President Joe Biden is confronting a series of distinct but interlocking global crises and hotspots with US foes lining up to test the mettle of an under-pressure leader and their own sense that the United States is a retreating global power.
Biden made the kind of fateful decision on Monday that might be more at home in the tense 1970s, putting up to 8,500 troops on alert to rush to Eastern Europe to counter the Kremlin’s move to force the US away from its Western flank. But his trial of nerves with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is holding Ukraine hostage in a bid to reverse the West’s expansion after the Cold War, is far from his only global headache.
On the other side of the globe, a strategic ballet of military might is playing out as the US and China maneuver armadas and warplanes amid tensions over Taiwan, and other disputed territories, in a long-term duel for dominance in the Asia-Pacific region. While the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine is fixating the world right now, a future Chinese strike against the self-governing democratic island is the more likely trigger for a disastrous superpower conflict.
Then there is the Middle East, from which America has been trying to extricate itself for years. US forces at a base in Abu Dhabi leapt into action early Monday, using Patriot missiles to shoot down several missiles flung at the Gulf emirate by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The emergency was a reminder that despite some hopes of renewed nuclear talks with Iran, the Islamic Republic’s regional power plays are a grave risk to US personnel. And the vicious war in Yemen, prosecuted by Washington ally Saudi Arabia with terrible civilian consequences, endangers the US by association.
And if Washington was tempted to forget the frightening prospect of a nuclear North Korea, its leader Kim Jong Un has other ideas. One of a string of recent missile tests by Pyongyang triggered extraordinary ground stops at some US West Coast airports, which underscored the nightmare scenario for any US President that the extreme hermit state could have the US mainland in its sights.
Putting American power to the test
Each of these challenges concern foreign states and nationalistic leaders making hard-eyed decisions to advance strategic goals, seeking to increase their power, expand or cement anti-democratic political systems and dominate their spheres of influence outside their own sovereign territory. They also know that with the US under pressure elsewhere, they may have an opening.
Putin, for example, is well aware that Biden wants to pivot to the China threat – so it makes sense to probe to see whether the US is distracted. Beijing, for one, would be happy for the US to get bogged down in Europe. The US probably needs China to help cool North Korea’s provocations. And Russia is a key player in the Iran nuclear talks. It didn’t go unnoticed in Washington that Iran, Russia and China held a third set of naval drills in the Indian Ocean last week.
Since the US is, still, the world’s dominant power, with allies across the globe, and the leader of the democratic bloc of nations, each thrust by one of its adversaries draws it deeper into a confrontation and preventive diplomacy.
The building challenges to US authority come at a moment when there is a widespread perception abroad that Washington is not the power it was for the second half of the 20th century. Despite Biden’s assurances that “America is Back,” the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year raised questions about US competence and commitment. US adversaries know Americans are exhausted by 20 years of war abroad, a factor that may lead some to calculate that Washington could waver on its strategic obligations for political reasons.
And foreign leaders understand domestic US politics too. With a significant percentage of the country convinced Biden is illegitimate thanks to former President Donald Trump’s election lies, and Republicans lambasting him as weak under Putin’s challenge, there’s rarely been a better time for foreign nations to test a modern President’s character and stamina. The possibility that Trump, who was a four-year force for global instability, could return to office, meanwhile, has some allies doubting that the US can keep any commitments it does make.
Some foreign leaders might look at events in Washington on Monday and wonder whether the stress is beginning to weigh on the President. After a White House event, Biden was asked about inflation by a Fox reporter and in a stunningly unguarded moment on an open mic, he responded: “What a stupid son of a bitch.” The President later called the reporter to apologize.
Putin’s infuriating maneuvering
Each of the geopolitical factors listed above are on display in Putin’s challenge to the West over Ukraine as he seeks to restore some of the strategic sway once held by the Soviet Union over Eastern Europe around the symbolic 30th anniversary of his beloved empire’s collapse.
After massing more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, the Russian leader made a series of demands for US concessions, including an assurance that the Kyiv government will never join NATO and for the alliance to pull back troops and armaments from ex-Warsaw Pact states that joined the West since they feared the kind of Russian resurgence that Putin is trying to engineer.
Biden has responded by seeking a gradual escalation of pressure designed to convince Putin that the cost of invading Ukraine would be too high, promising sanctions that could cripple the Russian economy and cause knock-on political threats to his rule.
Now, the President is mulling a reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank with possible troop deployments. The alliance on Monday announced some smaller deployments to the Baltic and Eastern European member states. For the first time since the Cold War, a US carrier strike group will be placed under NATO command in the Mediterranean for a high-level maritime exercise this week.
This is all meant to project resolve, deterrence and to show that Putin’s attempt to get the US out of Europe will fail. It is incumbent on Biden to show Washington has the back of its allies. If he doesn’t, NATO will count for nothing. But it’s a high-risk plan since US deployments could prompt the Russian leader to pull the trigger he has to Ukraine’s head and to argue he must invade to protect Russian security.
Putin is an infuriating, unpredictable adversary, and has forced the US to react to his provocations for weeks. It’s impossible to read his intentions. US diplomacy so far, including a Biden-Putin meeting in Geneva last year and more recent online encounters between the presidents, have yielded no breakthroughs. It has, however, handed Putin the prestige of Cold War-style summits that led Republicans to accuse Biden of that dreaded word – appeasement.
In the latest demonstration of Putin’s penchant for mind games, he and Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel spoke by phone on Monday and agreed to deeper cooperation. Some Russian military officials have suggested deploying military assets to Cuba and Venezuela during the crisis over Ukraine. The allusions to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 – the US-Soviet standoff in which the world came close to nuclear war – are hard to miss.
More showdowns lie in wait for Biden
Some analysts believe that Putin has put himself in a box and will be unable to exit the showdown without at least a limited penetration into Ukraine that would save face. This is why Biden whipped up so much controversy last week when he suggested that a “minor incursion” by Russia would not draw the full sanctions broadside. But the US President was also telling the truth, apparently referring to divisions among allies in Europe about how to handle Putin.
The Russian leader’s timing is no accident as he tries to probe divisions between European powers internally and with the United States over the crisis. This is a transitional period for the three major European powers. Germany has a new governing coalition that is split on foreign policy, knows it is reliant on Russian gas in the winter and remains wary of offensive military operations owing to its historic scar of militarism. French President Emmanuel Macron faces reelection in April, and is using the crisis to push for a more aggressive European Union role that might weaken US authority. And British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is mired in boozy scandals and struggling to cling onto power. The government in London is also locked in a bitter estrangement with its near allies over its exit from the EU.
Biden made a public point of addressing divides in Europe on Monday, gathering leaders in a video call and orchestrating a series of statements on both sides of the Atlantic promising unity on the crisis and the costs that Russia could face.
“I had a very, very, very good meeting – total unanimity with all the European leaders,” Biden told reporters afterward.
But there’s reason to doubt his confidence. The European Union, for example, saw no need to follow the US in authorizing the departure of nonessential staff and family members from Kyiv. Officials on the other side of the Atlantic have not used the same kind of alarmist language as the Biden administration about the imminent threat of a Russian invasion.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said Monday that though unity and pressure on Russia was vital, the situation was not irretrievable.
“Certainly, I have reason to be concerned but I don’t want to go in a nervous attack,” Borrell told Hala Gorani on CNN International.
Managing different threat perceptions with Europe is just one of the challenges that Biden faces in navigating the Ukraine showdown, one of the most testing moments in the recent history of NATO.
And he knows that even if he can engineer a peaceful resolution, China, North Korea and Iran are up next, posing more intractable challenges for a presidency never free from crises.