“A worthy adversary.”
With these three words, U.S. President Joe Biden changed the rules of engaging with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Notably, Biden called his Russian counterpart a “worthy adversary.”
It may be the first time ever that an American President has chosen to characterize the leader of Russia as our adversary.
Joe Biden explicitly called out Vladimir Putin, but stayed silent about how Americans view the Russian people and their nation. It may one of the first times since the end of World War II that an American president has resisted characterizing another nation as either an “ally” or an “adversary.”
This conceptual reframing of U.S. national security policy opens the door for more creative approaches to tackle the challenges we collectively face in the post-globalization, post-pandemic, post-Brexit era.
Although certain alliances, partnerships, and coalitions established during the Cold War and following the September 11th attacks have played essential roles in aligning nations with shared geopolitical, cultural, and economic interests, they are proving inadequate to confronting the types of threats we face today.
Now, at last, we have a President of the United States who is unafraid to define the reality of twenty-first century threats.
Climate disasters, pandemics, domestic extremism, cyber attacks, unstable and corrupt governments, and anti-democratic political regimes pose persistent risks to democratic institutions and representative democracies everywhere.
These threats recognize no national boundaries.
They are inherently destabilizing. They require adaptive strategic planning and response efforts across cultures, continents, and existing borders.
Biden’s worldview started to come into focus during the first one hundred days of his and Kamala Harris’ administration.
Even as he prioritized a national vaccination program and passed the American Rescue Plan to stave off economic catastrophe for our families, businesses, and local and state governments, Biden multiplexed on foreign policy priorities.
He took early action to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord, extend the U.S.-Russian New START agreement, and re-engage with Iran on potentially re-negotiating the Iran Nuclear Deal (even as Iran was preparing to elect a new President with former President Rouhani term-limited).
Then, our new President made the important, long-overdue decision to end America’s longest war and pull American troops out of Afghanistan by the twentieth anniversary of the September 11th attacks this year.
Biden’s shift in both tone and substance comes at a crucial time.
The President’s decision to meet first with America’s closest friends and allies at the G‑7 Summit hosted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave Russian President Putin plenty of time to ruminate on what President Biden’s “America is back!” message might mean for Russia’s future relationships in Washington, D.C., and European and Asian capitals.
Then, on the eve of his summit with Russia’s President, Biden sent an unexpected signal. “America is back” means the United States will engage with Russia and with its President under new rules of the road. The United States will not ignore, dismiss or demonize this Eurasian nuclear state.
Putin may be an adversary, but the Russian people are not.
Russia and the Russian people are confronting many of the same threats as the rest of the world. As leaders of their respective nations, Biden and Putin share a responsibility to engage at all levels – bi-national, multi-national, and multi-institutional – to address common threats to their people.
This remarkable shift in Biden’s worldview will have cascading consequences for all aspects of U.S. national security policy and planning.
The President’s emerging worldview is apparent in so many ordinary ways. His tone. His careful choice of words. The phone calls he makes. The meetings he holds. The policies being proposed. The political relationships at work. The immediate crises he confronts and the long-term goals he articulates.
This is not the chaos of a disordered mind.
This is the coherence of a person who knows who he is, knows where he stands, and knows how to lead through these chaotic times.
This is the President of the United States of America that the rest of the world sees. World leaders and foreign intelligence officials now will shift gears and focus on what these recent policy decisions of the Biden presidency might indicate for the months and years ahead.
Here at home, many Americans — so accustomed to twenty-four-seven media cycles and near-sighted vision — are having a hard time re-orienting.
Whiplash. It’s how this all feels, moving out of chaos.
There’s no more Trumpian daily dose of chaos to feed the news cycles and political junkies. No more tweets to dissect. No more investigating secret calls to Putin or the meaning of love notes exchanged with North Korea’s dictator Kim Jung Un. And we are at last free of Rudy Guliani’s conspiracy-theories-run-amok.
We’re in post-traumatic stress mode as we re-enter the world, look around, and realize how much went wrong while the Trump vortex exhausted our time, energy, and emotions.
