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Joe Biden’s ad-lib and the limits of words

The US president caused alarm by saying Putin could not remain in power, but speeches alone are unlikely to change the course of war.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON, DC — What can a speech do in time of war?

On Saturday Joe Biden, on the heels of summits with various European allies and other partners, delivered a speech in Warsaw. The US president, from his first days in office, has spoken of a world in which democracies need to counter autocracies. Here he had an actual, tangible example with which to drive the theme home.

Russia’s war in Ukraine was a “test of all time”, he told the crowd in his roughly half-hour long speech. It was a fight “between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force”. And he reminded all listening that all of this would take time (perhaps meant to quell concerns that Americans abandon their friends in times of need).

He oscillated between describing the present and drawing on inspiration from the past: resistance in central and eastern Europe during the Cold War and Abraham Lincoln’s conviction during the Civil War that “right makes might”.

But the most noteworthy part of the speech came at the end, wasn’t part of the prepared text and caused an immediate uproar. “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden ad-libbed.

This understandably evoked great concern from pundits and the public alike. The sentence could have been understood as the leader of one nuclear power advocating a policy of regime change against another.

It was an impression his advisers tried hastily to dispel. The White House quickly made clear that Biden was simply saying that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, doesn’t get to have power over the region. Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, said on Sunday: “I think the president, the White House, made the point last night that, quite simply, President Putin cannot be empowered to wage war or engage in aggression against Ukraine or anyone else.”

[See also: Biden isn’t being ideological on Ukraine, and that’s a good thing]

Russia, too, appeared to play down the remark. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said that Biden was a victim of his own delusions (a neat kind of mirroring of American rhetoric about Putin). Russians would decide for themselves who ruled Russia. And the more concerning parts of the speech were the parts about isolating Russia, which, per Peskov, were wrong: the world is not made up uniquely of the United States and Europe. Perhaps unsurprisingly the Kremlin, already convinced of American interference in its affairs and perhaps unwilling to play up the severity of the threat of regime change, brushed off the comments.

Biden has a long history of making off the cuff and ill-considered remarks that provoke strong reactions, including on the war in Ukraine. In January, he suggested that a “minor incursion” by Russian forces into Ukraine would not be cause for a strong response from the US and its allies. That blunder was met by a forceful retort from the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who tweeted: “There are no minor incursions. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones.”

Biden’s comments on the possibility that Russia might use chemical weapons also raised eyebrows internationally. Last week he said that Nato “would respond” to any chemical weapons attacks in Ukraine, saying these would trigger “a response in kind”, but gave no details, leaving room for speculation and dispute. His remarks brought back memories of the war in Syria in 2013, when Barack Obama, president at the time, said the regime in Damascus had crossed a “red line” and promised US military action. After Congress disagreed, no such action was forthcoming. By 2018 the Syrian regime had attacked its own people with chemical weapons at least 39 times, UN investigators found. Then, as now, firm speeches and warning words weren’t enough to stop the deaths of innocent people.

[See also: There can be no more doubt about the nature of Putin’s rule]

That doesn’t mean that Biden shouldn’t have made the speech. Speeches can matter. Trips and symbols of solidarity have meaning, too. But they need to be considered, for good and ill, within the broader context of policy and the broader reality of what words do and do not have the power to change.

Ultimately, the ad-libbed episode was a fitting reminder of what Biden’s more soaring rhetoric might have had us forget: for all of the coverage it garnered, the speech, including the hopeful call for the end of Putin’s reign, was just words. Words alone don’t necessarily change anything. Meanwhile, the war rages on.

[See also: Would Putin use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine?]
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