Time is Short and the Tests are Stern for the Biden Presidency

News Abroad
tags: foreign policy, Russia, Joe Biden, international relations

Simon Serfaty is Professor (emeritus) of US foreign policy at Old Dominion University, and the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair (emeritus) in Global Security and Geostrategy at CSIS. His most recent book is America in the World from Truman to Biden: Play it Again, Sam (Palgrave-Macmillan, Fall 2021).




To the end, Samuel Beckett insisted that he did not know who or what Godot was; still, he was waiting for him or her or it. That was not the least absurdity of his play, which he had written in French because, the author explained, he did not know the language well. So we are now, one-fourth past the Biden administration and possibly half before Trump’s return, and unaware of what we may be waiting for: at home, a democracy at risk, ahead of one of the most significant and least predictable midterm elections in recent history, and abroad, a global mutation of the world order, presented in languages we understand poorly even when they carry an American accent.

Biden’s false start has surprised many; it did not need to be this way, they say. But could it have been different given our post-Trump expectations? On November 3, 2020, a record 81 million voters turned to him as the only candidate who could defeat the outgoing president and return a measure of sanity to the White House. To this extent, already his party’s reluctant choice, Biden was also an accidental president – a bit of Ford-cum-Carter, as the soothing and righteous leader of a much-needed presidential transition, up to the next election or, given his age, up to God’s will.

Yet Biden was asked to do two big things, for which he seemed especially qualified as the most experienced president since George H. W. Bush in world affairs and Lyndon Baines Johnson in the nation’s domestic governance. First, to make America whole again, as well as better and gentler, however this was conceived by his partisans; and second, to reset a world order compatible with American interests and values, however these were perceived by its allies.

That was no small assignment. Only three presidents have faced it over the past one hundred years. Roosevelt in 1933, Johnson in 1965, and Reagan in 1981 – each with his own New Deal and all with painful wars ahead, impossible to deter, costly to wage or difficult to end - including World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. But note the differences: unlike his predecessors, Biden could not deal with one challenge at a time – Nation or Empire? – but both simultaneously; not over time – from five (LBJ) to eight (Reagan) to 13 (FDR) years – but quickly, unlikely to exceed four years; not with a national mandate but with three-fourths of the opposition party denying his democratic legitimacy; and not with a full control of Congress (like Roosevelt and Johnson) but against or without it.

Too much was expected from Biden, then, but also, given his temperament, too much promised. At half past Biden, meaning halfway through the first half of his first and probably only term, concerns about his ability to get the job done are growing, and so is the price of failure for his party (remember the 12-year gap between Carter and Clinton) and for the country: images of a second Trump presidency during which Trump would show that what he learned best during his first term in office was how much worse he can do his bad things. No more Mr. Nice Guy this time: with eight in ten Republicans convinced that America is losing its culture and identity, and with roughly one in seven citizens, including many Democrats, seemingly willing to resort to violence to meet their patriotic duty and save their country, the American democracy appears more at risk than at any time since the run up to the civil war.

Meantime, history, too, shows its bad humor with pointed reminders of a past we had thought to be over but which threatens to return with Munich moments of appeasement and warnings of a Sarajevo moment of total war. In Ukraine, a blurred picture of Berlin in 1948, minus Truman’s steadfastness and Stalin’s prudence; from China, new sounds of brinksmanship, with distorted echoes of past confrontation over or near Taiwan; with Iran, but also North Korea, slow-moving missile crises, ever closer and more dangerous; last fall, Kabul looked like Saigon in 1975, and this winter it is Kiev looking like Prague in 1930s. And on it goes, including, looming ahead, the stagflation that accompanied the Carter years, with slow growth, rising inflation, and a global monetary crisis.

It’s déjà vu all over again: a Cold War 2.0 with Russia, a new Cold War with China, a Yalta-2 in Europe, a post-American world in the West and a post-Western era in the Third World? Enough, though: what such memories of past disorders add up to is that faced with the multiple risks of the Cold War, nine presidents gave America a role in the world which proved to be not only indispensable but also decisive: from Truman who chose “half the world” over the other half, to Kennedy and Johnson, who struggled with an American democracy rattled by the wars in Vietnam and over civil rights, to Reagan and Bush 41 who bet it all against the “evil empire” and won. Mistakes, often tragic, were made, to be sure, but altogether the worst was avoided and a new global order was born, unexpectedly well and surprisingly peacefully.

Since 1993, however, four presidents have not met these standards, their priorities more elusive and their leadership less decisive: Clinton, who ignored post-Soviet Russia; Bush-43, who mismanaged 9/11; Obama, who mishandled the Arab Spring; and Trump, who offended the world. Now, it is Biden’s turn to stutter as he attempts to convince allies and adversaries, as well as his citizens, that America is back. Admittedly, it remains too early for a final grade, but it is surely not too early to be seriously concerned.

“Tomorrow is another day,” mused Scarlett as she acknowledged that, “after all,” the old order was now “gone with the wind.” Not this time, though, with the threats in Ukraine and elsewhere real and their consequences cumulative depending on how each plays out. And even as our democracy struggles in 2022 to regain its institutional footing, the many issues that have been denied, neglected, or mishandled over the past 30 years, and not just with Russia, will leave little time for a time out.

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