Opinion - Politics

Op-ed: Biden needs to channel Harry Truman to counter Putin’s designs on Ukraine and beyond

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

The opportunist seizes opportunity.

This is what happens when one of the most traditional politicians remaining on the scene in the United States faces a historic confrontation with the world's wiliest authoritarian, for whom the ends justify any means.

The authoritarian takes the initiative.

This is what happens when President Joe Biden, age 79, badly battered by our messy democracy after a long year in office, comes up against President Vladimir Putin, age 69, looking more determined than ever in the third decade of his authoritarian reign.

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

Unless, like Truman, he can shift the tide so that it is the U.S. and its allies retake the initiative, Putin (with China's moral and material support) will continue his long campaign to reverse the most significant outcome of the Cold War: the changed principles under which countries in the world would navigate the future together.

"Those principles," said Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in Berlin this week, "established in the wake of two world wars and a cold war, reject the right of one country to change borders of another by force; to dictate to another the policies it pursues or the choices it makes, including with whom to associate; or to exert a sphere of influence that would subjugate sovereign neighbors to its will."

Blinken's words are powerful, and worth repeating here because they were too easily lost in the cacophony of news noise this week:

"To allow Russia to violate those principles with impunity would drag us all back to a much more dangerous and unstable time, when this continent and this city were divided in two, separated by no man's lands, patrolled by soldiers, with the threat of all-out war hanging over everyone's heads. It would also send a message to others around the world that these principles are expendable, and that, too, would have catastrophic results."

Some would argue that the U.S. is in no position to spearhead this epochal defense of post-Cold War principles, with its own democracy so divided and disheartened, and with its president's popularity plummeting ahead of 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 tail end of World War II. His Democratic party was viciously divided, between big-city progressives and southern conservatives.

He nevertheless advocated for what today would pass as far-left initiatives, expanding the welfare state and stepping up government intervention in the economy, despite an American electorate that was, by and large, more conservative.

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

That happened even though the Republican party was navigating its own familiar-sounding disputes between right and moderate wings, particularly regarding foreign policy as the U.S. struggled to find its identity in the sea changes after the war. The conservative isolationist old guard, led by Ohio Senator Robert Taft, was jockeying for influence against the internationalist wing, with members like Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.

(In another reminder that though history may not repeat itself it certainly rhymes, white supremacy was the primary electoral theme in Georgia, where Governor Eugene Talmadge won a fourth term behind a campaign of purging blacks from voting lists.)

The partisan bickering never ended. Truman left office in January 1953, having hit a historically low approval rating the previous year of 22%, due to a prolonged Korean war, an economic slowdown, labor unrest, and government corruption.

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

President Biden should keep all that in mind as a litany of pundits counsel him to "course correct" now to avoid administration failure.

One administration official listed three cardinal errors that had to be addressed immediately: the poor management of the continued Covid-19 challenge, the failure to appreciate the politics that sunk his "Build Back Better" legislation, and, most importantly for his electoral hopes, the underestimation of inflationary risk.

Yet even if President Biden could "course correct" to address all those domestic challenges, that could be the easy part. It was Truman's handling of international affairs that won his place in history and shaped the world at an inflection point that shaped the post-war era. The stakes are equally historic for Biden, who has been right to see our period also as such an "inflection point."

Biden triggered an uproar this week during a lengthy news conference Wednesday when he appeared to suggest that allies would be divided over what to do about a "minor incursion" into Ukraine.

Though U.S. officials corrected his statement to calm Ukrainian leaders and domestic critics, The Washington Post editorial board was right to opine that the president "was telling the truth."

As this column argued on Jan. 9, for all the Russian continued buildup of military and hybrid capability, Putin's actions are likely to be craftier and messier than many expect, designed to divide NATO allies and U.S. domestic politics on how best to respond.

Secretary of State Blinken this week in his Friday meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appears to have bought some time for more talks with the Russians. Or perhaps, as the analysis of the Atlantic Council's military fellows points out, it could as easily provide more time to complete military preparations for an incursion. 

In the end, the problem isn't the nature of Putin's next move but rather the troubling trajectory behind it, one that has included Russia's invasion of Georgia during the George W. Bush presidency in 2008, its invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 during the Barack Obama presidency, and now this test of President Biden.  

As Truman said in 1952, addressing a country that was politically divided and rallying against isolationist forces, "World leadership in these perilous times calls for policies which, while springing from self-interest, transcend it — policies which serve as a bridge between our national objectives and the needs and aspirations of other free peoples."

Frederick Kempe is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Atlantic Council.