Cold War is Performance
So who is Joe Biden's audience?
We used to do this thing in the Cold War — and by “we,” I mean everyone — where we constantly tried to yank the other side’s chain. Instead of a hot war with nuclear weapons, the idea was to stimulate a smaller response from the other side and learn from what they did. Provocations were deliberate and purposeful, but low-level. It was a mutual performance in which the dance partners moved together in time and somehow never touched.
Soviet conscription practices resulted in a new cohort of recruits arriving at their bases in Eastern Europe every year, so they would all be in the field during the same brief season to hold their final exercises. NATO intelligence would watch every move, noting the tiniest deviation from normal routine. Leave was not canceled, of course, and soldiers’ families were never evacuated, but a quiet state of alert existed and the Soviets knew it.
As told to me by the cold warriors of the time, there was a long period when some innovative thing would always happen that landed on the president’s desk in a matter of minutes. Diplomatic finger-waving might or might not follow as the president saw fit. While the picture on the other side was different, it was similar enough for the reader to imagine. The Cold War was actually quite bloody — the Indonesian genocide alone gets us past one million deaths — but it was mostly a performative, fake conflict, thank goodness.
Putin’s war in Donbass is increasingly exposed as a performance. I am not simply referring to the loud alarums and visible counter-movements of the Biden administration. I mean that the whole thing is performative. All of it. Fake news video clips, confused residents relocated to emergency tent cities, explosions, warnings, statements of concern, the whole Twitter trending topic. It’s all a deception. Russians are past masters at battlefield deception (maskirovka). They are the most experienced in the world at yanking America’s chain. Except for the social media channels which did not exist back then, I see nothing new here.
Granting then that the entire affair is a sort of improv act by well-trained actors, for whom are they performing? Who is the audience? Those answers will be more informative than the firehose of rumors.
Last week, Biden was emphatic that “The United States will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power. An attack against one NATO country is an attack against all of us.” Doubling down, he added: “And the United States commitment to Article 5 is sacrosanct.”
These are not-so-popular words in America today. We have experienced a gradual shift back towards traditional ‘Real Whig’ ideas about national isolation since 1992. That tectonic force has been part of Trumpism since before Donald flirted with the Reform Party in 2000. It explains his appeal to voters who no longer understand why Europe is important, let alone Ukraine.
Which, in turn, is why Biden “will not send American servicemen to fight Russia in Ukraine.” Instead, “we have supplied the Ukrainian military with equipment to help them defend themselves.” The statement about Article 5 will not help Biden get reelected. The statement rejecting American soldiers in Ukraine? That is what he wanted Americans to hear. No Americans will be harmed in the making of this film. Whew.
However, some things are conspicuous by their absence. In his remarks, Biden made the most references to Russia. Addressing the leaders and people of that nation, Russia was also a subject of remarks he directed to America, Ukraine, and Europe. Biden mentioned Ukraine twice as often as the United States. Of all the potential addressees, Biden mentioned Europe the least, which is odd, since the entire policy is about European security. Ukraine is not worth American lives, yet Biden is sending troops to the eastern edge of NATO, and he mentioned the alliance as many times as the United States.
Put simply, Joe Biden’s performance is about that system of security and the necessity of maintaining the peace of Europe. Americans will not go to war for Ukraine, he reasons, but they (he hopes) will understand the decision to defend Europe in the Cold War way, and the Europeans will (he hopes) have renewed confidence in that American commitment, whatever American voters may think about it.
In geopolitics, this is called “soft power.” The United States has a diminished supply of it lately. Biden wants to enlarge the national reserves. Whether he can succeed remains to be seen.