On Foreign Policy, Biden’s Agenda Faces Multiplying Challenges


Two years ago, just six days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, President Biden opened his State of the Union address by vowing to stop Vladimir V. Putin in his tracks. The response in the House chamber was a series of standing ovations.

On Thursday night Mr. Biden again opened his address by repeating his warning that, if not stopped, Mr. Putin would not halt his territorial ambitions at Ukraine’s borders. But the political environment was completely different.

With many Republicans vowing not to vote for more aid and Ukrainians running short of ammunition and losing ground, Mr. Biden challenged them to defend former President Donald J. Trump’s declaration that if a NATO country failed to pay enough for its defense, he would tell Mr. Putin to “do whatever the hell you want.”

While Democrats cheered at Mr. Biden’s direct shot at his opponent in the 2024 election, many Republicans in the chamber looked down or checked their phones — an illustration of the shifting and multiplying challenges he faces at a moment when his foreign policy agenda is playing a central role in the re-election campaign.

Mr. Biden’s vow to restore American power by rebuilding alliances and to “prove democracy works” is a far more complicated task than it was when he came into office.

His problems run deeper than the new thinking of a Republican Party that has moved in 20 years from President George W. Bush’s declaration that America’s mission would be the spread of democracy to Mr. Trump’s open admiration of Mr. Putin and quasi-autocrats like President Viktor Orban of Hungary, who is visiting Mar-a-Lago on Friday.

On the progressive side of his own party, Mr. Biden has been stunned to discover that a whole generation of Americans do not share his instinct to protect Israel at all costs, and are deeply critical of how he let American weapons fuel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s continued bombing of civilian areas of Gaza, where more than 30,000 people have died, according to local health authorities.

After two Democratic primaries in which “uncommitted” won notable percentages of the vote in a protest of the administration’s Mideast policy, Mr. Biden spent the latter part of his speech scrambling to let progressives know he was listening. He described in detail what Gazans have gone through and insisted that “Israel must allow more humanitarian aid.” It was a change of tone for a president who has been loath to pressure Mr. Netanyahu in public, even as the two leaders have argued bitterly over secure lines.

Mr. Biden tried to use the receding memory of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol to sew his domestic and foreign democracy agenda together, at one point declaring that the rampage “posed the greatest threat to democracy since the Civil War.”

And while he was counting on the sound of booing that he knew would greet those remarks, hoping it would expose the election deniers in Congress and beyond, the sound was almost certain to be heard from Beijing to Berlin, where leaders are desperate to gauge which America they will be dealing with in 10 months’ time.

Ukraine poses the clearest test of Mr. Biden’s ability to declare that he rebuilt American alliances just in time.

He opened by recalling Franklin D. Roosevelt’s State of the Union address in 1941, when “Hitler was on the march” and “war was raging in Europe.” He compared that moment to today, arguing that “if anybody in this room thinks Putin will stop at Ukraine, I assure you, he will not.”

It was part of a strategy to cast the opponents of future military assistance to Ukraine as appeasers, accusing Mr. Trump — whose name he never uttered, calling him “my predecessor” — of “bowing down to a Russian leader.” And he went on to celebrate NATO, “the strongest military alliance the world has ever known.’’

Now, after two years in which the alliance has rediscovered its mission — containing Russian power — even that line left Republicans silent. Nothing that has happened in the past two years, even the European commitment of $54 billion to rebuild Ukraine and the provision of Leopard tanks and Storm Shadow missiles and millions of artillery rounds, has thrown Mr. Trump off his talking points. He still denounces the alliance as a drain on America, and his former top aides say that, if elected, he really might withdraw from the alliance.

Mr. Biden’s most influential advisers, including Senator Chris Coons, the Delaware Democrat who talks with the president frequently, have maintained that casting Mr. Trump as sympathetic to the Russian leader is the rare case of a foreign policy issue that could move the needle of a presidential election.

And they think support for Ukraine runs deeper than it looks. Many Democrats contend that if the bill to give $60.1 billion in additional aid to Ukraine — much of which will stay in U.S. weapons factories — received a clean up-or-down vote in the House, it would pass. But under pressure from Mr. Trump, Speaker Mike Johnson has so far kept the vote from coming to the floor.

But if Ukraine is a place of moral clarity for Mr. Biden and his argument that American intervention on behalf of democracies is at the core of the national mission, the Israel-Hamas war is a morass.

Mr. Biden’s announcement during the State of the Union address that he had ordered the military to funnel emergency aid into Gaza by building a pop-up port on the Mediterranean Sea was on one level a demonstration of America’s global reach, as it struggles to stem a massive humanitarian disaster before hundreds of thousands starve.

But in other ways it was also a symbol of Mr. Biden’s global frustrations.

The very fact that he had to order the construction of the floating pier in Israel’s backyard, apparently without its help, was a remarkable acknowledgment of how his repeated entreaties to Mr. Netanyahu have fallen on deaf ears.

Unable to sway Mr. Netanyahu and his war cabinet, Mr. Biden is quite literally routing around them, building floating piers that were designed for going ashore in hostile territory. Biden’s order was driven not only by humanitarian impulse, but also by the electoral necessity of knitting together his party’s divides over Middle East policy and demonstrating that he is prepared to do far more for the Palestinians than Mr. Trump is.

“To the leadership of Israel I say this,” Mr. Biden said on Thursday. “Humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip. Protecting and saving innocent lives has to be a priority.”

Mr. Biden is not yet where the left of his party is; he did not, for example, say that he would put restrictions on how American arms provided to Israel can be used. And while the new maritime effort to rush in aid may help, if combined with a pause or cease-fire that allows the distribution of food and medicine, Mr. Biden may be too late for the purposes of recovering disenchanted members of his base.

Remarkably, the foreign policy initiative that Mr. Biden regards as the single most important in his term got the least mention: containing China’s power, while competing with it on key technologies and urging it to cooperate on climate and other common issues.

He gave China a mere seven lines, yet officials say it remains at the core of his strategy. But even there, he could not resist a jab at Mr. Trump, who during the pandemic railed against the “China virus” but was slow to cut off chips and chip-making equipment, as Mr. Biden has. “Frankly, for all his tough talk on China,” Mr. Biden said, “it never occurred to my predecessor to do that.”

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