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Brett Stephens Describes Biden as Bismarck

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Otto von Bismarck and Napoleon III after the Battle of Sedan in 1870.

The New York Times pays “big thinkers” like Brett Stephens and Thomas Friedman to pontificate to lesser mortals about the state of the world and how to make it better. A few years back, Friedman was touting China’s political system as a model for U.S. governance–it allows leaders to get things done. And now, Stephens has gushed over the foreign policy wisdom of President Joe Biden because Biden is handling the war in Ukraine with “experience, foresight, military realism and political prudence.” Stephens is describing Otto von Bismarck, not Joe Biden.

Biden wins the praise of Stephens because he “has the big things right” on what Stephens calls “the most consequential question of our time”–the struggle between autocracy and democracy at stake in the Ukraine war. Biden’s statesmanship, Stephens writes, eclipses that of French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz who are urging a diplomatic resolution to the war–a settlement of the conflict that Stephens calls “preposterous.” Stephens writes that “a negotiated settlement would create more problems than it would solve,” signaling to Russian President Vladimir Putin that he could invade Ukraine again in a few years, showing Iran that nuclear blackmail works, and giving a green light to China to invade Taiwan.     

Stephens applauds Biden for refusing to urge Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to settle for something less than a “complete Russian withdrawal from all occupied Ukrainian territories,” including Crimea. Biden, Stephens gloats, has involved America in a “great cause” for “high principles” so it would be imprudent, he claims, for Biden to “muse about the need for negotiations.” Supporting Ukraine “for as long as it takes” to achieve victory, Stephens writes, will be “the most historic accomplishment of [Biden’s] presidency.”

What Biden should do next, according to Stephens, is to speed-up arms deliveries to Ukraine, threaten to invite Ukraine to membership in NATO unless Russia withdraws its forces, and declare unambiguously that America’s goal is “victory for Ukraine.” 

This is the same Brett Stephens, as Andrew Bacevich reminds us, who promoted the ill-fated Iraq War in 2003, calling it a “great achievement” that “did not turn into a bloody quagmire.” But it did. And so did the Afghan war and occupation. Why is it that the very people who were so wrong about Iraq and Afghanistan–Stephens, Max Boot, Rich Lowry, Bill Kristol, George Will–think that we should pay any attention to them when they sound the bugle and beat the war drums from their armchairs for Ukraine?

This is not a war to rid the world of autocracies–that really would be an endless war. This is not a war to eradicate evil rulers–America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy, counseled John Quincy Adams. It is a war–to be sure an unjust and aggressive war on the part of Russia–that has deep roots in Russian history and more recent roots in post-Cold War U.S. and Western hubris. Did anyone with even a little knowledge of Russian history think back in 1997 that Russia would do nothing if NATO relentlessly–in 1999, 2004, 2009, 2017, 2020–pushed its boundaries closer and closer to Russia along most of its European border? Did anyone in the United States from 1776 to 1991 contend that Russian/Austrian and later Soviet control of Ukraine threatened vital American national security interests?         

Stephens from his desk in New York is quick to criticize Macron and Scholz, whose offices and citizens share the same continent as Russia. Geography affects perspective, as it should. And those two European leaders likely know the mind of Vladimir Putin and his Russian advisers better than Stephens, let alone Biden, does.

One of Bismarck’s great qualities as a statesman was, in Halford Mackinder’s words, his “insight into the minds of other nations than his own.” “No statesman,” Mackinder noted, “ever adjusted war to policy with a nicer judgment than Bismarck.” Bismarck understood that great powers shouldn’t wage wars for abstract principles, but only for concrete national interests. Neither Joe Biden nor Brett Stephens seems to understand that.

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21stCentury, America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War, and Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War. He has written lengthy introductions to two of Mahan’s books, and has written on historical and foreign policy topics for The Diplomat, the University Bookman, Joint Force Quarterly, the Asian Review of Books, the New York Journal of Books, the Claremont Review of Books, American Diplomacy, the Washington Times, The American Spectator, and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a former contributing editor to American Diplomacy. Mr. Sempa also writes a monthly column for RealClearDefense including his latest “America Sleepwalks Into War with Russia.

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