During the Obama-Biden administration, a new foreign policy idea emerged in which the United States could supposedly have its cake and eat it too in the realm of global leadership. Informally known as “leading from behind,” it was a cornerstone of America’s participation in the 2011 UN-authorized, NATO-led Libya intervention which ended with the destruction of the Qaddafi regime, a nearly ten-year civil war, and enduring regional chaos.
The notion that the United States—the strongest economic and military power on earth, and the one with the greatest stake in the world order—would willingly take a softer, secondary approach to significant issues of global security certainly seemed unwise at the time, and no one should be faulted for assuming the Libya debacle had put it to rest.
Unfortunately, President Joe Biden continues to embody this exact ethos in foreign policy—as he has throughout his long career in public service. In the 1980s, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he opposed Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup against the Soviet Union, considering it too threatening. In 1991, he opposed the Persian Gulf War, favoring the softer tactic of economic sanctions to liberate Kuwait. In the mid-2000s, he opposed the Bush administration’s troop surge in Iraq, claiming the war was already unwinnable. In 2011, as vice president, he opposed the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Last year, as president, he ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, which resulted in a swift Taliban takeover of the country.
Regarding the conflict in Ukraine, Biden has been sharp and forthright in his opposition to Russia’s brutal invasion, and has helped rally NATO and the free world behind the cause of Ukrainian independence. For this, he should be commended.
But the hard truth is that every step of the way—from the massing of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border last spring, to the manner in which the United States is assisting Ukrainian freedom fighters today—the Biden administration has appeared far too concerned with avoiding provocation, and far too willing to cede the strategic advantage to the Russians. Yes, the United States and NATO must avoid a direct conflagration with Russia. But unless the administration is willing to assume a more forceful posture—leading from strength, not calibrated weakness—the outcome of the conflict could be devastating not only for Ukrainian sovereignty but for America’s global leadership, which is now linked to the fate of Ukraine.
Leading from strength means first recognizing that the Democratic Party’s approach to foreign policy over the past decade failed to prevent the first major land war in Europe since World War II. Following Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, the Obama administration responded with weak sanctions and a refusal to provide Ukraine with lethal military aid, out of fear it would provoke a full-scale Russian invasion. Last year, the Biden administration exacerbated this blunder by first signing an agreement with Ukraine that supports its “aspirations to join NATO” (a blinking red line for Vladimir Putin), while simultaneously refusing defensive military equipment to Ukraine—such as anti-tank javelins and anti-air stingers—in case Russia invades.
In other words, Democratic foreign policy left us with the riskiest of circumstances: bold proclamations mixed with weak actions. As Frederick the Great once said, “diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.” The way to deter an opponent is by credibly raising the stakes in advance, not simply relying on promises of bold responses in the future.
Indeed, even in the post-invasion flurry of actions against Russia—massive economic sanctions and a huge infusion of military assistance to Ukraine—the Biden administration had to be cajoled by Congress into supporting tougher sanctions on Russia’s oil and gas industry, and continues to oppose the transfer of Polish MiG fighters to Ukraine out of fear it will be “too provocative.”
Should this war end (as is likely) with an agreement exchanging Ukrainian territorial sovereignty for its promise never to join NATO, the United States must draw its own red lines, including the right to support Ukraine by any means necessary in the event of another Russian invasion. This would finally place the strategic advantage with Washington, not Moscow.
Leading from strength also means leading on global energy supply, which the Ukraine conflict has exposed as unacceptably precarious. Western aspirations for a carbon-free energy future are certainly warranted, and there is no reason the United States should not spearhead this transition. But according to the Energy Information Agency, even as the supply of renewables steadily increases, the overall global demand for oil and gas will continue to rise through at least 2050. Rather than pretending we can keep our abundant fossil fuels “in the ground,” and trying to entice global pariahs like Iran and Venezuela (and until recently, Russia) to produce more oil and gas, America should become a dominant energy supplier for its allies in Europe and Asia while simultaneously leading global innovation toward an eventual green future.
Finally, leading from strength means bolstering U.S. leadership of Western alliances and security institutions like NATO. Democratic countries and the global liberal order itself are facing profound threats from anti-liberal, anti-democratic forces—from China, to Russia, to Islamist militancy. Democratic presidents like Barack Obama and Joe Biden fully understand this, and are most eloquent in their defenses of the West. But this moment requires a more assertive American leadership—one that more openly mixes power with principle.
In the 1980s, Reagan broke from four years of foreign policy malaise under Democratic president Jimmy Carter—including the expansion of Russian (Soviet) power in Africa, Asia, and Latin America—with a simple message of “peace through strength.” Though many worried his approach, which combined increased military power and tough diplomacy, might provoke World War III, it instead inspired the end of the Cold War and a period of unprecedented peace.
Every moment in history requires its own assessments and actions. And hard power must always be applied with prudence. But, as shown in the past, major global challenges are best met by an America focused more on what its power can accomplish, than fear of what it might provoke.
Stuart Gottlieb teaches American foreign policy and international security at Columbia University, where he is a member of the Saltzman Institute of War & Peace Studies. He formerly served as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter in the United States Senate (1999-2003).