President Joe Biden promised to change U.S. foreign policy after two decades of a costly military-driven approach and four years of an America-first shift away from our allies. He committed to using military power only as a tool of last resort, in defense of vital national interests, and to work with our friends and allies on collective solutions to shared global problems.
The current Russian threat to invade Ukraine (again) puts this approach to the test. Can we rally our allies into a united front for effective use of nonmilitary tools to promote shared goals? Will Biden avoid direct military conflict with Russia in Ukraine if Putin crosses the (literal) line? Will the American people accept this new image of a more reserved and diplomatic America in the face of Russia’s bullying?
Despite the disastrous war in Afghanistan, Americans are more willing now than ever to send U.S. troops to defend allies and partners, according to the 2021 Chicago Council Survey on American attitudes toward U.S. foreign policy. A record-high 59% supported using U.S. troops if Russia invaded a NATO ally, 63% supported defending South Korea if North Korea invaded and 52% defending Taiwan against China. Support for defending Ukraine against Russia specifically was up from 30% in 2014 to 50% last year. Notably, this survey was conducted months before Russia amassed troops outside Ukraine’s borders.
I’m skeptical that sentiment would survive long once our troops started incurring casualties far from home. Russia is also a nuclear power, so escalation brings other concerns, too. But it’s a reminder that the American people are amenable to policing the globe, even if we claim not to want to.
There is also a tension between Biden’s promotion of democracy against growing authoritarianism and Russian use of force to overthrow a democratic government next door.
The hard truth is that Putin considers Ukraine a fundamental national security interest, and Ukraine simply isn’t as important to us. That means we might not be able to stop Putin from invading if he is determined to do so, but we can still significantly raise the stakes and make it hurt if he does.
Biden has been clear about what is at stake, and his team has repeatedly taken to the public stage to explain that to the American people. Beyond Ukraine or even Europe, it is about the principle that one country cannot change the borders of another by force or dictate its choice of allies. We should — and will — lead other nations in condemning that behavior, even if we won’t go to war directly for it.
So what should Biden do, in keeping with his priorities, guiding principles and the interests of the American people? His administration’s response so far might not feel particularly satisfying, lacking the clarity and moral certainty that some of his predecessors have demonstrated. But it is honest, complex and appropriate.
The administration is focused on diplomacy and deterrence. High-level diplomacy has been ongoing, both between U.S. and Russian officials and within NATO. Talks with Russia are a long shot, but it is important and low cost to keep that door open. The most successful outcome would likely involve negotiating security guarantees on both sides. Without diplomacy, that isn’t possible.
We have also invested heavily in building a coordinated response, promising economic sanctions far beyond what we have used against Russia before. The measures taken after the Russian incursions into Ukraine in 2014 were a hesitant compromise, symbolic but lacking real consequence. Biden is building a response package aimed at eliciting Russian regret. The question now is whether he can get all NATO allies, and perhaps others, to join. Germany, with its heavy dependence on Russian gas, is the main question. Talking with allies isn’t sexy, but it is key to the strategy’s success.
For deterrence, the administration is using military tools but not military action. What we do where is determined by NATO borders. In keeping with our treaty commitment to defend NATO allies, the Pentagon has 8,500 additional troops on alert to deploy to NATO’s eastern border and other hardware headed to the region. President Biden has made clear he doesn’t intend to deploy troops to Ukraine, which isn’t in NATO, but we’re sending additional military assistance to help Ukraine prepare to defend itself. What we are providing now is lethal, unlike the tents and communications equipment we offered in 2014.
These are no small measures. They are intended to deter Putin from an invasion, possibly pushing him into a negotiation where we might find common cause on re-upping arms control agreements that have fallen by the wayside. If Putin is not hellbent on invasion, this could be a sufficient win to incite him to take an off ramp. But if deterrence falls short, these measures will make him pay for this transgression against Ukraine’s sovereignty and prevent him from moving farther into Europe. Perhaps more importantly, they will put other countries on notice that democracies can come together to act against authoritarian aggression.
Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She was previously a U.S. diplomat and is author of "The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age."