History may record that the first few months of the Biden administration marked a key moment in world history — one comparable to, but different from, the early months of the Truman administration. Truman and the remarkable group of senior officials around him crafted a strategic response to Stalin’s campaign to subjugate Europe and Asia. The Cold War became a contest between two power blocs and two idea systems, both with universal claims. Communism vs. the Free World was a bumper sticker, but it also represented something very real.
In recent years, a new global contest has been taking shape between the rapidly rising power and ambitions of a totalitarian China and authoritarian Russia on the one hand and a coalition of European and Asian democracies led by the U.S. on the other. President Biden has spoken on a number of occasions of “an alliance of democracies.” This coalition is large, comprising the member states of NATO, the European Union and Asian democracies — Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and, more ambiguously, Taiwan. The geographic battleground being contested is global but is concentrated in Southeast Asia and the Slavic states between NATO and Russia — notably Ukraine and Belarus.
The contours of this new contest were greatly obscured during Donald Trump’s tenure in the Oval Office. Trump attacked America’s allies, embraced its adversaries (Putin, Kim Jong Un) and generally presided over a period of strategic incoherence in U.S. foreign policy. At the same time, it became increasingly clear, highlighted by the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol, that American democracy was, itself, in real peril.
Against this backdrop, the Biden administration represents a delayed recognition of global strategic realities. But that recognition is more than an understanding of new global power dynamics; it has real intellectual depth. It is striking how the President and the enablers of his foreign policy, Secretary of State Blinken and National Security Advisor Sullivan, use the language of values to express what is at stake. In his recent visit to Europe, Blinken met with his counterparts, including the French foreign minister in Paris. For Blinken, that visit was personally evocative because he had spent much of his youth living in Paris — his “second home.” Here is Blinken in an interview, articulating what the alliance between America and France means at its core: “It comes down to something pretty basic. You know, we throw out a lot of words and we just kind of say them by rote. But, at our best, our countries have worked to actually give meaning to liberty, equality, fraternity. They’ve tried to give meaning to freedom of speech. They’ve tried to give meaning to human rights, They’ve tried to give meaning to democracy.”
Many of Blinken’s comments were made with China primarily in mind. But similar sentiments appeared in a meeting of European Union leaders a couple days earlier. Germany’s European affairs minister, Michael Roth, stressed the foundations of European unity go beyond pragmatic calculations of national interest: “The European Union is not primarily a single market or a currency union. We are a community of values; these values bind us all.” The EU ministers were heavily concerned with nearby challenges to those very values — from Russia and Belarus.
Putin is not the only cynical autocrat on Europe’s periphery. In Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, “Europe’s last dictator,” has been prominently in the news as he has used every brutal means at his disposal to suppress popular demands for real democracy. In his latest offense, Lukashenko effectively hijacked an international airline flight over Belarus in order to seize a prominent democracy activist on board. Outraged EU leaders branded Lukashenko a criminal and imposed a draconian suite of economic sanctions designed to inflict real pain on his Minsk regime. At the same time, the EU reaffirmed sanctions on Moscow imposed in reaction to Russia’s earlier invasion and annexation of Crimea.
In one notable respect, the U.S. and its allies are in a stronger position than Truman was in the 1940s. Communism had real international appeal in those early cold war years — particularly as it became linked to revolutionary movements seeking the overthrow of colonial regimes in Africa and Asia. The adversaries facing the U.S. and its allies today have no such international appeal. Xi Jinping champions “the China dream” and “the great Chinese rejuvenation.” It is all about China; no one else really counts. China’s international appeal — what political scientists call “soft power” — is largely limited to ethnic Chinese living in other countries. China can and does use its wealth to buy support, but that is a far cry from “workers of the world unite!”
Vladimir Putin, the former committed communist, has built his political support by rebranding himself as a champion of Russian nationalism and culture. The one-time avowed atheist is now the most visible supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church. Like Xi, Putin is the paladin of political ideas that don’t travel very well. By contrast, democracy — the idea and the aspiration — does resonate powerfully with people across geographic, ethnic and cultural differences.
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.