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State of the Union: Biden's Manichean moment

He is certainly not the first president to use the pulpit to frame his foreign policy as an epic struggle between good and evil.

Analysis | Europe

“There is a massacre unfolding in the heart of Europe.”

This was the last thing said by the ABC network announcer before President Biden came into the House chamber Tuesday evening for his State of the Union Address. It was a nice set-up, one surmises, given the language Biden used shortly after to describe the situation in Ukraine, and the role of the United States in a world divided now by “democracies” and “autocracies.”

It was in one word, Manichean

“Six days ago, Russia’s Vladimir Putin sought to shake the foundations of the free world thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways. But he badly miscalculated,” said Biden. “He thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead he met a wall of strength he never imagined.”

“In the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security.”

Biden is certainly not the first to use the presidential pulpit to frame his foreign policy objectives of the moment as an epic struggle between good and evil. Who could forget the post-9/11 speeches of George W. Bush, calling Iran, Iraq, and North Korea the “axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world,” while signaling to leaders across the Muslim world, “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”?

During his second inaugural address — the introduction of his so-called "freedom agenda" — Bush actually declared “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

We know now that while laudable on its face, the mission of ending tyranny somehow hatched many little tyrannies across the Middle East and North Africa — al Shabaab in Somalia, Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS, to name a few. Today, however, Biden dusted off the hymnal to declare global unity against Vladimir Putin and that the United States is again leading the vanguard against evil, hurtling down the tracks of the liberal international order (no mention of the countries not yet fully on board, like China, India, Israel, Turkey, the Gulf States — most of them partners/friends/allies). 

Nevertheless, according to his remarks Tuesday, Putin is being punished with the full-force of economic sanctions and closed airspace over the EU and the United States. Putin’s cronies and oligarchs “who bilked billions of dollars off this violent regime” can expect a good squeezing, too. Furthermore, Russia stands to face the full ferocity of NATO if it dips even a toe into one of the member states just outside Ukraine. 

“As I have made crystal clear the United States and our Allies will defend every inch of territory of NATO countries with the full force of our collective power,” Biden charged, his voice rising.

“When the history of this era is written Putin’s war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger.” 

Biden mentioned “diplomacy” exactly twice but it was apropos of nothing (other to say all efforts at diplomacy were rejected by Putin). No word of how the U.S. (as a leader) may be working to diffuse or deescalate Putin’s aggressive behavior, just a pledge to rush billions in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, portending a long fight, and what then — regime change in Moscow?

Biden was careful to assure that any real fighting right now would be done by the Ukrainian people, and it might even “take months.” But he would be wise to note that regime change policies from the outside typically don’t work; they are beyond messy and tend to have disastrous unintended consequences. Not good if that’s what the crippling sanctions against Russia are ultimately intended for, as my colleague Marcus Stanley pointed out today. 

Of course, a Manichean infusion always provides color and jacks up the emotional factor during critical addresses before the nation; they are designed to make people feel patriotic and good. Tonight, amid the horrifying images coming out of Ukraine, was no different. The test will be what Biden does about it. With a good number of folks within his own party seemingly hunkered down for a long fight, let’s hope that this battle between “good and evil” remains firmly in the realm of oratorical flourishes and ideological touchstones rather than serious U.S. foreign policy. 

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris applaud, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, U.S., March 1. 2022. Jabin Botsford/Pool via REUTERS
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