Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine has to date resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands, displaced millions, and ignited a major war of aggression on the European continent for the first time since World War II. Responsibility for this conflict rests squarely on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yet, the tragedy of this war is nevertheless made more profound because of several policy decisions by the Biden Administration in the preceding months. These decisions weakened deterrence, undermined eastern flank partners, and prioritized optics over substance. The foreign policy community in both political parties must learn the appropriate lessons from the lead up to this war in order to prevent similar mistakes in the future and develop an approach toward Europe and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that advances American national security and prosperity.
Peter Rough’s essay rightly highlights several missteps on the course toward war: the Biden team’s misguided concessions to Moscow on energy and arms control; alienating Poland and other Eastern European partners; and the President declaring that the United States would not send troops to defend Ukraine (a choice that may have been prudent but need not have been public). Still, the failures may have been even worse. Indeed, they constitute a larger strategic doctrine and worldview that, if continued, will result in similarly detrimental consequences for the United States, its allies, and its partners around the world.
The failure of deterrence in the case of the war in Ukraine was multifaceted. In particular, the decision to waive congressionally-mandated sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in May 2021, early in the Biden presidency, undermined deterrence in several significant ways. In practical terms at the time, the move empowered the energy pipeline to proceed to full completion, making Europeans more dependent on Russia for their energy needs and increasingly vulnerable to Russian coercion. The Nord Stream 2 project, once operational, would also importantly remove a significant revenue source for Ukraine. Symbolically, the decision demonstrated a willingness to prioritize good relations with Germany over the security of the United States, NATO, and eastern flank countries. With this decision, the United States signaled that it would not stand up to Putin or Germany in order to defend partners on the frontlines of the threat from Russia. Events have consequences beyond their proximate effects, and the message of the Nord Stream 2 greenlighting was clear and resonant.
This decision was emblematic of a worldview that places a high priority on cocktail party diplomacy and virtue signaling over substance. President Biden’s first trip to Europe in the summer of 2021 in many ways portended what was to come in this regard. As Wess Mitchell has argued, early on the Biden team appeared poised to repeat the Obama presidency’s favoring of a “European core centered on Berlin and Brussels” while neglecting central and eastern partners. During the trip, President Biden stressed his message that “America is back,” implying that it was absent during the Trump years, and emphasized the U.S. commitment to Article 5 of the NATO charter, the collective defense clause. This approach valued rhetoric over reality. The substantive policies—waiving Nord Stream 2 sanctions, favoring elite capitals, and avoiding tough conversations with allies—reflected the opposite of American leadership.
We should assume that the Biden team genuinely believed in the virtue of their approach. According to their worldview, the public appearance of friendly relations, or maintaining harmony among the right folks, was more important than pressuring key allies to improve military readiness or urgently confronting growing threats from Russia and China.
Under this doctrine, political correctness is of the highest value even when it comes at the expense of doing or saying what is necessary—but perhaps unpopular. It is a doctrine of successfully executed conferences, communiqués, and, yes, cocktail parties. These are no small matters to those in their dogged pursuit. We see this phenomenon often in public life on a smaller scale. Yet, in the precarious world of power politics, it is as dangerous as it is morally bankrupt.
The alternative view is that appearances and popularity (with the “right” people and places) are less important than saying and doing what is necessary to accomplish hard goals—perhaps the simplest definition of leadership. In this view, persistent pressure for improved capabilities strengthens not weakens a military alliance. An effort to bolster burden-sharing in the interest of confronting and prevailing against major national security threats from China and Russia is perceived as empowering U.S. alliances, not undermining them. You cannot have an Article 5 without an Article 3, the obligation to maintain individual and collective defensive capabilities.
We should not be flippant about the contrast between these two worldviews. They are indeed representative of conflicting approaches to world affairs, and the latter approach is necessary for the United States to prevail in an era of great power competition. America’s approach to Europe, and to Asia, should be grounded in promoting strong, sovereign, and independent partners. Ukraine, Poland, and other eastern flank European nations appear on board with these aims. We can hear echoes of Winston Churchill’s “Give us the tools, and we will finish the job” in Volodymyr Zelensky’s pleas for weapons—not an evacuation plan—to defeat the Russian invaders.
These are practical matters, not rhetorical ones. Energy independence for the United States and our partners is vital to national security. Nord Stream 2 should not have proceeded. Our relationship with Germany would have endured. Germany has been slow to cooperate in confronting threats from China as well, despite its genocidal past, and the Biden team has at times prioritized climate initiatives over tough policy toward China—our greatest national security threat—and its abuses in Xinjiang. True American leadership would include being direct with Germany in what will be required to confront China in this new era and recognizing that security interests vis-à-vis China must be the first priority for the United States. Much ink has already been spilled on the poorly executed Afghanistan withdrawal and how it revealed alliance tensions and weakened deterrence. Still, it is worth remembering how the “America is back” refrain rang hollow in that case too, as our friends scrambled in literal and figurative darkness to adjust to U.S. actions.
Rough makes several prudent suggestions for U.S. policy in the months ahead: the United States should be clear-eyed about threats from Russia; help the Ukrainians achieve victory in the conflict, not stalemate; encourage NATO allies to invest in defense; reassess NATO deployments and posture; and take advantage of the opportunity to weaken the Russian regime. These are all smart policies that will help the United States. However, we must also recognize that an underlying worldview is guiding the Biden team’s approach, and it is in vital need of a course correction.
Moving forward, the United States must also be honest and direct with our friends: we all may need to sacrifice economic relations with China for the sake of transatlantic security. Our Eastern European partners, poorer than the nations of Western Europe and yet more deeply committed to investing in defense, deserve our attention, coordination, and support. The Russian invasion has galvanized European nations to unite against the Kremlin, and it may also awaken them to the threat from China amid the growing Russia-China axis. The United States must continue to highlight this threat and pressure allies to confront the harsh realities of great power politics. We should be united in our support for patriotic partners—like Ukraine—who are willing to defend their homelands. The United States will likewise need to work creatively with nations such as India, Vietnam, and other likeminded partners to secure common interests and goals.
The siren song of cocktail party diplomacy is as dangerous as it is alluring in some corners of the world. A shared enemy often brings unlikely allies together in common defense. For a time, it appeared as though the Russian invasion would unite a divided Europe against Russia (and China). How long these tenuous bonds will hold remains uncertain. Several European nations are pushing Ukraine to make concessions in the war. The United States must assume a leadership role not just in words, but in action. Matters of war and peace demand strong and courageous—and at times difficult—conversations and policy decisions. American leadership with allies should be grounded in shared interests—not simply appearances—in all regions of the world.
 Amanda J. Rothschild, “Rhetoric Divorced from Reality: Deciphering Biden's Foreign Policy Philosophy,” The National Interest (The Center for the National Interest, July 8, 2021), https://nationalinterest.org/feature/rhetoric-divorced-reality-deciphering-biden%E2%80%99s-foreign-policy-philosophy-189250.
 Mitchell, “Biden is falling into the same trap with Europe as Obama,”.
 Rothschild, “Rhetoric Divorced from Reality: Deciphering Biden’s Foreign Policy Philosophy,”.
 Winston Churchill, “Give Us the Tools” (speech, London, UK, February 9, 1941), America’s National Churchill Museum, https://www.nationalchurchillmuseum.org/give-us-the-tools.html.
 Amanda J. Rothschild, “Why Is Germany-with Its History-Enabling China's Genocide?: Opinion,” Newsweek (Newsweek, December 13, 2021), https://www.newsweek.com/why-germany-its-historyenabling-chinas-genocide-opinion-1658289.