It is not often that the State of the Union address coincides with a major turning point in history, but Joe Biden’s first State of the Union did just that. When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began just a few days ago—the first major ground war in Europe since World War II—the speech that had been in the works for weeks acquired a new and important opening. Biden had no choice but to open with a stern warning to Putin and friends—“Tonight I say to the Russian oligarchs and corrupt leaders—no more!”—and to characterize the moment as a battle “between democracies and autocracies,” a battle where “freedom will always triumph over tyranny.”
Although the speech contained a strong defense of Biden’s record, a plan for economic renewal and the usual laundry list of hopes, the question that no one, including the president, could answer last night hung over everything—will a new Cold War begin, or something else?
We saw a similar sequence of events 75 years ago.
After the Second World War ended, it took a while for Americans to see the Soviet Union for what it was. In the immediate post WWII years, the American media initially portrayed our Russian allies in the fight against the Nazis as “one hell of a people who look like Americans, dress like Americans and think like Americans.” They described Stalin’s brutal secret police, the NKVD, as akin to our own FBI. Life magazine ran a cover story called “A Guy Named Joe”, which was sympathetic to Stalin.
But it took only a few months for the perception of the Soviet Union as a friendly nation to change. As Cold War historian Martin Walker writes:
“This shift in perception took place among the governing establishments in both London and Washington in the last weeks of 1945 and the first two months of 1946. In the course of one hundred days, the West’s view of the Soviet Union changed … into a conviction that the West was being conscripted into a new crusade.”
Fast-forward to 2022. At the beginning of the Biden presidency, not many Americans (except perhaps former President Trump) saw Russia as a friendly nation. We knew that they tried to meddle with our elections and that they were still trying to exploit our differences. But the Biden administration continued to hope that our relations with Russia could be stabilized—until the threats against Ukraine intensified late in 2021. And then that perception changed, as abruptly as it had changed three quarters of a century ago.
In 1947 President Truman crystallized this change towards the Soviets in what became known as the Truman Doctrine, spelled out to Congress in a joint session on March 12, 1947. He pledged aid to Greece and Turkey. But he went farther, declaring that “I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
A threat to two countries on the shore of the Mediterranean led to the creation of a new global mission for the United States that dominated US policy for the next four decades.
Once the Cold War had begun, no State of the Union address could ignore the looming threat presented by the Soviet Union. This changed in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, and with it, the Soviet Union as we knew it. President George H.W. Bush’s 1990 State of the Union address was a victory lap. Recalling the past year and the emergence of Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany from Soviet domination, Bush called them:
“Remarkable events—events that fulfill the long-held hopes of the American people.… America stands at the center of a widening circle of freedom—today, tomorrow, and into the next century. Our nation is the enduring dream of every immigrant who ever set foot on these shores, and the millions still struggling to be free. This nation, this idea called America, was and always will be a new world—our new world.”
The question is, what next? Will Russian aggression fail at the hands of an energized Ukrainian resistance? If it succeeds, will Vladimir Putin challenge our NATO allies—especially Poland and the Baltics, whom we are sworn to defend, a pledge President Biden underscored in his speech? This is not a question that Biden could answer yet. The war is too young. Like Truman before him, it may take a full year to articulate the Biden doctrine.
We know that the invasion of Ukraine marked the end of the post-Cold War era. We know that the attitudes and policies of European countries and of the EU have been transformed with a speed that astounded veteran observers. What we do not know is the form that the new stand-off between Russia and the West will take. It may not look exactly like the Cold War. As the saying goes, history does not repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes.