Three quarters of a century ago, when the cold war with the Soviet Union began, US president Harry Truman put forward what became known as the Truman Doctrine. The goal of US foreign policy, it said, was to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures”. This mission defined America’s stance in the world for the next four decades.
No one would have wished for a new cold war, but a similar pivot point has been reached today. In his State of the Union address last month, President Joe Biden warned that the world was in the midst of a battle between “democracies and autocracies” in which “freedom will always triumph over tyranny”. It is not yet clear that it actually will. However, the US could do much to impact the direction of the world for the next several decades if the White House is able to use this moment to articulate a new and more coherent foreign policy.
In this, Biden has the wind at his back. He was clearly right to move away from Donald Trump’s position that Nato was no longer important. Russia’s aggression is a reminder of how crucial Nato is, and how powerful the US and Europe can be when aligned not only militarily but economically. Germany’s new willingness to increase its own defence spending to 2 per cent of economic output will not only strengthen Nato but be a boost to Biden, since the US has long lobbied for more European countries to pour more money into the alliance.
The unity with which Europe and the US have approached financial sanctions on Russia has also underscored the power of the dollar-based financial system. In the 21st century, economic power — particularly in the form of financial, trade, and energy networks — is just as important as military power. Biden should capitalise on this by pounding home the need to work with Europe and other allies more closely on a shared technology and trade framework for the future. In the face of China’s rise, too, this framework should protect the values of liberal democracies, and ensure open markets do not become a winner-take-all game.
That might include working with the EU on a joint energy strategy to ensure Europe can pivot away from Russian oil and gas in a safe and sustainable way. It might mean shared industrial strategies and standards in high-growth areas such as clean technology. It should certainly include a common approach to tech regulation, ensuring both privacy and fair market access.
The White House also needs to be honest about the inflationary effects of the geopolitical moment. The past 40 years of globalisation lowered prices. A more splintered world will raise them, at least in the short term. But a poll of US consumers conducted at the beginning of March found that 71 per cent said they would be ready to pay more for fuel if they knew it would benefit Ukrainians.
This sense of solidarity has been sorely missed in US foreign policy as well as in domestic politics. Americans are paying attention to what is happening in Europe in a way that they have not done for decades. They are also longing for a renewed sense of non-partisan leadership, and of America’s place in the world.
This is an ideal time for Biden to articulate not only the strength of US military and economic networks, but the strength of western values — the rule of law, democracy, respect for the individual, property rights, pluralism and open markets. As the war in Ukraine has shown us, these are worth fighting for today, just as they were in Truman’s time.