Biden’s Chance at Redemption

After losing public confidence with the Afghanistan debacle, the president now has the opportunity to reset.

President Joe Biden at a podium
Drew Angerer / Getty

Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine confronts President Joe Biden with complex challenges at a time when he is already beleaguered—but it also presents him with an opportunity for a reset on the core foreign-policy promise he made to voters during his 2020 campaign.

As a candidate, Biden offered voters not so much a change in specific international policies as an alternative approach to interacting with other nations. In managing America’s foreign policy, Biden pledged to be steady and stable, competent and collaborative. He promised Americans that working with allies would produce better outcomes on global challenges, and prove that democracies were capable of holding their own against ascendant autocracies. And he presented all of that as a stark contrast to the unilateralism, impulsiveness, and frequent chaos of Donald Trump’s relations with the world.

But through his first year in office, Biden’s record on delivering that change was, at best, mixed; his moves to revitalize international organizations and alliances were overshadowed by tension and disillusionment at home and abroad over his chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Discontent over Afghanistan sent Biden’s approval for handling foreign affairs tumbling, and served as an early trigger in the broader decline of his approval rating, from which he still hasn’t recovered.

Now in the Ukraine crisis, a wide variety of foreign-policy experts agree, the Biden on display looks more like the version he promised 2020 voters: a senior statesman coordinating a unified Western response against an autocratic threat to the global order.

“We’ve been transparent with the world,” Biden said this afternoon in remarks announcing a new round of sanctions against Russia. “We’ve shared declassified evidence about Russia’s plans and cyberattacks and false pretext so that there could be no confusion or cover-up about what Putin was doing. Putin is the aggressor. Putin chose this war, and now he and his country will bear the consequences.”

Peter Feaver, a public-policy and political-science professor at Duke University who served as a special adviser on George W. Bush’s National Security Council, thinks Biden has produced a more coherent and effective allied response than Barack Obama did when Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea in 2014, or than Trump might have done in this circumstance. Even with some legitimate Republican criticisms, like that against Biden’s resistance to earlier sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, “he’s done better given the hand that he was dealt” than either of those predecessors, Feaver says.

Biden’s success at corralling America’s allies for sanctions against Putin didn’t stop the Russian leader from fully invading Ukraine. And it may also prove insufficient to erase the American public’s doubts about Biden’s foreign-policy performance that the Afghanistan withdrawal created. But it has demonstrated that even in a more fractured and fractious world, the U.S. can still play a unique role in convening a global response to a major international challenge—and that Biden personally can “sit at the head of the table,” as he’s put it.

“Clearly the U.S. drove this whole policy, and clearly the U.S. was a true leader,” said Ivo Daalder, Obama’s U.S. ambassador to NATO, now the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “If there’s one issue where Biden and Trump were diametrically opposite to each other, it’s that Biden fundamentally understood the importance of allies and Trump denigrated the importance of allies. There is no way that Donald Trump, [his secretary of state] Mike Pompeo, or anyone else would be able to lead the alliance to the place they are now.”

The political threats to Biden from the invasion are not difficult to identify. Energy prices are rising at a time when inflation already dominates America’s economic concerns. The broadcast images of Russian attacks inside Ukraine show the real-time demise of a democracy in vivid and poignant terms. The GOP has been divided, with Trump and like-minded conservative commentators such as Fox’s Tucker Carlson essentially excusing Putin’s attack. But most Republicans have quickly added the invasion to their preexisting case against Biden: They are insisting that Putin felt emboldened by Biden’s “weakness” and that the U.S. must ramp up domestic oil and gas production, which Biden has taken some steps to limit, to reduce Putin’s leverage in global energy markets.

Yet, even with all these obvious risks, it’s possible that Putin’s aggression and Biden’s effective management of the Western alliance have nonetheless created a proof-of-concept moment for the president’s core foreign-policy argument: that, by restoring cooperation with traditional U.S. allies, he can produce relatively better outcomes for American interests and global stability than Trump could.

“The United States is not doing this alone,” Biden declared this afternoon. “For months we have been building a coalition of partners representing well more than half of the global economy … to amplify the joint impact of our response.”

After Trump’s frequent belittling of international organizations, Biden from the outset displayed renewed respect for NATO, the European Union, the G7, and the United Nations. Biden rejoined the Paris climate accord, and his administration worked hard to coordinate a global response to the coronavirus pandemic. And at every opportunity, he spoke the language of global cooperation common for presidents from both parties since the 1930s—at least until Trump. Biden offered something close to a mission statement for his vision of foreign affairs in his first speech on his first trip to meet with the G7 and NATO members, last June: “At every point along the way, we are going to make it clear that the United States is back and the democracies of the world are standing together to tackle the toughest challenges and issues that matter most to our future.”

But that soaring rhetoric was undermined by last summer’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. The tumultuous process appeared neither competent nor collaborative. As Daalder noted, Afghanistan “undermined” both of Biden’s core contrasts with Trump: his promise to provide a steadier hand and his pledge to work more closely with allies. Biden “said a competent foreign policy is a foreign policy that works together with allies and friends and … for reasons that history at some point will explain, we just didn’t do a very good job on that when it came to Afghanistan.”

