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23 March 2022

Biden isn’t being ideological on Ukraine, and that’s a good thing

The US president’s approach is not tailored to domestic politics but rather to the situation on the ground.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON DC – In the autumn of 2020, I wrote that Americans would not get an ideologue if they voted for the then presidential candidate Joe Biden. They would get a politician.

This has proved largely correct. In many cases, it is frustrating: what vision is President Joe Biden offering the US? What bold plans will he put forth to actually get us there?

But in one specific case, the fact that Biden does not enter a situation ideology-first is proving useful and laudable. His reaction to the Russian invasion in Ukraine does not appear to be that of a man wondering what the progressive, hawkish or populist responses might be. The administration – in aggressively declassifying intelligence, in working with US allies and partners to sanction Russia, and in providing military aid to Ukraine while making clear that Nato cannot get involved and that the war should be contained as much as possible — is working not from a political position, but from a position shaped by the reality on the ground.

This is a good thing, because the Russian war in Ukraine is not first and foremost about US partisanship or ideology. It is about the national sovereignty of Ukraine and the right of its people to live safely and with dignity. It is the job of the Biden administration to do what it can to support both of those things without escalating the military conflict in such a way that further endangers Ukraine, the rest of Europe or even the world.

Ironically, given that it does not place at the forefront of politics in the US, this response has so far gone down well politically in America – including with the ever-important self-described independent voters, and with major players in American politics.

“This is apparently hard for some folks to grasp because it’s not true in many other areas of foreign policy, but a responsible progressive position on Ukraine is basically what Biden is doing right now,” Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders, arguably the Senate’s most high-profile progressive, tweeted on 20 March. Even the Republican Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, begrudgingly said, “I think there’s broad support for the president in what he’s doing now,” though he added that Biden should have acted sooner.

Both are right. Perhaps a more progressive president would have hesitated before putting sanctions on Russia that would affect the average Russian. Perhaps a more hawkish president would have sent more weapons to Ukraine sooner.

Perhaps the reason that both progressives and Republicans can say they support at least some of what Biden is doing is that his response doesn’t centre on political party or domestic ideological contestation, but the situation as it is in Ukraine.

There are exceptions to the praise. The far right is held by a combination of personal affinity for Vladimir Putin; conception of Russia as a white, Christian paradise; and the unyielding illogic of conspiracy theories. And there are elements of the hard left that appear unable or unwilling to recognise that Russia is the aggressor in this war. But those are ideological responses that start in the US and work backwards. The Biden administration’s reaction to Ukraine reflects the reality on the ground and proceeds from there.

This isn’t to say that Biden has gone from strength to strength on foreign policy. On the contrary. He was slow to bring America and Iran back into compliance with the Iranian nuclear deal, and there is still no new agreement. He has acted, at best, incrementally to combat climate change. Afghanistan, quickly retaken by the Taliban after the US withdrawal, is now dealing with a growing famine, which will almost certainly be made worse by the president’s decision to freeze and later seize the funds of Afghanistan’s central bank, some of which it has promised to distribute to a fund for the families of 9/11 victims.

Even in the case of Ukraine, it is difficult to give the Biden administration, or any leader or government, too much credit: there is, after all, a war going on that has displaced an estimated ten million people.

Still, for the most part, Biden has, in this one case, tried to balance the needs of the people in Ukraine and inherent human dignity with global security. It isn’t everything, and it isn’t enough. But it’s not nothing, either.

[See also: Under Russian bombardment, Ukrainians are redefining nationalism]

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