Analysis: US haters line up to test Joe Biden

Biden made the kind of fateful decision on Monday that might be more comfortable in the tense 1970s, putting up to 8,500 troops on high alert to rush to Eastern Europe to counter the Kremlin’s decision. to force the United States away from its western flank. But his ordeal of nerves with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is holding Ukraine hostage in a bid to reverse the West’s post-Cold War expansion, is far from his only global headache.
On the other side of the globe, a strategic ballet of military power unfolds as the United States and China maneuver armadas and warplanes amid tensions over Taiwan and other disputed territories, in a duel at long term for dominance in the Asia-Pacific region. As the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine fixes the world right now, a future Chinese strike against the self-governing democratic island is the most likely trigger for a disastrous superpower conflict.
Then there is the Middle East, which America has been trying to extricate itself from for years. US forces based in Abu Dhabi swung into action on Monday morning, using Patriot missiles to shoot down several missiles launched at the Gulf emirate by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The emergency was a reminder that despite some hopes of a resumption of nuclear talks with Iran, the Islamic Republic’s regional power plays pose a serious risk to American personnel. And the cruel war in Yemen, pursued by Washington’s ally Saudi Arabia, with terrible civilian consequences, endangers the United States by association.

American power put to the test

Each of these challenges involves foreign states and nationalist leaders making rash decisions to advance strategic goals, seeking to increase their power, expand or cement undemocratic political systems, and dominate their spheres of influence outside their own sovereign territory. They also know that with the United States under pressure elsewhere, they could have an opening.

Putin, for example, is well aware that Biden wants to turn to the Chinese threat – so it makes sense to probe to see if the US is distracted. Beijing, for its part, would be happy if the United States got bogged down in Europe. The United States likely needs China to help cool North Korea’s provocations. And Russia is a key player in the Iranian nuclear talks. It did not go unnoticed in Washington that Iran, Russia and China held a third round of naval exercises in the Indian Ocean last week.

Since the United States is still the dominant power in the world, with allies around the world, and the leader of the democratic bloc of nations, each push from one of its adversaries drags it deeper into confrontation and diplomacy. preventive.

The challenges of building American authority come at a time when there is a widespread perception abroad that Washington is not the power it was during the second half of the 20th century. Despite Biden’s assurances that “America is back,” the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan last year has raised questions about US jurisdiction and commitment. American adversaries know that Americans are exhausted from 20 years of war overseas, a factor that may lead some to calculate that Washington might waver on its strategic obligations for political reasons.

And foreign leaders also understand US domestic politics. With a significant percentage of the country convinced that Biden is illegitimate thanks to the election lies of former President Donald Trump, and Republicans castigating him as weak under Putin’s challenge, there has rarely been a better time for foreign nations to test. the character and stamina of a modern president. The possibility that Trump, who has been a four-year force for global instability, could return to office has some allies doubting the United States can deliver on the commitments it makes.

Some foreign leaders might watch events in Washington on Monday and wonder if stress is starting to weigh on the president. After a White House event, Biden was asked about inflation by a Fox reporter and in a surprisingly reckless moment over an open mic, he replied, “What a stupid son of a bitch.” The president then called the reporter to apologize.

Putin’s infuriating maneuvers

Each of the geopolitical factors listed above are highlighted in Putin’s challenge to the West over Ukraine as he seeks to restore some of the strategic hold the Soviet Union once held over Europe. of the East around the symbolic 30th anniversary of the collapse of his beloved empire.

After massing more than 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, the Russian leader made a series of demands for American concessions, including assurances that the government in Kiev would never join NATO and that the alliance would withdraw troops and the armaments of ex-Warsaw Pact states that joined the West because they feared the kind of Russian resurgence that Putin is trying to engineer.

Biden responded by seeking a gradual escalation of pressure to convince Putin that the cost of invading Ukraine would be too high, promising sanctions that could cripple Russia’s economy and provoke political threats against his regime.

Now the president is considering a reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank with possible troop deployments. The alliance announced some small deployments to member states in the Baltic and Eastern Europe on Monday. For the first time since the Cold War, a US carrier battle group will be placed under NATO command in the Mediterranean for a high-level maritime exercise this week.

All of this is to project resolve, deterrence and to show that Putin’s attempt to drive the United States out of Europe will fail. The onus is on Biden to show that Washington has its allies’ backs. If he doesn’t, NATO will count for nothing. But it’s a high-risk plan since US deployments could tempt the Russian leader to pull the trigger he has on Ukraine’s head and argue that he must invade to protect Russian security.

Putin is an infuriating and unpredictable adversary, and has forced the United States to react to his provocations for weeks. It is impossible to read his intentions. So far, US diplomacy, including a Biden-Putin meeting in Geneva last year and more recent online encounters between the presidents, has yielded no breakthrough. It did, however, give Putin the prestige of Cold War-style summits that led Republicans to blame Biden for that dreaded word — appeasement.

In the latest display of Putin’s penchant for mind games, he and Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel spoke by phone on Monday and agreed to further cooperation. Some Russian military officials have suggested deploying military assets to Cuba and Venezuela during the Ukraine crisis. The allusions to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 – the US-Soviet stalemate in which the world came close to nuclear war – are hard to miss.

More clashes await Biden

Some analysts believe that Putin has put himself in a box and will not be able to emerge from the showdown without at least some face-saving penetration into Ukraine. That’s why Biden sparked so much controversy last week when he suggested that a “minor incursion” by Russia wouldn’t result in the full sanctions. But the US president was also telling the truth, apparently referring to divisions among allies in Europe over 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. It is a period of transition for the three great European powers. Germany has a new coalition government that is divided on foreign policy, knows it depends on Russian gas in the winter, and is wary of offensive military operations because of its historic scar from militarism. French President Emmanuel Macron faces re-election in April and is using the crisis to push for a more aggressive European Union role that could weaken American authority. And British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is mired in watered-down scandals and struggling to cling to power. The government in London is also locked in a bitter falling out with its close allies over its exit from the EU.

Biden made a point of publicly addressing the divisions in Europe on Monday, bringing leaders together in a video call and orchestrating a series of statements from both sides of the Atlantic pledging unity over the crisis and the costs Russia could face. .

“I had a very, very, very good meeting – total unanimity with all the European leaders,” Biden told reporters afterwards.

But there are reasons to doubt his confidence. The European Union, for example, did not find it necessary to follow the United States in allowing the departure of non-essential personnel and family members from Kyiv. Officials across the Atlantic haven’t used the same kind of scaremongering language as the Biden administration about the looming threat of a Russian invasion.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Monday that while unity and pressure on Russia was vital, the situation was not hopeless.

“Certainly I have reason to be concerned but I don’t want to have a nervous breakdown,” Borrell told Hala Gorani on CNN International.

Managing differing threat perceptions with Europe is just one of the challenges Biden faces in navigating the Ukraine showdown, one of the most trying times in recent NATO history.

And he knows that even if he can find a peaceful solution, China, North Korea and Iran are next, posing more intractable challenges for a presidency ever crisis-proof.

About Therese Williams

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