Central to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculations as he weighed the invasion of Ukraine was a belief that he would encounter an enfeebled and divided West. It was a reasonable expectation given political developments in those countries in recent months and the seeming discord that surfaced among them as they studied his preparations. He was wrong, however.
The West, and virtually the entire world, has united to oppose the invasion of Ukraine. While many leaders deserve credit for helping to forge this coalition, a good deal of the credit goes to U.S. President Joe Biden, who has demonstrated remarkable acuity in handling this crisis.
He and his team overcame deep fissures in U.S. domestic politics to build that international front, wrong-footed Putin and prevailed in the information war. Biden is laying out the terms for a new era in international relations, one that he believes will be defined by the struggle between democracy and authoritarian governments.
While there was considerable public debate and great skepticism about Putin’s intentions, the U.S. has been steadfast in its insistence that an invasion was planned. To great risk, the U.S. revealed intelligence that burned off the cloud of doubt and confusion that Moscow hoped to use to win the information war and denied Russia the advantage of surprise.
Biden and his team used that intelligence and a calibrated strategic approach to engage allies and partners, and to identify and pursue the consensus that would unify the West in response to any aggression. Working behind the scenes, Washington has let other governments move at their own pace: For example, Europe was first to announce that Russian banks would be barred from the SWIFT financial messaging system. The result has been the creation of a coalition that not only surprised Putin, but many in the West as well. It has strengthened NATO and burnished its appeal to other European countries.
His team has worked with the Japanese government to ensure that it is part of this coalition. While condemnation of the invasion was obligatory, joining the sanctions effort was not. Tokyo has traditionally been slow to use sanctions, insisting instead on the need to maintain channels of communication with target countries.
This logic has been especially useful when dealing with Putin, with whom even conservative politicians engaged in hopes of reaching a solution to the Northern Territories dispute. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was one of the few Western leaders to attend the Opening Ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, held as another crisis brewed in Ukraine, one that would result in the annexation of Crimea.
The speed with which all parties agreed on sanctions and the severity of those measures is an example of the success of Biden’s strategy. The shocking shift in German security policy — announcing that Berlin will send military weapons to Ukraine and that it will increase defense spending by €100 billion this year and reach the goal of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defense — is another. The stunning United Nations General Assembly vote of 141-5 against the invasion is yet another.
These achievements are even more impressive given the damage that his predecessor Donald Trump did to U.S. alliances, multilateralism and the rules-based order. The most important lesson of the last week has been that international cooperation and coordinated action in pursuit of shared values and principles are essential to the survival of that order and to the peace and security it creates. The protection of national interests is best achieved through cooperative actions, not myopic or narrowly defined nationalism.
Just as important has been Biden’s restraint. He made clear before the invasion began that the U.S. would not commit military forces. He has talked tough, but he has not drawn intemperate red lines. When Putin brandished his nuclear arsenal in a seeming warning that he was prepared to use those weapons, the U.S. by contrast canceled a planned missile test to avoid any risk of an accident.
And throughout the crisis, Biden has focused attention on where it belongs. He has applauded the heroism and resilience of the Ukrainian people and condemned Putin for his aggression. He has not made it about himself or put himself at the center of the unfolding crisis.
Instead, he has framed this as a struggle between the forces of good and evil, as when he closed his State of the Union address in Washington Tuesday evening by noting that “Now is the hour. Our moment of responsibility. Our test of resolve and conscience, of history itself. It is in this moment that our character is formed. Our purpose is found. Our future is forged … . We will save democracy.”
For 70 years, the world has looked to the U.S. for leadership in international crises. In recent years, there has been growing doubt about both the capacity and the will of the U.S. president to play that role.
These questions have arisen as power within the world is being redistributed: Indeed, that shift is driving some of the concern. New divisions of labor and responsibility are needed; some are being created. But there remains a critical need for leadership, albeit leadership of a new kind. The world is fortunate to have Biden in the White House as it grapples with a world in transition.
The Japan Times Editorial Board