The Biden administration played a critical role in assembling the European and global coalition to punish Russia’s unprovoked invasion of neighbouring Ukraine, and in so doing displayed American diplomatic power at its best: leading without dominating.
The White House overcame well-founded concerns among allies about the integrity of US intelligence after the Afghanistan pull out, and the capacity of the United States to lead given the past and future threat former president Donald Trump poses to the alliance structure. President Joe Biden personally deserves credit for rebuilding trust among European allies, whom he treated as equals.
The Russian invasion has also led key European leaders to break with foreign policies that have been in place since the end of the Second World War. These changes suggest that, if the current crisis can be resolved without significant escalation, the security architecture of Europe will be vastly improved in the future. Germany has declared an end to its dependence on Russian gas and a dramatic increase in defence spending, winning widespread public support. Finland and Sweden ended 80 years of military non-alignment by sending weapons into Ukraine, and a recent poll found that 53 per cent of Finns now support joining NATO – up from 19 per cent in 2017 – and that percentage increases to 66 per cent if Sweden were to join as well.
Congress has been deeply involved in making US policy towards Russia and Ukraine over the past decade.
But European resolve in the short- to medium-term, is, of course, predicated on the certainty that Washington has their backs.
So, how should we interpret this unexpected but not ahistorical example of the United States as a skillful diplomatic actor, or more to the point: To what extent will America’s domestic politics undermine the effectiveness of foreign policy during this crisis?
In the near term there is relatively good news on three fronts: first, Ukraine benefits from strong bipartisan cooperation in Congress; second, The Putin apologists in the Republican party have disappeared and the hawks haven’t risen; and third, American public opinion appears rational and responsive to the current crisis.
Congress has been deeply involved in making US policy towards Russia and Ukraine over the past decade. Laws mandating sanctions on Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea and interference in US elections, and funding for military aid in Ukraine, has been possible through strong bipartisan cooperation. This includes the legislation passed in 2017, in response to concerns about Trump’s warmth towards Putin, that restricted the president’s authority to remove the sanctions on Russia.
The threat posed by Putin apologists is more about Trump’s influence over the foreign policy positions taken by the Republican party than it is about actual support for Putin. Rank-and-file Republicans may have enjoyed (or simply tolerated) Trump’s tough-guy bromance with Putin, but they didn’t change their already low opinion of Russia’s leader over the course of his presidency.
Trump praised Putin in the hours before the invasion, but has since walked this back. (Over the course of his presidency he also often walked back his Putin praise and then walked back the walk back.) Tucker Carlson, the influential Fox News commentator, spent February echoing Kremlin talking points about Ukraine being a puppet of the West, but he too pivoted recently, acknowledging that Putin was blameworthy and ought to be punished.
The coterie of far-right politicians who would follow Trump anywhere also shifted their allegiance from Putin. Republican party activists are now focused on blaming Biden for the crisis and asserting that the invasion would not have happened if Trump were still president. This idea has some traction among Republican voters.
Anything that validates Trump’s strongman worldview is not great. But one bright spot in this evolving picture concerns Trump’s former Vice President, Mike Pence, who was unfailingly loyal to Trump right up until he refused to block the certification on Biden’s presidential win (on 6 January 2021).
Pence, speaking on 4 March to Republican National Committee donors, didn’t just criticise Putin apologists in the Republican party, he also broke from Trump by praising NATO, asking, “Where would our friends in Eastern Europe be today if it were not for NATO? Where would Russian tanks be today if NATO had not expanded the borders of freedom?”
Public opinion polls taken after Biden’s State of the Union address on 1 March reflect a general understanding of the administration’s performance, and support for the current policies.
The danger of hawkish Republicans sabotaging the administration’s current policy towards Ukraine appears low (for now). A few Republican Senators have called for escalating US involvement in Ukraine, but they are in the minority, and Senator Lindsey Graham’s call for Vladimir Putin’s assassination was roundly criticised. If John McCain were still alive and calling for a no-fly zone, he might have been able to gather support, but the current crowd is not as well trusted.
Public opinion polls taken after Biden’s State of the Union address on 1 March reflect a general understanding of the administration’s performance, and support for the current policies. In an NPR poll, 83 per cent of respondents said they support the economic sanctions the United States and allies have levelled against Russia. That includes eight in ten Republicans. Support for the sanctions should be understood as a temporary rally round the Ukrainian flag effect and should not be read as support for Biden personally.
However, in the NPR poll Biden’s overall approval rating jumped to 47 per cent, up eight points from last month. (Other polls taken at the same time found similar positive jumps, though some not as large). This brings the president back to his July 2021 personal approval ratings, pre-Delta Covid surge and pre- Afghanistan pull out.
Approval of Biden’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine is up 18 points from last month to 52 per cent. The change in these numbers is due to jumps with Democrats and independents. This breakdown suggests the possibility that people who likely voted for Biden in 2020, but withdrew their support in late summer 2021, i.e., held him accountable for the Afghanistan debacle (and/or Delta-surge fall out), are now returning to support him given new evidence of his administration’s competence.
The impact of the current crisis in Ukraine on the American political landscape doesn’t signal a big turnaround for Democrats in the midterm elections, though the effect should be positive. But it does, more importantly, hold positive signs for America’s reliability as an ally during a crisis.