Joe Biden’s speech in Warsaw on Saturday was the capstone of a months-long effort to strengthen key strategic alliances and, in particular, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The president’s remarks were a sort of manifesto for the organization, which has been hobbled in recent years by growing divisions and, in particular, threats made by Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, to withdraw the United States from NATO altogether. Europe, Biden said, was at a familiar crossroads, facing “a new great battle for freedom … between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between rules-based order and one governed by brute force.”
“We must commit now to be in this fight for the long haul. We must remain unified today and tomorrow and the day after and for the years and decades to come,” he said. Then, he added, “It will not be easy. There will be costs. But it’s a price we have to pay. Because the darkness that drives autocracy is ultimately no match for the flame of liberty that lights the souls of free people everywhere.” It was perhaps the best speech of Biden’s presidency, one that underlined the fine balance he has managed to achieve during the crisis between strengthening alliances, aiding Ukrainian war efforts, and focusing on diplomacy rather than military escalation—comparisons to Biden’s hero John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein berliner” speech were apt.
But thanks to a moment of improvisation, none of that carefully crafted rhetoric ended up drawing the media’s attention. Near the end of the speech, Biden ad libbed, saying that “For God’s sake, this man”—by which he meant Russian leader Vladimir Putin—“cannot remain in power.”
The administration quickly went into damage control mode, immediately distancing its official position from its Biden’s remarks, making it clear that the United States did not support regime change in Russia and—less convincingly—that the president really meant something different. “The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region,” a Biden administration official told reporters. “He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.” This remark followed two others, in which Biden described Putin as a “butcher” and a “war criminal” that similarly were far more aggressive than the official American position. Biden himself, meanwhile, further confused the situation on Monday by saying “I just was expressing my outrage. He shouldn’t remain in power, just like, you know, bad people shouldn’t continue to do bad things,” but also that “it doesn’t mean we have a fundamental policy to do anything to take Putin down in any way.”
While the controversy predictably received the standard “politician makes gaffe” coverage, it bears noting that the incident only underlined the extraordinary danger that the world is in at the moment. Relations between Russia and the United States are worse than they have been in decades: Officials from the two militaries are not even communicating at the moment; traditional diplomatic channels have, over the past decade, also eroded badly. The risk of nuclear war is already high; small errors or even misinterpretations can quickly lead to astonishing consequences. Biden’s remarks also underscore that there are two daunting diplomatic challenges ahead. The first is ending the war in Ukraine. But the second is also to lessen, if not eradicate the risk of nuclear annihilation, which has rapidly re-emerged in recent weeks.
Biden’s “this man cannot remain in power” remark was, in many ways, a classic Biden gaffe. The president has been prone to similar emotional outbursts for decades—one can think of his iconic “big fucking deal” remark after the passage of Obamacare in a similar way. Biden’s not wrong, per se, to want Russia’s government and military in the hands of someone without Putin’s irredentist ambitions. Putin is a butcher and a war criminal; he is also a despot and authoritarian. The lives of millions of Russians and Ukrainians would undoubtedly improve were he to be removed from power.
Those who have endeavored to defend Biden’s loose lips have largely pointed out the plain-spoken veracity of his remarks. In The Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin blamed Biden’s advisers for walking it back, arguing that they made the president look weak while saying the comments themselves represented “a perfectly acceptable, morally sound view.” Her colleague, Max Boot, meanwhile, argued that history judge Biden’s ad-libs favorably, stretching credulity to argue that Ronald Reagan’s bellicose rhetoric about the “evil empire” helped hasten the fall of the Soviet Union. Writing in The Daily Beast, David Rothkopf dismissed the controversy as being about “whether Joe Biden hurt Vladimir Putin’s feelings by speaking the truth.”
But Vladimir Putin’s interpretations of Biden’s words are of paramount importance right now; recklessly getting ahead of the U.S.’s and NATO’s strategy on Ukraine can have perilous consequences. There is a fine line—one that will likely require uncomfortable tradeoffs—to be walked with regards to punishing Russia for its illegal, profoundly destructive invasion of Ukraine and in ending that conflict. Biden has mostly walked it ably, but his unity-themed oration was rapidly transformed into a saber-rattling spectacle—one that handed Putin a rhetorical weapon of his own: The opportunity to characterize the Western alliance as being chiefly concerned with interfering in Russia’s domestic affairs. Biden may have the facts on his side, but if the ultimate goal here is to end the war in Ukraine and to have Russia rejoin the global community, these comments only further paint Putin into a corner.
Naturally, making matters worse is that in that corner with Putin lies the world’s second-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, a fact that makes recklessly antagonizing the Russian strongman a risky pursuit. For much of the post-Cold War era, we have been sleepwalking through the growing risk of nuclear conflict: The United States has, to put it bluntly, not done nearly enough to decrease its nuclear arsenal. Now, with tensions rising once again with Russia, the threat of nuclear war is rising exponentially. Biden’s off-the-cuff remarks suggest that he isn’t taking that seriously enough, which is alarming in and of itself. But it also suggests that the administration is still unprepared for thinking through the longer-term challenge presented: Not just ending the war in Ukraine but also ensuring that the risk of nuclear annihilation ceases as well. The nuclear threat is indelibly entwined with the crisis in Ukraine, already placing hard limits on what the West can do and, as we learned this weekend, say. For that reason, the crisis cannot be considered resolved until the goals of global denuclearization are finally met.