How Joe Biden Can Go Down in History As One of the Greatest Presidents

From a Washington Post column by Max Boot headlined “How Biden can go down in history as one of the greatest presidents”:

I’ve lived through two major geopolitical shifts in my lifetime: the end of the Cold War, which ushered in America’s “unipolar moment,” and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which ushered in the war on terrorism.

Now, we are experiencing another turning point – what the Germans call a Zeitenwende — that might be even more unsettling. The new world disorder has been brought about primarily by the Russian invasion of Ukraine but also by other factors, including the rise of China, Iran’s nuclear program (which has now produced enough fissile material to build a bomb), North Korea’s out-of-control nuclear and missile programs (more missile tests in 2022 than in any previous year), the decline of globalization, and the rise of isolationist and protectionist sentiment in the United States. We are struggling to define the post-Ukraine war world even as the war itself rages on. The closest parallel I can think of was the struggle to define the post-World War II world in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

That, too, was a scary, unsettled time. Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union took over Eastern Europe while acquiring a nuclear arsenal. Mao Zedong and his Communist Party toppled the Nationalist government in China. The United States was convulsed by a Red Scare over supposed communist spies and subversives.

Things appeared to come to a head in June 1950, when North Korea, an ally of China and the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea and U.S. forces rushed to South Korea’s defense under the banner of the United Nations. After U.N. forces pushed back the North Korean onslaught, Chinese troops entered the war on Nov. 25, 1950, and sent the allies reeling back. The U.S. commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, wanted to respond by attacking China with tactical nuclear weapons. “I’ve worked for peace for five years and six months,” a dismayed President Harry S. Truman wrote in his diary on Dec. 9, 1950, “and it looks like World War III is here.”

Today, as many fear a nuclear war as a result of another unprovoked invasion (this one in Ukraine), it is worth recalling how the worst was averted more than 70 years ago. Truman disregarded the extremists from both left and right. Some (such as Henry Wallace, who served as vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt) argued for accommodation with the Soviets; others (including many senior Air Force generals) argued for preventive war against the U.S.S.R. or a wider war with China.

Truman prudently chose a middle path by adopting a policy of containment designed to stop the spread of communism without risking a direct conflict with Moscow. He responded to the Soviet blockade of West Berlin in 1948 not by sending U.S. ground forces to fight their way to the embattled city but by sending U.S. cargo aircraft to keep it alive. The cornerstone of his strategy was to forge alliances with like-minded nations, including former enemies Italy, West Germany and Japan. American multilateralism produced both the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1947 and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 — the economic and military underpinnings of the U.S.-led world order. This was followed by the signing of defense treaties with Japan (1951) and South Korea (1953) to extend collective security to East Asia.

That world order now faces an unprecedented challenge from Russia. If Russian President Vladimir Putin can get away with his aggression in Ukraine, international law will give way to the law of the jungle. It is vitally important to defeat Russia to send a message that aggression does not pay, even if the nature of that defeat remains to be determined, while also managing the threats posed by China, Iran and North Korea.

That would be a monumental challenge for any president. But Joe Biden, for all his faults and frailties, is rising to the task in a manner reminiscent of Truman, another president who was underestimated. Many details differ, of course. But it is striking just how much Biden’s general approach echoes that of Truman, and his successor Dwight D. Eisenhower, who responded to a world in crisis reminiscent of our own by building and maintaining alliances with like-minded countries to contain authoritarian aggressors without risking World War III.

Biden has done a particularly impressive job of marshaling an international coalition to sanction Russia and support Ukraine — and keeping that coalition united in the face of Putin’s attempts to use Russian energy as an economic weapon to send Europe and the United States into a recession. Biden has wisely eschewed provocative proposals, such as imposing a “no-fly” zone over Ukraine, while continuing to provide the Ukrainians with (most of) the weapons they need to defend themselves. Like Truman, he is finding a middle path of avoiding a direct superpower conflict while containing the Kremlin’s expansionism. He may soon have to confront — as Truman and then Eisenhower did in Korea — the difficult issue of how to end a war where a U.S. ally might not be able to win a complete victory. (Meaning, in this case, a return to Ukraine’s 2014 borders.)

While containing Russia, Biden has been expanding links between U.S. allies in Asia and Europe; one of the year’s most underappreciated developments was that leaders of Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia attended the NATO summit in Spain. This is part of a bigger American project to bring Asian and even European nations together to deter China from starting a war over Taiwan — something that nearly happened during the Quemoy and Matsu crises of the 1950s. Biden has put emphasis on the Quad dialogue among the United States, India, Japan and Australia, as well as the AUKUS (Australia-U.S.-U.K.) alliance to build nuclear submarines for Australia, while also maintaining lines of communication with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This is another example of his middle path: strengthening deterrence while avoiding war.

