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Lean on Me—with Caution

Lean on Me—with Caution

Ukraine rallying notwithstanding, political dysfunction renders the United States as unstable an actor in world affairs as ever.

Mitchell B. Reiss

Six months ago, I wrote that hyperpartisan political divisions in the United States have undermined our country’s ability to support our allies, deter our adversaries, and promote a liberal international order. The United States has become an uncertain trumpet for democratic ideals and human rights, an unreliable actor in a dangerous world, and a leading geopolitical risk factor. Corporate leaders, financiers and central bankers, foreign government officials, and others needed to take note.

Has the war in Ukraine upended this analysis? Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, we have seen the Biden administration effectively mobilize the democratic world’s outrage at Vladimir Putin’s brutality and ruthlessness. The President and his team have energized America’s alliances, coordinated a series of unprecedented sanctions against Russia and its kleptocratic oligarchs, and provided military and humanitarian assistance to the heroic Ukrainian men and women fighting to defend their homeland. U.S. intelligence has sabotaged some of Moscow’s military planning and disinformation schemes by uncovering and publicizing them in advance.

The U.S.-led campaign has certainly benefited from the Russian military’s incompetence, whether due to low morale, poor leadership, or endemic corruption. Taking stock after the first two months of war, it appears the United States has flexed its vestigial diplomatic muscles and reasserted itself as the global leader of democracies aligned against the forces of authoritarianism. Importantly, it has also managed to secure a good bit of bipartisan support for its efforts, notwithstanding the “Putin wing” of the Republican Party.

Fundamentally, however, America’s response to the war in Ukraine does little to resolve underlying questions about the United States as a reliable partner in an anarchic world. The war in Ukraine has presented the administration with a unique combination of factors that is responsible for its reassertion of alliance leadership and the limited (if still useful) amount of bipartisan backing it has received so far.

First, Putin is widely viewed as the personification of evil, thoroughly corrupt, dangerous, and even bizarre. Second, there is no debate that Russia has disregarded Ukraine’s sovereignty and violated international law.

Third, location matters. That this invasion occurred in Europe, on the doorstep of the EU and NATO, has galvanized the United States and the broader Western response in a way that similar actions in, say sub-Saharan Africa, would not. Indeed, President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, CIA Director Bill Burns, and other senior national security officials have deep knowledge and experience with Europe, NATO, and Russia. They have been preparing for just this type of contingency all their adult lives. If a crisis had erupted elsewhere, their performance might not have been as impressive.

Fourth, the courage of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainians in defying a vastly superior force has impressed and inspired nearly all Americans, as well as people the world over.

Fifth, the context against which Russia’s aggression has occurred has also been responsible for winning domestic support across party lines. Moscow’s attack has triggered fears among both Democratic and Republican lawmakers that a timid U.S. response would embolden China to expand its influence in Asia and perhaps even threaten Taiwan’s independence.

And sixth, both Democrats and (most) Republicans share clarity on the ideological stakes; the war in Ukraine is seen as part of a larger geopolitical struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.

All these factors are non-replicable. This means that the Biden administration remains handicapped by the same domestic political divisions that were present before the war. Even its skillful handling of this crisis will not translate into a political boost come November.

Consider that aside from the military aid package to Ukraine tacked onto the 2022 Consolidated Appropriations Act, congressional Republicans and Democrats have not cooperated to support this war. America’s actions targeting Russia and underwriting Ukraine have resulted from the administration’s Executive Orders, not congressional legislation. Whether banning Russian oil and gas imports to the United States, sanctioning Putin and the oligarchs, freezing Russia’s gold reserves, or seizing Russian assets, Congress has not taken the initiative. Republicans and Democrats have been unable to even pass a joint resolution condemning Russia’s invasion or denouncing Putin as a war criminal. Even the existing simulacrum of bipartisan support may not hold as the political, economic, and military consequences and costs of this conflict become clearer over time.

This governance failure is worrisome in a broader sense. Foreign policy has become the continuation of domestic politics by other means. If the United States is unable to reach bipartisan agreement on fundamental issues of war and peace when the strategic and moral stakes are so clear, then there is little hope for consensus on the many other challenges it faces. Consider how complex and contentious these other challenges are: Iran’s nuclear ambitions, North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal, China, global warming and other environmental issues, human rights, cyberwarfare, and the incipient militarization of space.

A counterfactual “parlor game” underscores this point: What if Donald Trump had been President during this crisis? Would he have led an international effort to confront Putin? Or would he have lauded him as a “genius” and endorsed his efforts to absorb Ukraine? Would the NATO alliance have survived such behavior by its strongest partner? Would the democratic world have coalesced around an unprecedented sanctions regime in the absence of U.S. leadership? Would Germany have canceled the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and increased its defense spending? Would the EU have committed to reducing its reliance on Russian energy? And how long would the Ukrainian people have been able to resist the onslaught from Russia without American aid and support?

