Jonathan Ernst/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Jonathan Ernst/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Navigate to News section

Has Biden Made America Indispensable Again?

Unlike Obama and Trump, 46 knows how to herd cats to get what he wants

Josef Joffe
July 18, 2022
Jonathan Ernst/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Jonathan Ernst/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The United States turned 246 this year, and it was not a happy birthday. Inflation is the worst in 40 years. Violent crime in the big cities is rising after a 30-year decline. America’s educated and wealthy have separated themselves from the hoi polloi, praying to the God of Woke. The culture wars threaten the nation’s great universities. A president without a mandate or a legislative majority tried and failed to impose a socioeconomic agenda so ambitious it would have made FDR look like a capitalist stooge.

Abroad, though, let’s give Joe Biden a break. He may falter at home, where 85% see the country on the wrong track. But behold the upside: The country is back on the global stage. This startling twist comes after 12 years of retraction under Presidents Obama and Trump. Coming from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, they had bad-mouthed allies, inflicted trade wars, and pulled troops out of Europe, America’s first line of defense in two world wars and a forward-operating base for Africa and the Middle East. Their number under Biden is slated to rise to 100,000, led by a new headquarters in Poland. Above all, No. 46 deserves credit for laying down the law when Vladimir Putin unleashed his war of conquest against Ukraine, inflicting devastation not seen since the invasion of Hitler’s armies.

Like many in the West, this author included, the aggressor was in for a surprise. As Putin’s divisions pounced on Feb. 24, he may have counted on Europe’s loss of will. None of the Continental Big Three—France, Germany, Italy—would want to “die for Kyiv,” to recall an infamous French line on the eve of World War II: Mourir pour Dantzig? Today, they might mumble reluctantly: “God, bless America,” that unloved, unpredictable Gulliver who is suddenly acting as the “indispensable nation” again, recruiting a global coalition extending from Europe to the Far East and Oceania.

To appreciate America’s starring role, look at the stage. Napoleon had beseeched the Almighty: “Please let me fight against coalitions.” It took seven kaleidoscopic alliances before he was dispatched to St. Helena. Some opted out, others defected. Fred Zinnemann’s classic High Noon makes the point Hollywood-style. Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) couldn’t corral the good burghers of Hadleyville, New Mexico, when the bad guys approached. One whined: I can’t shoot. Another: I have a wife and children. A third: They are after you; leave town, and they will spare us. Kane did not have the clout to transform the herd into a posse.

So how did Marshal Biden pull it off? To arise and survive, coalitions must satisfy three conditions: First, there has to be a Great Organizer who takes the lead and assumes the heaviest part of the burden—in this case by unleashing a stream of arms and billions of dollars. Lesser nations do not have such a cornucopia brimming with financial and military treasure or the logistical ability to dispatch it quickly across oceans and continents.

Second, as High Noon shows, a common enemy is not enough to achieve “one for all and all or one.” Feted as leaders of Europe, France and Germany were squeamish. Better to play the “honest broker,” to fall back on Bismarck, and pocket the mediator’s fee. Monsieur Macron kept telephoning the Russian tyrant, and Herr Scholz, the German chancellor, went on a pilgrimage to Moscow.

For a coalition to hold, it needs a leader who identifies his own interests with those of the whole; sheer moral indignation is never enough. Having curled up under Uncle Sam’s security blanket for a lifetime, the Europeans, whose ancestors had conquered India, North America, and Africa, have lost their global vocation. The exception in our days is Britain, which had managed the state system for 400 years; global order is part of its DNA. After a longish retrenchment, the United States rediscovered its role as global housekeeper when Putin struck with unchecked ferocity. Grudgingly or not, Team Biden grasped what it means to be a truly global power.

At stake was not only Ukraine, but also a 77-year-old European order, the longest peace of all time. The oldest law of international politics finally kicked in against Russian imperialism: Aggressors must be stopped, contained, and deterred from more rape and ruin. Negotiations, as counseled by the leading nations of Europe, are useless as long as Russia is on a roll. Local players have local interests; superpowers must mind the global store. Power is destiny.

