For a President Who Spends His Days Confronting Russia and China, a Domestic Focus
WASHINGTON — When President Biden delivered his State of the Union address a year ago, war had broken out in Europe just days before and it appeared inevitable that Vladimir V. Putin would quickly take control of Ukraine. China, the Pentagon kept repeating, was America’s “pacing” challenge, a long-term technological and financial competitor, but not likely not to pose an imminent challenge to Taiwan or the United States.
On Tuesday night Mr. Biden faced a changed world.
Simultaneously managing an aggressive Russia and a risk-taking China may prove the greatest challenge of his next two years. And they will increasingly occupy his attention, especially now that Republican control of the House all but terminates his domestic legislative agenda.
So it was especially striking that in the president’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night, he chose to spend relatively little time on America’s global role, focusing instead on his “Made in America” effort to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States, even at the price of angering America’s closest allies and top trade partners.
History may well conclude that stitching the NATO alliance back together and unifying disparate Asian allies to face a combative Russia and an ascendant China was Mr. Biden’s most notable accomplishment, especially for a president who views himself first and foremost as a master of foreign policy.
But it made all the more vivid Mr. Biden’s choice to downplay those accomplishments, perhaps because he knows that America’s re-engagement in the world is both expensive and, at the opening of an election cycle, a tough political sell. Containing Russia and competing with China may be the work of decades, but it will add tens or hundreds of billions of dollars to an already stressed budget.
Thanks to Western aid and Ukrainian resilience and ingenuity, the war now appears to have settled into a long, grinding conflict, one in which Washington and Moscow find themselves in all but direct armed conflict, arguably the tensest moment between the two superpowers since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. And the more success the Ukrainians have using American precision missiles, German-made tanks and NATO ammunition, the more likely it is that Mr. Putin will again threaten that, if necessary, he will detonate a nuclear weapon to win what he sees as an existential battle.
Since the summer, Mr. Biden’s intelligence agencies have been reassessing a China that appears far more willing to take risks — threatening Taiwan, defending disputed territory in the South China Sea and last week, sending a spy balloon to drift over the continental United States that seemed to encapsulate the problem of a surveillance state unembarrassed about its ambitions.
Now, Mr. Biden’s national security team is debating which China will be harder to handle: a confident, rising power or the one that, in recent months, seems to be stumbling, unable to manage the COVID-19 virus, and increasingly stressed as it tries to restore the spectacular economic growth that was the key to its power.
As the president discovered when the nation breathlessly followed the Chinese balloon and its mystery payload of high-tech sensors, even small incidents with Beijing can escalate rapidly. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to postpone his trip to China, the first by a State Department head in years. Republicans argued that Mr. Biden was “weak” for ordering the balloon shot down only after it has made its way across the country; Beijing accused him of a “clear overreaction” and said it reserved the right to retaliate. It was a reminder that in both countries, domestic political demands can force leaders to take a harder line, a prescription for inflaming an already tense relationship.
These are the issues that dominate Mr. Biden’s days, as he descends into the Situation Room to measure progress in the Donbas region of Ukraine, or travels to groundbreaking ceremonies for new Intel or IBM semiconductor production plants, so that the United States is less dependent on Chinese production.
And yet Mr. Biden mentioned Ukraine only briefly on Tuesday night — far less than he did last year. He invited the Ukrainian ambassador to the speech and thanked her, but never referred to Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president who visited Washington only two months ago to thank a joint session of Congress for American support.
Instead, he focused on his plans to spend $52 billion to jump-start chip production. “We are going to make sure the supply chain for America begins in America,” he said.
To give America time to catch up, he has cut off the supply of the most sophisticated semiconductor production equipment to China, and convinced Japan and the Netherlands to do the same.
“The reality is that history shows whenever powerful countries have access to advanced computing capabilities, they deploy this for intelligence and military uses,” Chris Miller, a Tufts University professor and author of “Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology,” said to the Marketplace radio program.
Mr. Biden mentioned President Xi Jinping by name, repeating his contention that he sought competition, not conflict, with China — but he never mentioned the balloon.
The closest he came was this warning: “Make no mistake: As we made clear last week, if China’s threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.”
Mr. Biden also tried to make the case on Tuesday night that in the challenge he set for himself and the country — to show that “democracy works” and can outpace autocracies — he has begun to show progress. “In the past two years, democracies have become stronger, not weaker,’’ he said. “Autocracies have grown weaker, not stronger.”
It was part of his argument that while democracy is messy, once America gets its act together, it can prevail. “Before I came to office the story was about how the People’s Republic of China was increasing its power and America was failing in the world,” he said. “Not anymore.” He then went further, ad-libbing to suggest that no other world leader would want to change places with Mr. Xi, given the scope of his recent problems.
That may have been a premature declaration of victory. Yet despite his domestic focus, Mr. Biden had much to brag about Tuesday when it came to leading an international response to Russia’s aggression. “Not since George H.W. Bush gathered the allies for the Persian Gulf war has a president pulled together this kind of alliance,” said Robert Litwak, the director of security studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who has written extensively about superpower competition, especially in the nuclear arena. “It has required a retooling of American foreign policy.”
After four decades toiling in foreign policy, Mr. Biden managed to get a reluctant Germany to cut off the Nord Stream II gas pipeline that made it dependent on Russian-produced energy and pulled it out of its post-World War II reluctance to rebuild significant military power. A few weeks ago it even agreed to send Leopard tanks to help the Ukrainians break through Russian trenches, a move that would have been all but impossible to imagine the last time Mr. Biden addressed the joint session of Congress.
But as George H.W. Bush learned the hard way, voters are often unimpressed by foreign policy achievements: He was defeated in 1992, only a year after his victory in the Middle East. Some of Mr. Biden’s advisers fear that history may repeat itself, noting that the cost of gas and eggs have a way of influencing voters that containing Russian and Chinese power do not.