Biden’s Truman Moment Has Arrived in Ukraine

The U.S. president is committed to containment against Russia. But what kind?

Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Joe Biden speaks to reporters before the start of a bilateral meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the Oval Office at the White House on February 7, 2022 in Washington.
Joe Biden speaks to reporters before the start of a bilateral meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the Oval Office at the White House on February 7, 2022 in Washington.
Joe Biden speaks to reporters before the start of a bilateral meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the Oval Office at the White House on February 7, 2022 in Washington. Pool/Getty Images

Seventy-five years ago, at the dawn of the Cold War, U.S. foreign-policy thinkers divided into three camps over how to deal with the threat of Soviet expansion. Those on the left, led by Henry Wallace, Progressive Party candidate in the 1948 U.S. election, argued for accommodating what they regarded as then-Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s legitimate security concerns over his western flank. Those on the right, including philosopher and polemicist James Burnham (author of the 1947 Struggle for the World), insisted that Stalin was bent on fostering world revolution and had to be stopped, even at the cost of fighting World War III. Those in the center, including the statesmen around then-U.S. President Harry Truman, viewed the Soviet Union as a dangerously aggressive power but argued that its expansion could be “contained” until, as U.S. diplomat George Kennan suggested, the regime had mellowed or disappeared.

Today, as Russian President Vladimir Putin threatens to invade Ukraine and upend the international order Truman built, all three of those Cold War tendencies have reappeared. Columnist Peter Beinart argues for accommodation on the grounds that Putin is asserting a right of dominion over his neighborhood that the United States—liberal pieties notwithstanding—continues to live by. (John Bolton, former U.S. President Donald Trump’s bellicose and brief national security advisor, once declared the Monroe Doctrine “alive and well.”) On the other side, foreign-policy expert Kori Schake has called on U.S. President Joe Biden to station U.S. troops in Ukraine as a sign of American unwillingness to yield to Russian revanchism.

Biden, who already resembles Truman in so many ways, seems to be recapitulating Truman’s Cold War role. But it’s not clear what, if anything, containment means in the current crisis.

Seventy-five years ago, at the dawn of the Cold War, U.S. foreign-policy thinkers divided into three camps over how to deal with the threat of Soviet expansion. Those on the left, led by Henry Wallace, Progressive Party candidate in the 1948 U.S. election, argued for accommodating what they regarded as then-Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s legitimate security concerns over his western flank. Those on the right, including philosopher and polemicist James Burnham (author of the 1947 Struggle for the World), insisted that Stalin was bent on fostering world revolution and had to be stopped, even at the cost of fighting World War III. Those in the center, including the statesmen around then-U.S. President Harry Truman, viewed the Soviet Union as a dangerously aggressive power but argued that its expansion could be “contained” until, as U.S. diplomat George Kennan suggested, the regime had mellowed or disappeared.

Today, as Russian President Vladimir Putin threatens to invade Ukraine and upend the international order Truman built, all three of those Cold War tendencies have reappeared. Columnist Peter Beinart argues for accommodation on the grounds that Putin is asserting a right of dominion over his neighborhood that the United States—liberal pieties notwithstanding—continues to live by. (John Bolton, former U.S. President Donald Trump’s bellicose and brief national security advisor, once declared the Monroe Doctrine “alive and well.”) On the other side, foreign-policy expert Kori Schake has called on U.S. President Joe Biden to station U.S. troops in Ukraine as a sign of American unwillingness to yield to Russian revanchism.

Biden, who already resembles Truman in so many ways, seems to be recapitulating Truman’s Cold War role. But it’s not clear what, if anything, containment means in the current crisis.

Contemporary versions of accommodation and rollback are as misguided as their ancestors were. The United States cannot yield to Putin’s demands without accepting a worldview radically at odds with its own, for Putin’s belief in his right to control the nations at his frontier includes the idea that lesser states do not enjoy the same sovereign rights as great powers. Of course, if you believe, as researcher Anatol Lieven recently argued in Foreign Policy, that the “rules-based global order” is a euphemism for “U.S. primacy,” or, as Beinart claims, that the United States regards Central America as cynically as Russia regards Georgia or Ukraine, than nothing is lost by acceding to Putin’s demands.