Third, once the posse forms, it won’t necessarily stay in harness, to recall Napoleon’s plea to God. Members waver, hang back, or strike separate deals. To keep them in line, they must be reassured. Here, the United States plays the pivotal role, as well. Its overkill deterrent devalues Putin’s wild-eyed nuclear saber rattling, as the puny nuclear panoplies of France and Britain cannot. Together, they field 500 warheads against America’s 5,800 and Russia’s 6,400 (total stock, not active arsenal). A herd sticks together when sheltered by its shepherd and his sharp-toothed dogs who protect the flock against the wolves.

These three factors explain the miracle of Feb. 24, when the West (minus Hungary) came together as one. Indeed, instead of eroding, the alliance is expanding. Would Finland and Sweden, eternal neutrals, throng into NATO without Mr. Big, the ultimate guarantor of their security? Poland, the main conduit of heavy weapons into Ukraine, shouldered the risk because the United States underwrites its safety. Good fences, Robert Frost might muse, make for good allies. This is not poetry, but International Politics 101.

To size up Biden, compare him to his predecessors. Barack Obama had taken his distance from America’s far-flung alliance network. “Free riders aggravate me,” he carped. Donald Trump put down NATO as “obsolete.” In spite of his über-ambitious domestic agenda, Biden went into repair mode, immediately rescinding Trump’s troop drawdown in Europe. In Asia, he paid homage to Japan and South Korea and tightened the U.S. relationship with Australia. He toughened his rhetoric against China. Unlike Trump, he embraced his allies at this year’s G-7 confab in Elmau, Germany, and the NATO summit in Madrid.

In the Middle East, another strategic theater par excellence, Biden set out to reverse the damage wrought by his old boss. When courting Iran, Obama thought he could ignore the first law of power politics: Do not get into bed with a revolutionary challenger like the grasping Islamic Republic. Tehran is set on acquiring nuclear weapons. It has been expanding all the way to the Mediterranean. It is intimidating America’s nasty but indispensable ally Saudi Arabia. Predators don’t suddenly start purring when petted with “executive agreements” and infusions of cash, as in the Obama days.

Rightly maligned on other issues, Trump showed the better instincts when he engineered the Abraham Accords, joining Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain (and later Morocco, Sudan, and Oman). Riyadh is a silent partner, and so is Cairo, never mind its repressive military regime. You would not want Mohammed Bin Salman and General Sisi as best men at your wedding. Still: When badgered by his undersecretary of state, Sumner Welles, about an unsavory Nicaraguan strongman, FDR is supposed to have shot back: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

Democratic leaders rightly prefer the company of the decent, but in the crunch, they must think in terms of the balance of power. Iran is working hard to dislodge the United States from its perch in the Middle East. Willing to cold-shoulder Israel, Obama thought that he could transmute revolutionary Iran into a status quo power. “O sancta simplicitas”—how naïve can you be?—Jan Hus cried out, when he saw a pious woman throw a log onto the stake about to incinerate the Protestant reformer in 1415.

The West isn’t doing the Ukrainians a favor; it is the other way round.

This global tour d’horizon reveals the contours of America’s grand strategy in the second year of Joe Biden, who bumbles, misspeaks, indulges his party’s ideological fringe, and wants to turn the United States into a European-style social democracy. In the game of nations, though, Biden plays by the rules of realpolitik: Counter, contain, and corral coalitions against the aggressor du jour. In our days, it is Vladimir Putin who stands in the tradition of rapacious czars, white or red, like Peter the Great, Empress Catherine, Josef Stalin, and Nikita Khrushchev.

The short take on a half-millennium of Russian expansion is this: When in command of the means, Muscovy has been and remains a problem for European, indeed, global security. Is national character to blame? Try a simpler explanation, embedded in the nature of the international system: Opportunity makes a thief. This temptation is not exactly alien to Western powers, even to liberal ones like England and America.

Shall we blame Russia’s supposedly imperialist soul? Cut Czar Vladimir some slack. He has signaled, then landed his punches ever since he rose to power in 2000. He started out by rebuilding Russia’s rotten military, piling up ever more sophisticated weaponry. He subdued Georgia in 2008, swallowing Crimea and Ukraine’s southeast in 2014. He moved into Syria, practically ushered in by Barack Obama. He ratcheted up pressure on the Baltics, testing NATO’s positions in the North Sea. The West got worked up and imposed some sanctions, but did not grasp the nettle. It will not do to denounce Putin for simply taking while the taking was good.