Biden’s biggest shortcoming has been in the economic sphere: Because he is not willing to challenge protectionist sentiment in Congress, he won’t rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a vital economic counterweight to the China-dominated trade bloc in Asia. His Inflation Reduction Act is alienating allies in both Europe and Asia with its protectionist provisions that provide an advantage to U.S. manufacturers of electrical vehicles. Biden ignores Truman’s insight that reducing “restrictive trade and financial measures throughout the world” will lead to a “progressive rise in standards of living” and “provide our best insurance of a peaceful future.”

Biden has no answer to the challenges posed by Iran and North Korea — but then neither does anyone else. Both countries are racing ahead with weapons of mass destruction while turning their backs on diplomacy. There might simply not be any immediate “solution,” since preemptive military action would be dangerous and covert action would likely be ineffective. (Truman discovered for himself the limits of American power when U.S. intelligence efforts to organize resistance networks behind the Iron Curtain turned into costly fiascos.) The best we can hope for may simply be to pursue an updated version of containment, deterring these rogue states from aggression while hoping that someday, like the Soviet Union, they might collapse from their own contradictions.

In the meantime, the United States can work to strengthen regional alliances to address these growing threats. Israel is already working closely with the United States and Sunni states to counter Iran. The Abraham Accords negotiated during the Trump administration helped a great deal, but having Saudi Arabia join the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other Arab states in recognizing Israel would be a significant step forward. In Asia, the challenge for the Biden administration is to foster greater military and intelligence cooperation between Japan and South Korea despite their historical differences.

The good news is that the growing threats to world order are spurring the United States and its allies to strengthen their defenses. European defense spending surged to more than $225 billion even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while U.S. defense spending next year will total a whopping $858 billion — $45 billion more than Biden wanted. (Russia’s defense budget is about $84 billion while China’s is about $229 billion.) This is reminiscent of the massive increase in the U.S. defense budget after the outbreak of the Korean War, reversing the post-1945 demobilization.

Most significant — and surprising — is the surge in defense spending in once-pacifist Germany and Japan. The two countries, whose transformation into U.S. allies was one of Truman’s most farsighted achievements, are now rearming to confront the twin threats from China and Russia. Both aim to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense, even if Germany is going to take longer to achieve that goal than previously predicted. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida just announced plans to double the defense budget to $312 billion in the next five years. He is even planning to purchase hundreds of Tomahawk missiles to give Japan an offensive punch it has lacked since 1945. “December is emerging as the single most consequential month for Japan’s approach to national security in a generation,” Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador in Tokyo, told me.

The unsettling question is whether the military buildup we are seeing might lead nations from South Korea to Saudi Arabia to acquire their own nuclear weapons to counter regional threats such as North Korea and Iran. One of the unsung achievements of the postwar order is limiting the nuclear club to just nine members — up from three when Truman left office, but a lot lower than many observers expected at the dawn of the atomic age. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine demonstrates what can happen if you give up nuclear weapons (as Kyiv did in 1994). It could provide a major impetus for nuclear proliferation.

Whether that happens will depend, in large measure, on how much trust America’s allies have in U.S. security guarantees. Our allies won’t build nukes if they trust us to protect them, but the Trump presidency (when the commander in chief trashed U.S. allies and threatened to pull troops out of South Korea and Germany) raised questions about whether we remain a reliable partner. Biden’s pullout from Afghanistan only exacerbated those concerns. Staunch U.S. support for Ukraine has dispelled some, but not all, of those worries.

The containment policy was so successful during the Cold War because it was followed over many decades by presidents of both parties. The question today is whether we can achieve a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy. That seems to exist on China, where both parties are vying to see which one can be more hawkish, but, when it comes to Russia, that consensus is endangered by growing Republican opposition to aid to Ukraine. Much will depend on whether the next Republican president — Ron DeSantis, perhaps? — essentially ratifies the Biden approach, as Eisenhower did with Truman’s policies, or tries to undo it, as Donald Trump did with President Barack Obama’s policies (e.g., the Paris Climate Accord and the nuclear deal with Iran).

The old world order is dying. The new one is struggling to be born. In the 2020s, as in the 1940s, we are seeing a competition between the forces of order and disorder to define the international system — and once again American politics might well determine the outcome. The Cold War would have had a very different — and far less happy — outcome if the United States had not remained committed to its alliances with Western Europe, Japan and South Korea. The post-Ukraine war world will be a more dangerous place or a less dangerous place depending on the decisions we make now. As we look back on the tumultuous events of this year and look forward to whatever the new year may bring, Truman’s example should remind us of the importance of strengthening international institutions and alliances while avoiding a rush to war.

If Biden can get the balance right and leave the world more secure than he found it, he too has a chance to be remembered as fondly as the plainspoken haberdasher from Missouri, who was proud of having “done his damnedest.” Truman left office with a 32 percent approval rating amid a stalemated war in the Korean Peninsula but is now rated by historians as one of our greatest presidents.

Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”

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