At a swanky fundraiser in Manhattan, President Joe Biden alluded to the prospect of “Armageddon.” The biblical reference was not intended to woo the Christian evangelicals who form part of the base of the Republican Party, but to alert bien-pensant liberal opinion that something a trifle more threatening than global warming looms large in world politics.
For the “first time since the Cuban missile crisis, we have a direct threat of the use [of a] nuclear weapon if, in fact, things continue down the path they are going,” Biden said. For anyone with lingering memories of the Cold War, his remarks about the prospect that Russian president Vladimir Putin might reach for the nuclear button was bound to stir alarm coupled with — dare I say it? — a smidgen of pleasure.
When the Cold War ended in 1989, Francis Fukuyama predicted, or warned, that the West might be facing an age of boredom. Putin has changed all that. By invading Ukraine and blustering about his nuclear arsenal, he has upended the global chessboard — and restored the Cold War order in Washington. Once more, Washington is engaged in a proxy confrontation with Moscow. Once more, it’s a boom time for arms manufacturers, or the “merchants of death,” as they were reviled after World War One. Nor is this all. The war is also good for talking heads in Washington, particularly the defense intellectuals who saw their stock tank after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The product of a possible nuclear war is the cherry on top.
Nothing could be more back to the future. It allows even the average citizen to feel a sense of importance as they might get dragged into a conflict that could transform the planet into a raging inferno. Is Netflix witnessing an upsurge in demand for films such as Fail-Safe, Dr. Strangelove and The Day After?
For Biden himself the political dividends are clear. He’s a warlord by proxy. He’s made it clear that the stakes could not be higher. The Ukraine war may even divert attention from pesky domestic issues like inflation and rising gas prices in coming weeks. An international crisis, you might say, is too good to waste. And if the doughty Ukrainians win the war, as they well may, and Putin goes down, as seems increasingly likely, Biden might emerge as a far-sighted leader who backed the right horse.
George F. Will, no booster of Biden he, recently noted, “If Biden stays strong, with US drones as a judicious increment in punishing Putin’s brutality by reversing his aggression, Biden’s presidency will be deemed by wise historians as, on balance, a success.”
For now, Biden has offered a reminder of how easily a president can grab the spotlight. He’s also upped the pressure on Putin who seems to have lost much of his mojo. Presumably Russian elites are no more interested than Americans in experiencing a Twilight of the Gods moment. Perhaps Putin’s very talk about unleashing doomsday weapons will lead to his own.