The two major U.S. political parties have significant strategic differences in how they see the world and America’s place in it. These are not just tactical disagreements about a shared vision; these are core disagreements linked to competing philosophies, values, and the role of government. U.S. foreign policy will continue to oscillate wildly depending on whether the Democrats or Republicans occupy the White House and control Congress.

Change may happen as early as this November when the Republicans are poised to retake the House of Representatives and perhaps the Senate as well. With a divided government, the hyperpartisanship and policy paralysis that currently afflicts Washington will only get worse as we head into the presidential nominating season. The White House’s agenda will be stymied at every step, as Republicans will ramp up attacks portraying Biden as an ineffective leader and feeble one-term President.

Trump, despite his legal worries, gives every indication that he is preparing to run again in 2024. Even if the former President declines to run, it is likely that the Republican nominee would appeal to his core supporters by invoking his foreign policy agenda of “America First.” The geopolitical risks of another unilateralist and isolationist administration are significant. A Republican presidential victory would not just dismantle the achievements and priorities of the Biden administration. In a reprise of the first Trump administration, the risk is that the next Republican President would also be unwilling to support, let alone lead, a liberal international order. The entire architecture of the post-World War II order—featuring security alliances, free trade and open markets, democratic values, representative government and human rights, and cooperative efforts to sustain international financial, economic, and humanitarian institutions—would wither, since no ready and able substitute for American leadership exists.

Unfortunately, too, America’s foreign policy challenges will become even more difficult in the coming months and years. The war in Ukraine has raised first-order questions about globalization and world order, with growing fears that international relations will now be characterized more by competition than cooperation, more by old-fashioned rivalries and competing spheres of influence than by ever increasing trade and economic interdependence. The habit of hope built up since the end of the Cold War will dissipate.

These uncertainties and anxieties hang especially heavy over Europe. No one can foresee how long Russia under Putin (or his successor) will remain unrelentingly hostile to the West. Absent a steady and steadying American hand, transatlantic relations will undergo a reset, but no one can foresee its shape. Europe will demand a larger role in collective decision-making, but who will lead that effort? If Germany, then with what encumbrances and consequences? How volatile will French politics become after Macron? What might a post-Brexit role for Britain look like?

Will NATO’s European partners request additional evidence of America’s credibility to defend “every inch” of NATO territory? What happens if evidence of America’s credibility satisfies some European powers but alarms others? How will the new security situation in Europe impact economic policy? Will the EU adopt protectionist trade measures to help insulate European industries from the aftershocks of the war, including a massive refugee crisis? Will these factors make it more or less likely that NATO partners and the EU member states can work cooperatively together?

In the short term, Washington may have to decide whether it wants to redeploy not just additional troops to the European theater, but also re-station additional nuclear weapons there. As during the Cold War, Washington will once more have to calibrate its rhetoric and behavior to deter Russia while also reassuring Europe that it is not unnecessarily inflaming tensions that place them disproportionately at risk. At the same time, Moscow will actively test alliance relations, seeking advantage by instigating intra-European disputes, covertly promoting far-right political movements, engaging in cyberwarfare, and generally creating mischief by playing governments off one another.

All these developments will try America’s diplomatic acumen. Washington will be hard-pressed to chart a steady course, even with some measure of bipartisan compromise and agreement to ensure consistency and predictability on America’s national security interests. Without bipartisan agreement, our domestic dysfunction—with political leaders in Washington more certain about what they oppose than what they support—makes it far more likely that the United States will whipsaw between competing foreign policy visions. The United States will be an independent variable in international relations, with America’s friends and allies rightly doubting our reliability.

Unintended consequences occur after every war and the Ukraine war will be no different. The largest consequence may be that countries rethink their non-nuclear stance. Some pundits have claimed that if only Ukraine had retained the tactical and strategic nuclear weapons it had inherited from the USSR in 1991, Moscow never would have dared to invade. This argument conveniently overlooks the fact that Kyiv never had operational control over either the tactical or strategic nuclear weapons on its territory and that the United States and Russia would never have allowed Ukraine to assert such control.

The largest land war in Europe since the end of the Second World War has raised questions about the credibility of U.S. security guarantees, the forward deployment of American forces, and the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The war in Ukraine represents a historical inflection point, one that has prompted a rethinking of collective defense, self-help, and extended deterrence in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia.

The future of the international nonproliferation regime, which requires America’s friends and allies to trust the United States as a dependable partner, may well turn on which political party takes power in Washington. Indeed, the prospect of a second Trump presidency or an approximation thereof will cause, if it has not already caused, other countries to hedge their bets against a future in which the United States retreats from the world and no longer defends free trade, supports international institutions, or assures others’ security.

Many Americans have heard Winston Churchill’s quip that the United States can eventually be counted on to do the right thing—after it has exhausted all other alternatives. He may have been right. But for now, another saying ascribed to Churchill is perhaps more apt: When you find yourself going through hell, keep going.

Mitchell B. Reiss is an international consultant on geopolitical risk, institutional turnarounds, and nonprofit leadership. He served as director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Policy Planning from 2003 to 2005. This article is the second in a two-part series.

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