For four years Americans were consumed with figuring out how to live with a President who was consumed with himself and his own interests.
The coronavirus pandemic, while killing more than 600,000 Americans and nearly four million people worldwide to date, forced us into survival mode and further isolated us from what was happening beyond our own neighborhoods.
Although we were isolated, we could not be insulated from the unraveling that happened before Biden and Harris entered the White House on January 20th.
It’s not surprising that we’re feeling whiplash with the daily headlines. Those headlines are eye-popping as the stories seem to blur together:
- COVID-19 variants and the race to get vaccinated;
- Warnings of Russia’s second Ukrainian war and Putin’s sudden decision to pull back Russian troops;
- The Oath Keepers’ and Proud Boys’ insurrection planning;
- Multiple mass shootings each week;
- A warming world, evidenced by melting glaciers, with the survival of Greenland, The Maldives, and other jurisdictions at stake;
- Cyber espionage and cyber attacks that went undetected for months, then the crippling of the Colonial Pipeline with ransomware;
- China’s insatiable appetite for rare earth minerals and the Chinese Communist Party’s oppression of the Uyghurs;
- Potential renewal of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran to corral Iran’s nuclear ambitions;
- U.S. defense budgets proposing to spend a trillion dollars on new nuclear weapons instead of destroying them;
- Children suffering grave harms in American border prisons.
The rest of the world is both observer and independent actor as America re-orients itself beyond chaos.
Putin ordered the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, is directing cyberattacks against U.S. intelligence agencies and critical infrastructure, and has taken aggressive military actions against U.S. commercial fishing vessels in the Pacific Ocean.
China’s President Xi is gobbling up land and mining rights on every continent while reversing freedoms in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
North Korea’s Kim is persisting in his quest to join the nuclear club, keeping South Korea and Japan dependent on the United States as their nuclear deterrent.
Israel’s Netanyahu couldn’t form a stable government and lost power even as he continues to forment violence in the Middle East.
Syria’s civil war and genocidal warfare are continuing unabated.
The Taliban is working furiously to destroy Afghanistan’s tenuous government and the country risks sliding further into a catastrophic state of disorganization.
Brazil and Venezuela are in freefall. They and India are contending with brutal coronavirus outbreaks killing hundreds of thousands of people.
And Western and Central European nations?
Political extremism and nationalistic fervor are resurgent just thirty years following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, the Arctic ice cap is melting, rainforests are on fire, fisheries are collapsing, and Africa is running out of water, food, and hope.
President Joe Biden’s first term as Commander-in-Chief will be measured not by his first days and months in office. Rather, these next four years will determine whether this unique American democracy will endure to celebrate its two hundred and fiftieth Independence Day on July 4th, 2026.
The stakes? The American experiment in democratic self-government faces existential threats from figurative and literal tsunamis: extremism, demagoguery, so-called one hundred year floods and fires annually.
As we move from chaos to coherence, we must strengthen our own democratic institutions and reorient our relationships with the rest of the world.
We must acknowledge that ours is not a perfect union, but we will never stop striving to build that future. We have a new President working to protect our people, our communities, and our democracy.
Fortunately for our constitutional republic, President Biden is no newcomer to chaos, confusion, political posturing, or ideological warfare.
He is that rare leader whose life story is one of endurance in the face of unbearable personal loss. He has known profound political failure, but never gave in to the cynicism, despair, and defeatism so prevalent in today’s politics.
He finds clarity when others get mired in petty disputes.
He surrounds himself with people who delve into the details, when so few are willing to do that kind of work, day in and day out.
Joe Biden knows the power of the office he holds and the responsibilities he owes to the American people.
He knows that the fate of America’s experiment with a constitutional republic based on rule of law will affect the futures of all peoples on every continent.
President Joe Biden’s worldview is coming into focus. When he says that he is fighting to save our democracy against all threats, foreign and domestic, natural or manmade, believe him. This is a politician who means what he says and says what he means. That’s what coherence sounds like.