Putin began to encircle Ukraine with about 120,000 men in the spring of 2021, thus testing the West, whose reaction was underwhelming. No wonder that he must have been confounded when he launched his attack on Feb. 24. Swiftly, the United States, with Britain by its side, masterminded a far-flung coalition, organized a brutal sanctions regime, and pressed its hesitant allies to feed the weapons-and-cash pipeline into Ukraine. Whatever it takes, short of direct military engagement, which the rules of the nuclear age proscribe. Abandoning 12 years of retrenchment, the United States now underwrites Ukraine’s life insurance policy, which Western middle powers like Britain and France cannot.

Now to the darker part of the picture. We always know how wars begin, never how they end. The reason is twofold. One is the Hadleyville syndrome, which explains why Marshal Kane’s posse trickled away in High Noon. Coalitions are fickle; to keep them in line is like herding cats, who are as selfish and distractable as nations. The test of Europe’s resolve looms in the winter if Russia keeps manipulating gas supplies on which half the continent, especially Germany, is hooked. Sanctions is a game both sides can play, and so Russia started cutting gas deliveries in the summer of 2022. Who would want to freeze for Kyiv, to recall the Danzig precedent?

The second problem is posed by Ukraine. In phase 2 of the war, its brave warriors will find it a lot harder to dislodge the well-entrenched Russians in the southeast than it was to disrupt their order of battle in phase 1, when the nation’s survival was at stake. Then, Ukraine enjoyed the benefit of the “interior lines,“ to borrow from Clausewitz. In phase 2, the Russians are close to home, and they can draw on their ethnic kin in the southeast. To defend is easier than to reconquer. An open-ended war of attrition is deadly for coalitions, threatening to break Western resolve. Add to inflation and shortages and a recession looming on the horizon.

If Ukraine has a chance, it is only because the indispensable nation leads, supplies, and deters. Nor does Europe’s mighty protector philosophize, as Chancellor Scholz did on Twitter as late as May 27: “Can force be defeated by force? Can peace be achieved only without guns? We should respectfully discuss both positions.” Firefighters don’t mull the nature of fire while the house is burning. The Ukrainians are lucky to be able to draw on the “Arsenal of Democracy,” to invoke FDR’s famous phrase of 1940.

Is there another choice but to flood Ukraine with billions and high-precision, long-range weaponry? Just as precious is U.S. space-based and battlefield intelligence that enables the Ukrainians to score at least tactical surprises. A high-precision volley of the U.S.-supplied HIMARS multiple-rocket system can strike a Russian ammo train 300 miles away. The ultrasophisticated hand-held Javelin can knock out the most modern Russian tank.

Why stay in the fight? The strategic stakes could not be higher. The West isn’t doing the Ukrainians a favor; it is the other way round. Ukraine is fighting for us, as well. The payoff will be threefold: a chastened Putin, a restored balance, and a salutary European future, all with obvious lessons for China in the Indo-Pacific. Putin is neither demented, nor daft. Back in the KGB, he learned about the “correlation of forces,” a Soviet classic.

The overall balance—riches, productivity, and technology—is not on his side, not to speak of manpower, armored units, air assets, and naval forces. Who will buy Russian gas withheld from Europe? There is no pipeline network into China. Oil is fungible, and the market is taking revenge by imposing discounts on Russian crude—a key source of the Kremlin’s foreign earnings.

Will Putin win his bet on Western decadence, nonetheless? Not as long as the indispensable nation stays in the game for the long haul, as it did in the Cold War that ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Empire. If the Europeans harken to their well-considered interests, they will stick with the posse. It is a no-brainer. They only have to imagine a future with a victorious Russian army ensconced on the borders of Poland, the Baltics, and the southern tier of the former Warsaw Pact.

Josef Joffe, a fellow of Stanford’s Hoover Institution and former editor of Die Zeit, teaches international politics and security at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.