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


It is the result of a good-natured incrementalist battling a vicious opportunist.

Opportunity is what the opportunist takes advantage of.

When one of America’s most trusted politicians is confronted with the greatest authoritarian in the world, this is how it happens.

The authority takes initiative.

It is exactly what Presidents do. Joe BidenPresident, at 79 years old, is badly wounded by messy democracy and a long term in office. Vladimir PutinAged 69, he looks more determined than ever during his third decade as an authoritarian ruler.

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. 

If Truman cannot change the tide, Putin, with China’s morale and material support, will keep his long-running campaign to reverse one of the major outcomes of the Cold War. The changed principles by which nations would navigate the future together.

“Those principles,” saidThis week’s visit by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to Berlin, “established following two world wars, and a Cold War, we reject one country’s right to alter borders of another nation by force; to dictate or make choices to another regarding its policies or decisions, as well as with whom it associates; or to exercise a sphere that would allow it to subjugate any sovereign neighbor to its will.”

Blinken’s wordsThese powerful words are worth repeating because it was too easy to get lost in this week’s news noise.

Allowing Russia to ignore these principles would send us back to an even more unstable and dangerous time when the continent and city were split in half, separated by no man’s lands and patrolled with soldiers with the threat to all-out war hovering over our heads. The message it sends to the rest of the world is that these principles can be abandoned, and this would cause catastrophic effects.

Some argue the U.S. should not be leading this heroic defense of post-1945 principles. With its own democracy divided and demoralized, and its president’s popularity declining ahead of pivotal mid-term elections, some would say that it is not in a position to do so. 

Looking back at Harry Truman is even better. He assumed the presidency in 1945 following the death of Franklin Roosevelt. His Democratic party was rivenly split, with big-city progressives and Southern conservatives.

Yet, he supported what was today referred to as “far-left” initiatives. He advocated expanding the welfare system and increasing government intervention in the economy. This was despite an American electorate which is, 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.

Even though Republicans were navigating their own similar-sounding conflicts between right and left wings, especially regarding foreign policy. The U.S. was struggling to identify itself in the postwar sea change. With members such as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, the conservative isolationist old guard was trying to exert influence on the internationalist wings.

(Also, in a reminder of how history does not repeat itself but it rhymes) White supremacy was the dominant electoral theme for Georgia’s Governor Eugene Talmadge. He won his fourth term after a campaign that purge black voters from their voting rolls.

It was never over. Truman resigned in January 1953 after a long Korean War, economic slowdown and corruption, which had a historic 22% approval rating.

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 diplomatic, military and economic efforts set the scene for an American internationalist foreign policy, which led to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.

All of this should be remembered by President Biden, as many pundits advise him to make a course correction now in order to avoid failure.

A government official shared three major errors that needed to be corrected immediately. They were the inept management of Covid-19’s ongoing challenge, the failure of political analysis that led to the demise of his “Build Back better” legislation and, perhaps most important for his election hopes, his underestimation inflationary risk.

But even if Biden can “course correct” in order to deal with all the domestic problems, this could not be easy. Truman’s international policy handling was what earned him a place in history. It also shaped the postwar period. Biden is right to see the historic stakes. to see our period also as such an “inflection point.”

Biden triggered an uproarThis week, during a long news conference on Wednesday, he suggested that the allies might be split over how to deal with a minor incursion into Ukraine.

Despite the fact that U.S. officials corrected his statementThe Washington Post editorial Board was correct to provide calm for Ukrainian leaders as well as domestic critics. opineThat the president had “told the truth”

This column arguedOn Jan. 9, despite Russia’s continued building up of hybrid and military capability, Putin will likely be more crafty and messy than most people expect. His actions aim to split NATO allies as well as U.S. domestic political on the best way to respond.

Blinken, Secretary of State week in his Friday meetingSergei Lavrov (Russian Foreign Minister) appears to have made some room for further talks with the Russians. Or perhaps, as the analysis of the Atlantic Council’s military fellows points out,It could also give more time for military preparations to an incursion. 

The problem is not Putin’s next move, but the troubling path that led to it. This includes Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, which was part of the George W. Bush presidency. It also included its 2014 invasion and annexe of Crimea during the Barack Obama presidency. Now, this is the test for President Biden.  

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.