(CNN) — President Joe Biden faces a series of distinct but interconnected global flashpoints and crises, with American foes lining up to test a leader’s mettle under pressure and his own sense that America is a global power in retreat.
Biden made the kind of fateful decision on Monday that could be more typical of the tense seventies, putting up to 8,500 troops on alert to go to Eastern Europe and counter the Kremlin’s move to push the United States away from its western flank. But his test of nerves with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is holding Ukraine hostage in an attempt to reverse the West’s post-Cold War expansion, is far from his only global headache.
Across the globe, a strategic ballet of military might is unfolding as the United States and China maneuver navies and warplanes amid tensions over Taiwan, and other disputed territories, in a long-term duel for the dominance in the Asia-Pacific region. While the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine is fixing the world right now, a future Chinese attack on the self-governed democratic island is the most likely trigger for a disastrous superpower conflict.
Then there is the Middle East, from which the United States has been trying for years to break free. US forces from a base in Abu Dhabi went into action early Monday, using Patriot missiles to shoot down several missiles launched at the Gulf emirate by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The emergency was a reminder that, despite some hope that nuclear talks with Iran might resume, the Islamic Republic’s regional power plays are a serious risk to US personnel. And the ruthless war in Yemen, waged by Washington’s ally Saudi Arabia, with dire civilian consequences, endangers the United States by association.
And if Washington was tempted to forget the terrifying prospect of a nuclear North Korea, its leader Kim Jong Un has other ideas. One of Pyongyang’s recent missile tests led to extraordinary shutdowns at some airports on the US West Coast, highlighting the nightmare for any US president that the extreme hermit state may have the territory in its sights. continental United States.
Test American might
Each of these challenges concerns foreign states and nationalist leaders making difficult decisions to advance their strategic goals, seeking to increase their power, expand or cement undemocratic political systems, and dominate their spheres of influence outside their own sovereign territory. They also know that, with the United States under pressure elsewhere, they may have a chance.
Putin, for example, is well aware that Biden wants to pivot to the China threat, so it makes sense to probe to see if the US is distracted. Beijing, for its part, would be delighted if the US got bogged down in Europe. The United States probably needs China to help cool off North Korea’s provocations. And Russia is a key player in nuclear talks with Iran. It was not lost on Washington that Iran, Russia and China held a third series of naval exercises in the Indian Ocean last week.
Since the United States remains the world’s dominant power, with allies around the globe, and the leader of the democratic bloc of nations, every push by one of its adversaries draws it into deeper confrontation and preventive diplomacy.
The mounting challenges to US authority come at a time when there is a widespread perception abroad that Washington is not the power it was during the second half of the 20th century. Despite Biden’s assurances that “America is back,” last year’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan raised questions about America’s competence and commitment. America’s adversaries know that Americans are exhausted by 20 years of war abroad, a factor that may lead some to calculate that Washington might falter in its strategic commitments for political reasons.
And foreign leaders also understand US domestic politics. With a significant percentage of the country convinced that Biden is illegitimate thanks to former President Donald Trump’s election lies, and with Republicans lambasting him as weak in the face of Putin’s challenge, there has rarely been a better time for foreign nations to test the character and endurance of a modern president. The prospect that Trump, who was a force for global instability for four years, could return to office, meanwhile, has some allies doubting that the United States can keep any commitments it makes.
Some foreign leaders might look at events in Washington on Monday and wonder if the tension is beginning to weigh on the president. After a rally at the White House, a Fox reporter asked Biden about inflation and, in a moment of stunning nonchalance at an open mic, he replied, “Stupid son of a bitch.” The president later called the reporter to apologize.
Putin’s infuriating maneuvers
Each of the geopolitical factors listed above are present in Putin’s challenge to the West over Ukraine as he attempts to restore some of the strategic dominance the Soviet Union once had over Eastern Europe around the symbolic 30th anniversary of the collapse of his beloved empire.
After massing more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, the Russian leader made a series of demands for concessions from the United States, including a guarantee that the Kiev government will never join NATO and that the alliance withdraw troops and the arming of the former Warsaw Pact states that joined the West because they feared the kind of Russian resurgence that Putin is trying to engineer.
Biden responded by seeking a gradual escalation of pressure designed to convince Putin that the cost of invading Ukraine would be too high, promising sanctions that could cripple the Russian economy and cause chain political threats to his government.
Now the president is considering bolstering NATO’s eastern flank with possible troop deployments. The alliance announced on Monday some minor deployments in the Baltic and Eastern European member states. For the first time since the Cold War, a US aircraft carrier strike group will be under NATO command in the Mediterranean for a high-level maritime exercise this week.
All of this is intended to project resolve, deterrence and show that Putin’s attempt to drive the United States out of Europe will fail. It is up to Biden to show that Washington has the support of its allies. If you don’t, NATO won’t count for anything. But it is a high-risk plan, as US deployments could prompt the Russian leader to pull the trigger on Ukraine and argue that he must invade to protect Russian security.
Putin is an infuriating and unpredictable adversary, and he has forced the United States to react to his provocations for weeks. It is impossible to read his intentions. So far, US diplomacy, including the Biden-Putin meeting in Geneva last year and recent online meetings between the presidents, have produced no breakthrough. Yet it has given Putin the prestige of Cold War-style summits that led Republicans to accuse Biden of that dreaded word: appeasement.
In the latest demonstration of Putin’s penchant for mind games, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel spoke by phone Monday and agreed to further cooperation. Some Russian military officials suggested deploying military assets to Cuba and Venezuela during the Ukraine crisis. Allusions to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis — the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union in which the world came close to nuclear war — are hard to miss.
More clashes haunt Biden
Some analysts believe that Putin has put himself in a box and will not be able to get out of the confrontation without at least limited penetration into Ukraine to save face. That is why Biden stirred up so much controversy last week when he suggested that a “minor incursion” by Russia would not trigger the full sanctions. But the US president was also telling the truth, apparently referring to divisions among allies in Europe over how to treat Putin.
The Russian leader’s timing is no accident, as he tries to probe the divisions between European powers internally and with the United States over the crisis. This is a period of transition for the three major European powers. Germany has a new governing coalition that is divided on foreign policy, knows it depends on Russian gas in winter, and remains wary of offensive military operations because of its historical scar of militarism. French President Emmanuel Macron faces re-election in April, and is using the crisis to push for a more aggressive role for the European Union that could weaken US authority. And UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is mired in drunken scandals and struggling to cling to power. The London government is also in a bitter rift with its closest allies over leaving the EU.
Biden publicly addressed divisions in Europe on Monday, bringing leaders together on a video call and orchestrating a series of statements on both sides of the Atlantic promising unity on the crisis and the costs Russia could face.
“I had a very, very, very good meeting, completely unanimous with all the European leaders,” Biden told reporters afterward.
But there are reasons to doubt his confidence. The European Union, for example, did not see the need to follow the United States in allowing non-essential personnel and their families to leave Kiev. Officials across the Atlantic have not used the same kind of alarmist language as the Biden administration about the imminent threat of a Russian invasion.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Monday that while unity and pressure on Russia were vital, the situation was not hopeless.
“Certainly I have reason to be concerned, but I don’t want to go into a nervous breakdown,” Borrell told Hala Gorani on CNN International.
Managing differing threat perceptions with Europe is just one of the challenges Biden faces as he navigates the Ukraine standoff, one of the most difficult times in recent NATO history.
And he knows that, even if he achieves a peaceful resolution, China, North Korea and Iran are the next most difficult countries to challenge a presidency never spared from crises.