Two years have passed since the coronavirus invaded human bodies, a year since loyalists of former U.S. President Donald Trump invaded the Capitol building, and barely a week since Russia invaded Ukraine. In his State of the Union speech Tuesday night (early Wednesday in Israel), President Joe Biden bundled all the threats together in calling on citizens of the United States and of the world to unite around the values of democracy. The speech showcased the American president as the leader of the free world, and as one seeking to establish a new world order, combining politics, economics, and security. Globalization with new frontiers.
Biden has attended dozens of State of the Union speeches, required by the U.S. constitution. Biden is a presidency buff and must have imagined his first SOTU address for decades. But his maiden speech collided with a formative moment for his presidency and a historic inflection point for the U.S., Europe, and the world. Not only the State of the Union was on the agenda. This was a speech about the state of nations.
Despite not being a gifted speaker, his stutter and the fatigue of age and responsibility, Biden’s combative rhetoric reaped applause. He missed no chance to use the war in Europe and the hatred toward the Russian president to rally support. “Six days ago, Russia’s Vladimir Putin sought to shake the very foundations of the free world, thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways. But he badly miscalculated. He thought he could roll into Ukraine, and the world would roll over. Instead, he met with a wall of strength he never anticipated or imagined. He met the Ukrainian people.”
Biden praised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy – “Fearless, courageous, determined, inspiring” – and provided a show-stopper in the form of guest of honor Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., who sat next to First Lady Jill Biden. When Biden asked Markarova to stand, hundreds of lawmakers from both houses of Congress responded with thunderous applause. An important gesture by Biden to Ukraine and the world: Washington won’t be sending troops, but that doesn’t mean it will stand idle. “Putin will pay the price,” Biden vowed, referring to sanctions, military aid and probably more discrete channels as well.
Alongside praise for Ukraine, and emphasizing the military and financial aid the U.S. gives it, the speech provided a new draft for the Biden global doctrine: The president presented a list of basic rules all democratic nations can agree to, and stressed that only dangerous actors refuse to acknowledge them.
After a brief history lesson about the futility of appeasing dictators, Biden used the war to reposition NATO as the nucleus of the new world order. “That’s why the NATO alliance was created: to secure peace and stability in Europe after World War II. The United States is a member, along with 29 other nations. It matters. American diplomacy matters. American resolve matters. We spent months building a coalition of other freedom-loving nations in Europe and the Americas to the Asian and African continents to confront Putin.”
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The president’s speech was aimed at U.S. citizens but also at the world at large, stressing the need to build a coalition of democracies – not only to combat the threat of Putin, but all others challenges, as well. Any country able to commit to democracy, peace, and capitalism is welcome to Biden’s coalition.
Biden stressed that globalization is not only a challenge, but also offers new tools for dealing with villains. NATO and its allies can hurt Russia in ways that weren’t previously available. The war in Ukraine provides NATO with a field test.
Biden boasted that all 27 EU members – and even famously neutral Switzerland – “are inflicting pain on Russia and supporting the people of Ukraine. Putin is now isolated from the world more than he has ever been.” This was a rebuttal to his critics, accusing him of a feeble response to the Russian president’s aggression. He pointed at dramatic steps taken in the energy, finance, tech and aviation sections. As the speech was proceeding, Apple joined the boycott of Russia.
Biden tied the fight against Russia to economic woes at home, chiefly the inflation that, after Ukraine, is dominating the news cycle. He sympathized with working Americans struggling to keep up with rising prices, but sought to remind them that it’s all tied to the global order and economy, which has handed the keys to the American economy to dictatorships, headed by China. “To fight inflation – lower costs, not wages. That means make more cars and semiconductors in America,” he said.
Conspicuous in its absence was Biden’s $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” plan, which stalled in the Senate after passing the House, due to opposition by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia). Biden didn’t mention the plan in his speech this week, but only promised to advance parts of it – tender-age daycare subsidies, minimum 15 percent corporate taxes – which all enjoy bipartisan support among voters and are likely to pass in Congress.
Biden displayed his familiar ability to retreat from grand dreams to concrete reality. He spent much of his speech on actual accomplishments, such as the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, providing upgrades to federal bridges and highways unseen in 70 years. He also mentioned the $1.9 trillion COVID aid plan, the most expensive bill in U.S. history. In his speech, Biden announced a “new phase” in fighting the virus, including a gradual removal of restrictions. “Thanks to the progress we have made in the past year, COVID-19 no longer need control our lives,” he said, and was rewarded with applause.
From COVID to inflation, from Putin to green energy, Biden’s first State of the Union speech provided a coherent, consolidated narrative encompassing domestic and foreign policy. While his plans for the U.S. economy have shrunk to attainable dimensions, his global plans have expanded dramatically. Biden has worked all his adult life to promote alliances between peace-seeking nations, and in his first 12 months in office he tried unsuccessfully to keep doing so. All this changed in month 13, with a palpable, nuclear-armed villain like Putin. Biden has gone a long way towards creating a foundation for a global coalition.