights Council. He criticized the WTO and largely stripped it of its ability to settle trade disputes. Just over a year ago, Trump paused U.S. funding for the WHO and threatened to pull the U.S. out over the health agency's alleged missteps and kowtowing to China early in the COVID-19 crisis.
Biden kept the U.S. in the U.N. health agency and restored U.S. funding.
“Certainly, the former situation (under Trump) was threatening ... Geneva as a place for multilateral negotiation” as well as its many technical organizations, said Nicolas Levrat, director of the Global Studies Institute at the University of Geneva.
He differentiated between Geneva’s lure as a site for face-to-face power diplomacy and its penchant for multilateralism, which the U.S. hasn’t always supported — even before Trump.
”(The) Biden administration is not as unilateral as the Trump administration. And it is a very good thing, I think, for global governance (and) for the place of Geneva,” Levrat said. But, he said, the U.S. has “never been a genuine supporter of multilateralism.”
Thomas Greminger, a former secretary-general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which counts both Russia and the U.S. as participating states, said the choice of Geneva for the summit was “highly symbolic” and hoped it will signal “an important U.S. role” in multilateralism.
For Putin and Biden, amid tensions between their two countries, Greminger suggested the summit offers a neutral venue that could help reduce polarization.
“Safe spaces are again becoming very important -- that is, places where people that are not like-minded can meet, discuss and try to establish bridges,” said Greminger, now director of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. Geneva “has a track record for this.”
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.