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Commentary: It’s not what Biden said in the State of the Union, but what he failed to say

BY KUNI MIYAKE, CONTRIBUTING WRITER

 

The foreign policy portion of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address sounded ambivalent at best. While it denounced Vladimir Putin’s personal war against Ukraine, the leader of the free world hardly touched on China in his hourlong speech.

 

To be precise, Biden referred to China twice in the address. When discussing his economic policy, for instance, he said, “It is going to transform America and put us on a path to win the economic competition of the 21st century that we face with the rest of the world — particularly with China.”

 

That said, many in Japan are still uneasy, if not disappointed, about the lack of reference to China — the other challenger to the United States, alongside Russia, which also seeks to change the status quo by force on the other side of the globe.

 

For the first time in five years, I witnessed a moment when a U.S. president sounded very presidential, even if temporarily, when Biden said: “Tonight, we meet as Democrats, Republicans and Independents. But most importantly as Americans … . And with an unwavering resolve that freedom will always triumph over tyranny.”

 

The best line in his speech was when he said that Putin “sought to shake the foundations of the free world thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways. But he badly miscalculated.” Biden added, “He thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead, he met a wall of strength he never imagined. He met the Ukrainian people.”

 

The U.S. president’s speech also had some surprises, especially in the countries that he mentioned. Biden said: “We countered Russia’s lies with truth. And now that he has acted, the free world is holding him accountable. Along with 27 members of the European Union including France, Germany, Italy, as well as countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand and many others, even Switzerland.”

 

That the president of the United States would refer to Japan in a speech with the gravitas of the State of Union Address is a rarity. Tokyo’s wisdom and determination paid off. In truth, Japan has seldom been referred to in previous State of the Union addresses. And when it was, it was often in a negative context. By the way, when Biden referred to “Korea,” he must have meant South Korea.

 

But on China, the most powerful statement in the speech was when Biden said, “As I’ve told Xi Jinping, it is never a good bet to bet against the American people.” He also stated that “to compete for the best jobs of the future, we also need to level the playing field with China and other competitors.”

 

This is fine, but may not be enough.

 

The lack of reference to China as a challenger to the status quo in the speech does not mean that Beijing is excused for its human rights abuses or authoritarian ways of governance. By offering Kyiv mediation or good offices, China is just playing nice now, but is in fact cleverly trying to take advantage of the crisis in Ukraine.

 

Putin’s strategic misjudgment

Two years ago, I wrote in this column about the three kinds of mistakes in politics. I said: “The first is a simple mistake that can be corrected or undone with relative ease. The second kind is a serious mistake that can’t be corrected or undone easily. Serious mistakes often do harm to the nation.”

 

“The third and the worst kind,” I went on to say, “is a fatal mistake that is not only irreversible but also extremely detrimental to the nation. Unfortunately, fatal mistakes are often made out of intuition, coincidence or misjudgment, and politicians do not always recognize when they make them.”

 

And now Putin is making exactly the kind of mistake that I wrote about. President Biden was right when he said Putin “badly miscalculated” about the “wall of strength he never imagined” in Ukraine. Moreover, Putin’s miscalculation was not confined to the unexpected resilience and determination of the Ukrainian armed forces and militias.

 

Putin misread the hearts and minds of the Ukrainians. The nation of Ukraine in the eyes of Putin is that of the old Ukraine, which he and his KGB colleagues had known well. The present Ukraine is, in a sense, something Putin himself has created by invading eastern Ukraine and annexing Crimea in 2014.

 

Miscalculations about the U.S. and the NATO

Putin also misjudged the unity of NATO. Despite the differences in temperature between the eastern and the western blocs among the member states, the unique collective security treaty organization has shown its resolve to protect freedom vis-a-vis the tyranny being carried out by Russia. Or I should say, Putin has helped unite the alliance.

 

U.S. information and economic warfare has worked as well. The unprecedented release of classified military intelligence, together with such economic measures as banning Russia from the SWIFT financial network, seem so far to be effective in deterring Putin from achieving his immediate military and political goals.

 

Two years ago, I wrote that “The impact of these fatal mistakes will likely continue in the years to come … . When it comes to rational, sophisticated and consistent policymaking, dictators like China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan have the advantage,” and concluded that “Western democracies may have to face this uncomfortable and unpleasant political reality in the future and strive to reverse it.”

 

Although I may have to add Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, to the above list of dictators, I still hope that I am wrong about that conclusion.

 

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies. A former career diplomat, Miyake also serves as a special adviser to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Cabinet. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Japanese government.

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