Allies complained not only about the substance of Biden’s decision but about the insular process by which it was reached. Biden and his team seemed to hold the view that “they were going to do what they were going to do and the allies were not going to like it, so why spend a lot of time on it?” James Steinberg, a former deputy secretary of state for Obama, told me.

But the damage was done. “Even the Brits and others who had been with us all along … felt that this decision had been made in Washington without sufficient consultation with them and over their warnings that bad things might happen,” Richard Fontaine, the CEO of the Center for a New American Security and former chief foreign-policy adviser to John McCain, told me. Although the withdrawal fulfilled an agreement that Trump had negotiated with the Taliban, Biden’s unblinking determination to press forward despite warnings from inside and outside the administration caused friends and critics alike to view him as headstrong and impulsive—exactly the qualities he criticized in Trump.

Then the Biden administration roiled the waters again by announcing a deal (in partnership with Britain) to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia that supplanted that country’s previous agreement to buy conventional subs from France. Biden later apologized to French President Emmanuel Macron, but the incident reinforced a sense that his administration’s actions were diverging from its words about global cooperation.

Now, though, Biden and his team, Steinberg noted, have kept America’s allies moving toward the common destination of signaling a high price to Putin without micromanaging each step of how they get there. Rather than becoming offended, Biden has recognized that European leaders such as Macron and the new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, have their own reasons to pursue direct conversations with Putin and their own timetables in taking steps such as Germany’s recent suspension of its Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia. The Biden administration “gave them room to run,” Steinberg said, “and it paid off at the end of the day because there is strong alliance solidarity.”

Republicans are, so far, split. Trump, Carlson, and the Ohio Senate candidate J. D. Vance have suggested that the U.S. has no stake in this fight, while others, such as Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, say that Biden’s sanctions are too modest and too slow.

But foreign-policy experts generally agree that no one has put forward any alternative approaches that offer a realistic prospect of fundamentally changing Putin’s calculus about Ukraine—short of a full-scale deployment of NATO forces to defend it, an idea that few anywhere have suggested.

Some conservatives, such as the commentators Rich Lowry and Hugh Hewitt, have argued that Trump’s mere presence in the White House would have deterred Putin from acting—in Lowry’s eyes because the Russian leader would have been uncertain about how the U.S. might react. Trump made a similar claim this week during his interview on a conservative podcast.

But those assertions ignore the actual signals Trump sent to Putin while in office, particularly on Ukraine. Trump made clear how little he valued Ukraine’s independence when he delayed military aid to pressure its government into manufacturing dirt on Biden—the scheme that prompted his first impeachment.

Against the backdrop of such behavior, Steinberg said, although fully deciphering Putin’s plan is impossible from the outside, his thinking more likely flowed in the opposite direction than Trump and his defenders are suggesting.

While Trump was in office, Steinberg argued, Putin probably felt that America might simply accede to his goal of blocking the further integration of Ukraine into the West. With Biden, that possibility vanished. “Once Trump lost and [Putin] realized he couldn’t get it handed on a platter, he had to use more aggressive means.”

Pollsters agree that the chaotic Afghanistan exit took a measurable bite from Biden’s public standing. It damaged not only his approval rating on foreign policy (which started out as one of his best attributes but has fallen to about 40 percent or less in multiple recent national surveys), but also broader assessments of his competence and leadership. Jeremy Rosner, a member of Bill Clinton’s National Security Council who is now a Democratic pollster focusing on foreign-policy attitudes, says that Biden’s performance during the Ukraine crisis offers him only limited opportunities to repair the damage to his image, even though he’s played the West’s limited hand about as well as he could.There’s an asymmetry in how foreign policy works these days for presidents,” Rosner told me. “If you mess it up, it can really hurt you; if you do well at it, there’s not much upside.”

Also limiting the potential upside for Biden, Rosner said, is the reality that even the strong Western response cannot prevent ugly developments in Ukraine. “This could help a little bit, but there’s probably not going to be any sort of big bump, especially because what’s happening on the ground is already—and is likely to become even more—gruesome,” he said.

Sustaining a solid front against Putin over Ukraine will grow more difficult as time passes. U.S. consumers will likely pay more for gasoline, at least temporarily, and the consequences for energy availability and supply will be far greater in Europe, which is heavily reliant on Russian natural gas. “It’s quite possible that’s Putin’s strategy here—feeling he can weather this for a period of time and then sanctions fatigue will set in,” Steinberg said. Still, most experts agree that the brazenness and scale of Putin’s attack will make it easier to sustain public support for tough steps, at least at the outset.

The outcome in Ukraine isn’t likely to ever provide Biden with what Feaver calls a “Desert Storm” moment of clear victory that dramatically lifts his public standing; if anything, the images from the country are likely to get worse, not better, in the days and weeks ahead. Inexorably, at each stage of this confrontation, critics will also demand tougher sanctions than the allies have offered. But Daalder believes that the Ukraine crisis may prove a “transformative moment” that seals a broad international commitment to confronting Putin through the modern equivalent of the U.S.-led policy of “containment” against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Reflecting that possibility, Biden’s remarks today emphasized, to a striking extent, military steps to deter any further Russian aggression. Putin may seize Ukraine, but his victory could isolate him from the world more than ever. Ukraine’s agony is a terrible crucible, but it may help Biden forge stronger bonds among the world’s democracies—and in the process resolve some of the doubts he’s opened about his own capacity to lead them.