President Biden's former boss might have told him that the 1980s called to ask for its foreign policy back. There was a heavy dose of Reaganesque "trust but verify" in Biden's response to Russia's professed drawdown along the Ukrainian border.
Biden is walking a careful line: The United States does not want Russia to invade Ukraine, but neither does it want to go to war against nuclear-armed Russia over this non-NATO member. Ukraine is peripheral to our interests, but the norm that stronger countries should not routinely overtake weaker ones is worth upholding even apart from Russian President Vladimir Putin's general bad-guy status.
These positions are correct but pursuing them will require a delicate mix of diplomacy and plausible threats that do not careen out of control. To that end, Biden has dabbled in a strange mix of restrained and hawkish rhetoric. "If Russia proceeds, we will rally the world to oppose its aggression," he said, later adding, "While I will not send American servicemen to fight Russia in Ukraine, we have supplied the Ukrainian military with equipment to help them defend themselves."
Biden followed up by reiterating his commitment to a robust defense of NATO allies. But some of his comments about Ukraine sound a bit empty if we're not going to fight: "If we do not stand for freedom where it is at risk today, we'll surely pay a steeper price tomorrow."
Maybe it's working – Putin is at least was willing to be seen as blinking. Or maybe it's just a holdover from the hawkish foreign policy consensus of the past two decades, one from which Biden dissented on Afghanistan.
But there's a real concern that our current policy is to assert Ukraine's right to join NATO, risking a Russian invasion now for the hypothetical right to protect Ukraine long after the war is over.
The problem is less with what Biden is trying to do than how easily we could blunder into something worse – for both Ukraine and ourselves – if we're not careful.