He cast the blame, and his appeal, broadly. He pleaded, cajoled, and shamed the civilized world to come to the aid of his nation under siege. He called out global leaders and organizations, arguing that more combat aircraft and a no-fly zone are instrumental to the very survival of his country. But in the end, the dramatic virtual appearance of the heroic Volodymyr Zelensky was designed to pressure not so much the gathered members of Congress, or even European leaders, NATO, or the UN, but a single man: Joe Biden. It was one president challenging another: “Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.”
Congress neither conceives nor establishes foreign policy – perhaps because, for starters, it would be somewhat impractical to have 535 co-commanders-in-chief. In fact, the nation’s pre-eminent legislature rarely even exercises its own exclusive Article Two power to declare war anymore – after issuing such declarations 11 times, from the War of 1812 to World War II. But beginning with the Korean conflict, presidents have figured out how to circumvent congressional oversight and conduct undeclared wars. Responsibility for matters of war and peace practically and ultimately rests with the nation’s singular chief executive.
So, beyond the obvious factor of just how much carnage Putin is willing to wreak and how many war crimes he is willing to commit to overpower defiant Ukrainians, the outcome of this war may in fact pivot on crucial decisions yet to be made by the US president. So far, Biden has been able mostly to consent to proactive actions already taken or proposed by NATO allies in Europe, who obviously have far more at stake than the US due to geographic proximity. He approved another $800 million in aid following Zelensky’s speech, and for the first time called Putin a war criminal, but it’s not a heavy lift to throw money at the problem or call someone a name. The time will almost certainly come when Biden must make a hard, unilateral decision of serious consequence, when NATO looks to him for leadership instead of the other way around.
What additional actions Biden is willing to take may depend not so much on his own reaction to Zelensky’s plea, but on how the American people process it. With his approval long stuck at a low ebb and his foreign policy legacy very much in jeopardy in the wake of the disastrous campaign to surrender Afghanistan, this president can ill afford another black eye on the international stage as he continues to suffer from broad disapproval by the American people on a wide range of domestic issues from inflation to the ongoing urban crime wave to the porous southern border.
Derivative thinkers like Biden rely heavily on consensus, which is why global organizations like NATO provide ideal cover for his famously cautious approach to foreign affairs. So far, he has been able to draft off our allies’ collective efforts, including French President Emmanuel Macron on the diplomatic front and the new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, in calling for massive increases in military spending. But how will Biden react with the impassioned pleas of Zelensky ringing in the ears of the American people and members of Congress looking to signal their virtue as midterms approach?
Like Donald Trump, Zelensky was little more than the butt of jokes when he first broached the idea of running for office in 2014 after a career as an actor and comedian. And much like the reality show host Trump, he also got the last laugh by ascending to the presidency of his young nation. Now he demonstrates his spectacular heroism to a fearful world. The young Ukrainian president spent the bulk of his presentation to Congress laying out what is at stake and offering evidence of Putin’s horrifying brutality. But will the audience of one sitting in the Oval Office respond in kind? The answer is as unclear, and dependent on groupthink, as the outcome of the war.
President Zelensky has already guaranteed himself a secure place in history for his fierce and impassioned resistance to genuine evil. We know how far he is willing to go to defend his country. And while we are all focused on how far Putin is willing to go to conquer it, perhaps the more significant question at this time is how far Biden is willing to go to stop him.
~ Read more from Tim Donner.