Analysis |

Biden’s NATO Trip: Uniting Against Putin, Sending a Message to China

The most busy president abroad since Truman arrived in Brussels one month after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, knowing that Western unity and supporting allies is just as crucial in Asia at the moment as it is in Europe

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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U.S. President Joe Biden speaking at NATO in Brussels on Thursday.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaking at NATO in Brussels on Thursday.Credit: Thomas Coex/AFP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

This is the story of a man from Delaware named Joe who was elected by a big majority to fix the ailing American republic and is now in the midst of four overlapping international crises of varying intensity. This Joe is a product of the Cold War, elected in a “post-Cold War” era only to learn after one year that the “post” has been taken down, the "war" is still here, and there are no guarantees it remains "cold."

He was elected to restore some order and dignity after the “facts-don’t-matter” chaos and professional-wrestling-style “presidency” of his predecessor. He was elected to heal the deep wounds of an insurrection attempt, to calm the toxic and dysfunctional political system, ameliorate destructive inequality, mitigate cultural divisions and dilute poisonous racial animosities.

And all this came against the backdrop of a lethal and lingering pandemic. This Joe had a lot to do.

Fourteen months later, Joe finds himself in a perfect foreign-policy storm on a scale and complexity not experienced by a U.S. president since Harry Truman in 1945. Russia has invaded Ukraine, and China is challenging the United States simply by not trying to rein in Russia. North Korea has test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time in five years but one that can possibly carry a nuclear warhead and reach North America. And negotiations on a new nuclear deal with Iran may very well be near conclusion.

Joe Biden, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, EC chief Ursula von der Leyen and leaders of other NATO countries in Brussels on Thursday.Credit: Henry Nicholls/Pool/AFP

So these are four mega-events, or rolling crises, all on top of the pandemic, which isn’t going anywhere soon. But as the adage goes, you should never waste a good crisis – and Joe Biden hasn’t.

That Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine campaign remains replete with miscalculations and major strategic self-inflicted wounds has become conventional wisdom, even for those who during the war’s first week were still infatuated with the genius 4D chess player from Moscow. But in the last month, “Putin misjudged the West” has become an article of faith. Putin miscalculated Biden’s resolve, grossly overestimated the underperforming Russian military, got entirely wrong the supposed ease of the campaign and totally misjudged the devastating effects of the sanctions that Washington and the West imposed on Russia’s fragile economy.

But the miscalculation the West is most proud of is how Putin misread Western unity and NATO, which had suffered self-esteem issues for two decades. He has set himself up for what is very likely a resounding strategic debacle, irrespective of possible – but still conspicuously unattained – tactical successes.

This elusive, potentially perishable commodity called “Western unity” is the impetus behind Biden’s trip to Brussels to three distinct yet interconnected summits: NATO, European Council, G-7.

Finnish soldiers taking part in an exercise in northern Norway on Tuesday. Credit: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

It’s important to emphasize that “Western unity” in 2022 isn’t the same term as during the bipolar Cold War era. Globalization, the expansion of economies and commerce, the evolution of supply chains, the ascendance of China and the diminishing of America’s appetite for world leadership means that “Western unity” now is less a geographical demarcation and more a set of rules, norms, values and political affinities. It encompasses Japan, Taiwan and South Korea as well as Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Australia and Argentina.

Biden has five issues to address, all of which can potentially diffuse Western unity. First, deter Russia’s “escalate to de-escalate” option. Second, try to extend and solidify the sanctions on Russia. Third, find temporary and long-term solutions to Western Europe’s dependency on Russian energy. Fourth, discuss conflict-ending scenarios in Ukraine. Fifth, project the power of unity and resolve onto a closely watching China.

Deter ‘escalate to de-escalate’

Russia’s tactical and operational failures have generated an anxious discussion in NATO about Putin’s escalatory options. The premise is that Putin needs a military achievement, a geopolitical gain that can help him manufacture a winning narrative. He can’t stop before that, so the assumption is that he’ll have to escalate before entering negotiations. This could be expanding the war to a NATO-member country, or using a tactical, low-yield nuclear weapon, or chemical weapons.

Biden in the White House speaking with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit in November.Credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP

NATO has been unequivocally clear about what it will not do in Ukraine: It will not deploy forces to take part in the war and it will not enforce a no-fly zone. But NATO has never said what it would do if Putin escalated the war using unconventional weapons. This ambiguity has served the United States and NATO well, and Biden has made clear that it must continue. Detailing what you will do in various scenarios and declaring red lines that will trigger action is rarely a smart policy.

Solidify sanctions and address Europe’s energy issue

Sanctions are working and are effective, perhaps even more than what Washington’s most ardent sanctions advocates thought or what Putin imagined. But a broad set of sanctions still haven’t been imposed yet: taking more Russian institutions off SWIFT, applying sanctions on companies indirectly doing business with Russia, adding individuals to the list (400 were added Thursday alone) and, most importantly, convincing the Europeans that buying Russian energy and paying with rubles is self-defeating. Energy supplies can be compensated for using other sources – albeit not an easy feat with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates resisting production increases – and demand can be encouraged to decrease temporarily.

Conflict-ending scenarios and formulas

If you want to diminish Putin, send an unequivocal message of leadership and resolve, constricting his options for future aggression. At this point, you can’t offer him a ladder to climb down on, or any self-appointed mediation. He needs to clearly lose. All this is happening, so why save him now? Biden is urging patience and perseverance – a cruel concept given that Ukraine, not America or the Netherlands, is paying the price for Putin’s failures and violence.

Ukrainian soldiers searching for bodies in the debris at a military school hit by Russian rockets in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, a week ago.Credit: Bulent Kilic/AFP

Allies must stay united against Russia, which should be expelled from the G-20, Biden said in Brussels on Thursday, adding about Putin: “The single most important thing is for us to stay unified and the world continue to focus on what a brute this guy is.”

Project strength and unity for China to see

China watched in disappointment how Putin’s miscalculations and mismanagement turned him from a potential asset into a certain liability. Yet China is showing no signs of disengaging from Russia. It sees the international system as a zero-sum game with the United States. It probably won’t break the sanctions regime because of the Chinese economy’s dependence on Western markets, companies, technology and parts, but the worse Russia’s situation, the less likely Beijing will make a clean break from Putin.

Quite the contrary. A weakened Russia is a better partner to challenge U.S. dominance than a Russia that just obliterated Ukraine.

So Biden needs to showcase to Asian allies – Japan, South Korea, Singapore and even the broader Indo-Pacific region – that alliances work, and they’ll work better if they’re U.S.-centered.

The durability of “Western unity” may not center around Europe but around the United States itself. Trumpism without Donald Trump is very much a state of mind in America, at least half of it. Putin’s enthusiasm with the events of January 6, 2021, and his conclusion that it’s a formative sign of U.S. decline, may have been wrong but the world is still wary of the residual damage to U.S. democracy and foreign policy.

Not everyone in the United States, whether inside or outside the Capital Beltway, thinks America should reassert itself as a dominant global superpower and pay the price such a designation carries. Not everyone in a broken and ailing America thinks that being “the leader of the free world” is a priority worth the sacrifices that this title entails. America’s dysfunctional political system, inherent inequality, and social and cultural divisions contributed to the appearance of Trumpism. And as far as the world is concerned, Trump or a populist-demagogic Trump acolyte is very much a possibility in 2024 or 2028.

The more the United States shows doubt about its hegemonic power and willingness to sustain it, and the more “Western unity” cracks and is in danger of crumbling, the more vindicated and emboldened China will feel. That’s what China has been waiting for, and it’s China, not Russia, that poses the gravest challenge to the United States and the West.

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