Biden must channel Harry Truman to counter Putin’s designs on Ukraine and beyond

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This is what happens when a well-meaning incremental locks horns with a brutal opportunist.

The opportunist seizes the opportunity.

That’s what happens when one of America’s most traditional politicians still on the scene faces a historic confrontation with the world’s most cunning authoritarianism, for whom the end justifies any means.

The boss takes the initiative.

This is what happens when President Joe Biden, 79, battered by our messy democracy after a long year in office, clashes with President Vladimir Putin, 69, more determined than ever in the third decade of his authoritarian rule. .

Unless President Biden can turn this ongoing Ukraine crisis into an opportunity – by rallying allies and managing internal divisions as President Harry Truman did at another inflection point – the setback for Europe and the world could be generational.

Unless, like Truman, he can turn the tide so that the United States and its allies regain the initiative, Putin (with the moral and material support of China) will continue his long campaign to reverse the result. most significant of the Cold War: the changing principles by which the countries of the world would sail together into the future.

“These principles,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in Berlin this week, “established in the aftermath of two world wars and a Cold War, reject a country’s right to forcibly alter the borders of another; to dictate to another the policy it pursues or the choices it makes, including with whom to associate; or to exercise a sphere of influence that would subjugate sovereign neighbors to its will.”

Blinken’s words are powerful and worth repeating here as they got all too easily lost in the cacophony of the news this week:

“Letting Russia violate these principles with impunity would take us all back to a much more dangerous and unstable time, when this continent and this city was split in two, separated by no man’s land, patrolled by soldiers, with the threat of all – war hanging over everyone’s head. This would also send a message to others around the world that these principles are enduring, and this too would have catastrophic results.

Some would say that the United States is not in a position to spearhead this historic defense of post-Cold War principles, with its own democracy so divided and discouraged, and the popularity of its president in decline. free before decisive mid-term elections.

Yet that’s even more reason to look to Harry Truman, who assumed the presidency in April 1945 after Franklin Roosevelt’s death at the end of World War II. His Democratic party was viciously divided, between big-city progressives and southern conservatives.

He nevertheless argued for what would pass today as far-left initiatives, expanding the welfare state and strengthening government intervention in the economy, despite an overall more conservative American electorate.

If this all sounds familiar, it’s also worth remembering ahead of this year’s midterm elections that Truman’s Democratic Party in 1946 – the first election after World War II – lost 54 seats to the Republican Party in the Chamber and 11 seats in favor of the Republicans. in the Senate, allowing Republicans to take control of both chambers for the first time since 1932.

It happened even as the Republican Party navigated its own familiar right-wing and moderate-wing disputes, particularly over foreign policy as the United States struggled to find its identity in the sea of ​​change after the war. . The conservative isolationist Old Guard, led by Ohio Senator Robert Taft, maneuvered for influence against the internationalist wing, with members like Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.

(In another reminder that while history doesn’t repeat itself, it certainly does rhyme, white supremacy was the main election theme in Georgia, where Gov. Eugene Talmadge won a fourth term behind a campaign to purge blacks from the rolls. elections.)

The partisan quarrels have never ceased. Truman left office in January 1953, after hitting a historic low of 22% the previous year, due to a protracted Korean War, economic downturn, social unrest and corruption of the government.

Yet he is now considered one of America’s greatest presidents because of his response to the Soviet challenge – including the Marshall Plan of 1948, the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49, and the creation of NATO in 1949. His political, diplomatic, military, and economic initiatives set the stage for an internationalist American foreign policy that paved the way for the end of the Cold War and Soviet collapse in 1990.

President Biden should keep all of this in mind as a litany of pundits advise him to “correct course” now to avoid an administration failure.

An administration official listed three cardinal mistakes that needed to be corrected immediately: mishandling the ongoing challenge of Covid-19, failure to appreciate the politics that sunk his “Build Back Better” legislation and, most importantly, to its electoral hopes, the underestimation of the inflationary risk.

Yet even if President Biden could “of course correct” to address all of these national challenges, that might be the easy part. It was Truman’s handling of international affairs that earned his place in history and shaped the world at an inflection point that shaped the post-war era. The stakes are just as historic for Biden, who was right to also see our period as an “inflection point”.

Biden sparked an uproar this week at a lengthy press conference on Wednesday when he appeared to suggest allies would be split on what to do about a “minor incursion” into Ukraine.

Although US officials corrected his statement to calm Ukrainian leaders and domestic critics, the editorial board of The Washington Post was correct in saying that the president was “speaking the truth”.

As this column argued on Jan. 9, despite all of Russia’s continued buildup of military and hybrid capabilities, Putin’s actions are likely to be shrewder and messier than many realize, designed to divide Russia’s allies. NATO and US domestic politics on how best to respond.

This week, Secretary of State Blinken in his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appears to have bought time to continue discussions with the Russians. Or perhaps, as the analysis of military colleagues in the Atlantic Council points out, it might as well provide more time to complete military preparations for an incursion.

Ultimately, the issue is not the nature of Putin’s next move, but rather the troubling trajectory behind it, one that has included Russia’s invasion of Georgia during George W. Bush’s 2008 presidency, his 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea during Barack Obama’s presidency, and now this test of President Biden.

As Truman said in 1952, addressing a country politically divided and rallying to isolationist forces, “world leadership in these perilous times calls for policies which, while arising from self-interest, transcend it – policies that serve as a bridge between our goals and the needs and aspirations of other free peoples”.

Frederick Kempe is the President and CEO of the Atlantic Council.

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