As for planting U.S. forces in Ukraine and daring Putin to risk a wider war by attacking, the United States shouldn’t make a wager it can’t afford to lose. The United States need not doubt the sincerity or depth of Putin’s conviction that the West is seeking to fence Russia out of Europe, and thus, that he is in danger of losing a zero-sum game. The fact that Putin really believes it doesn’t make it true even though he’s wrong doesn’t make him any less committed to restoring what he considers Russia’s rightful place. Deterrence may not work because Putin doesn’t seem to be bluffing. Even if he decides against sending tanks across the border, as he might be signaling with recent news that some troops are being sent home, but rather tries to knock out Ukraine’s infrastructure or reignite hostilities in Donbass, U.S. soldiers won’t be able to give much help.

The Cold War offers no single, compelling analogy to the current situation because, at that time, Russia operated only within a sphere the West had conceded to it: Truman accepted the Soviet coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948 as then-U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower did in the case of Hungary in 1956. Ukraine, by contrast, is an independent state whose independence Putin does not accept. What really connects that time to this is Truman, former U.S. Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and George Marshall, and others had to find a way of acting and speaking that acknowledged the reality of Russian aggression without conceding its legitimacy. Truman neither accepted the 1948 Berlin Blockade by the Soviet Union, nor did he agree to proposals to shoot his way in; he found a way around it with the airlift.

What does that mean today? First, it means rejecting proposals to “Finlandize” Ukraine as well as, presumably, Georgia and other former Soviet states—a possibility French President Emmanuel Macron raised. To impose neutrality on an unwilling state to appease a dangerous enemy would be a big step down a very slippery slope. The same might not apply to a regional solution, where states voluntarily accept “nonaligned” status in exchange for security guarantees, as political scientist Samuel Charap recently proposed in Foreign Affairs. Ukrainian officials have begun to tentatively signal that they might accept such a denouement.

If so, it’s not clear that would satisfy Putin. The West doesn’t know if he really just wants the reassurances he claims to want. The draft treaties Russia circulated in December 2021 contained a series of demands that diplomacy might be able to moderate and convert into reciprocal concessions. For example, NATO could agree to withdraw intermediate-range missiles from Europe or reduce their number if Russia did as well. Or Putin could agree to redeploy Russian troops in exchange for a NATO promise to remove or reduce troops in Eastern Europe (which were only deployed there after Russia seized Crimea in 2014). Putin’s insistence that NATO bar the door to Ukraine could be massaged with a firm-but-informal commitment that membership would not happen for a stipulated number of years. Even the Cuban missile crisis was ultimately resolved by an informal commitment to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey; the parties simply had to want to do so.

Confirmed Cold War warriors like Eisenhower and former U.S. President Ronald Reagan combined inflexible rhetoric with flexible tactics; hopefully, Biden is doing the same. But what if Putin looks at the U.S. bid and sweeps it off the table? What if he gambled on rejection as a pretext to invade Ukraine or overthrow the regime to gain full control over a troublesome neighbor? More broadly, Putin seems persuaded that for Russia to rise, the West must fall. In their joint communique, Russia and China, after much high-minded bilge about democracy, pledged to resist color revolutions, which overturned Russian client regimes in both Georgia and Ukraine. If they mean it, something larger is at stake than a readjustment of the border between the East and West.

Biden needs to take some real risks in the hopes of satisfying conditions that are acceptable, especially because his European allies would have to live with the consequences of confrontation in a way the United States would not. But Putin must also have a piercingly clear understanding of the price to be paid if he decides to pursue his most grandiose ambitions. The liberal world order, tattered though it is, is still very much worth defending.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.

Xi-Biden Meeting May Help End China’s Destructive Isolation

Beijing has become dangerously locked off from the world.

The exterior of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, is pictured on March 27, 2018.
The exterior of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, is pictured on March 27, 2018.

Sweden’s Espionage Scandal Raises Hard Questions on Spy Recruitment

Intelligence agencies debate whether foreign-born citizens are more targeted.

President Joe Biden gestures with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two leaders met in a hallway as Biden was going to a European Commission on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022.
President Joe Biden gestures with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two leaders met in a hallway as Biden was going to a European Commission on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022.

The G-20 Proved It’s Our World Government

At a time of global conflict, world powers showed that cooperation can actually work.

An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.
An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.

Only an Absolute Bureaucracy Can Save Us

The West will only restore its stability when civil servants are again devoted to the public rather than themselves.