Joe Biden at FEMA
President Joe Biden participates in a briefing on the 2021 hurricane season Monday, May 24, 2021, at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

“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.”

Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin in Geneva
Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin at their sum­mit in Gene­va (Pho­to: Информацио́нное аге́нтство Росси́и // Russ­ian News Agency ТАСС, via the Kremlin)

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.

Joe Biden at FEMA
Pres­i­dent Joe Biden par­tic­i­pates in a brief­ing on the 2021 hur­ri­cane sea­son Mon­day, May 24, 2021, at the Fed­er­al Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency (FEMA) Head­quar­ters in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. (Offi­cial White House Pho­to by Adam Schultz)

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.

About the author

Gael Tarleton is an NPI Advisory Councilmember and former Washington State Representative who led two Russian subsidiaries during the 1990s and lserved as a senior defense intelligence analyst on Soviet strategic nuclear programs at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency from 1981-1990. She served on NPI's board from its inception through 2021.

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