Like FDR, Biden faces a difficult choice – do more to stop an evil dictator now or pay the price later

US President Joe Biden (L) will meet with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, Joint Chiefs of Staff and Combat Chiefs of Staff at the White House in Washington, DC on April 20, 2022.

Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

On December 29, 1940, almost a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would bring the United States into World War II, millions of Americans turned on their radios to hear President Franklin D. Roosevelt explain why the United States should support Europe’s forces of freedom against Adolf Hitler’s fascist advance.

The Americans at the time were deeply unsure whether they should be involved in the distant European war at all, even though they were appalled by the reports of its horrors. Roosevelt used one of his famous brand chats to convince them that the United States should quickly and decisively deploy its enormous industrial capacity on behalf of freedom.

“We must be the great arsenal of democracy,” he said in the firm, familiar voice that Americans had locked in their living rooms for most of this decade. “We have given the British great material support and we will deliver far more in the future. There will be no ‘bottlenecks’ in our determination to help Britain. No dictator, no combination of dictators, will weaken this determination with threats of, how they will interpret that decision. “

Eighty years later, President Joe Biden must decide how far he is willing to go to deploy an updated “large arsenal of democracy” to enable Ukraine to defeat today’s European tyrant, Russian President Vladimir Putin. What Biden’s administration and its partners have done so far through sanctions and military support has been remarkable, but it remains insufficient as Putin escalates his offensive against Ukraine’s east and south.

As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visit Kiev today, it is no longer enough for President Biden to argue that the US will defend every inch of NATO territory required by all 29 Allies under Article 5 of its basic treaty. While this commitment is commendable and crucial to allies bordering Russia and Ukraine, it has been perceived by Putin as an open game against Ukraine itself, which is not a NATO member.

It is now time for President Biden to oblige the Americans and, to the extent possible, the democratic world to a greater extent to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and freedom. It means not only political support and rhetorical common cause, but adequate intelligence and military assistance, not only to curb Putin, but to defeat his ongoing advance. Anything less would be contrary to President Biden’s own stated conviction.

As President Biden himself said in his State of the Union speech this year: “Throughout our history, we have learned this lesson – when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos. They keep moving. And , costs and threats to America and the world continue to rise. “

Said Biden, “That is why the NATO alliance was set up to ensure peace and stability in Europe after World War II… Putin’s war was deliberate and unprovoked. He rejected efforts at diplomacy. He believed that the West and NATO would not respond. And he thought he could share us at home. Putin was wrong. We were ready. “

But are we really ready for the next stage, which is getting uglier and more dangerous with each passing day, Putin? Only Ukraine’s survival as a free country can begin the reversal of a three-decade downward trajectory for democratic freedoms in Europe and the world, which in turn jeopardizes all progress in Europe since World War II.

The latest report from the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, which produces the largest global dataset on democracy in the world, wrote: “The level of democracy that the average global citizen enjoys in 2021 is down to 1989 levels. , “, which means that the last 30 years of democratic progress following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union have now been completely reversed.

The number of countries that the Vs consider liberal democracies was down to just 34 in 2021, the lowest number since 1995. “Together, autocracies now house 70% of the world’s population – 5.4 billion people,” the report warns.

Democracy researchers trace disturbing evidence that autocrats are getting bolder. Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, an independent country led by a freely elected government, followed five military coups in 2021, an increase greater than anything the world had seen in the previous two decades. It sees that the dangers are also rising within established democracies.

“Polarization and government misinformation are also increasing,” writes V-Dem. “These tendencies are intertwined. Polarized publics are more likely to demonize political opponents and distrust information from various sources, and mobilization is shifting as a result.”

In his new book, “Revenge of Power, How Autocrats Reinvent Politics for the 21st century, “writes Moises Naim of the” three P’s “who drive this tendency – populism, polarization, and post-truth. He sees this kind of autocratic power as” maliciously incompatible with the democratic values ​​at the center of any free society. “

The international situation that President Roosevelt faced in 1940 is very different from the situation that President Biden faced in 2022. What connects these two turning points is the danger of aggressive authoritarianism and the insufficient common cause to confront it.

When President Roosevelt spoke in December 1940, his appeal came three months after the signing of the Tripartite Pact between Germany, Italy and Japan, which created a defense alliance of autocracies aimed at deterring the United States from entering the war.

On 4 February this year, the two-part “Joint Declaration of the Russian Federation and People’s Republic of China” does not seem to go nearly as far, as it does not oblige any of the sides to a defense alliance. But its language is hardly less ambitious and similarly aimed at the United States. And this time, the two authoritarian superpowers are armed with nuclear weapons.

“Friendship between the two states knows no bounds,” reads the 5,300-word text, which came just 20 days before Putin began his war. “There are no ‘prohibited’ areas of cooperation.”

Just as it was then for President Roosevelt, President Biden must now also weigh the dangers of the moment against the future dangers caused by inadequate response.

“If we are to be completely honest with ourselves,” Roosevelt told the Americans, “we must admit that there is a risk in any course we take. But I am deeply convinced that the vast majority of our people are agree that the course I am in favor of involves the least risk now and the greatest hope for world peace in the future. “

FDR’s message to Biden is clear: Do more now to stop Putin or pay the consequences later.

Frederick Kempe is the President and CEO of the Atlantic Council.

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