Biden Denies the Russians a Choice
It is said that President John F. Kennedy gave the most important speech of his presidency before the graduating class at the American University in Washington, D.C., in June 1963. The occasion was five months before his death and eight months after he had confronted Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev over the deployment of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis would later be seen as a defining moment in U.S.-Russian relations. It was the closest approach of the two Cold War antagonists to a nuclear confrontation.
After the crisis subsided, Kennedy thought deeply about how to avoid a situation like that again and how the two great nuclear powers could find a way to live together. He wanted to say something about it publicly. In his speech, Kennedy signaled U.S. readiness to join with Russia in banning the future tests of nuclear weapons and he opened the prospect for peaceful coexistence. The speech is admired for Kennedy’s eloquence and for the initiative he took in conceiving it, but there is a passage in it that is relevant today as we look at the war unfolding in Ukraine.
Nuclear powers, Kennedy said, “must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war. To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy -- or of a collective death-wish for the world.”
Kennedy was 47 years old when he passed along that wise counsel to those who would manage America’s future relations with other nuclear powers. Today it is not taken as a maxim for guiding current American policy towards Russia. President Biden refutes Kennedy. His foreign policy team would hold that Kennedy raised a false dichotomy, and that it is not the case that the only alternatives in an American confrontation with another nuclear-armed power is either a “humiliating retreat” or nuclear war. Rather, they would say, it is possible to calibrate a vigorous response within a range of policy options short of approaching a nuclear show down. This is the great game the United States and its NATO allies are now playing with Russia. It is a game where the bid is being continually raised.
“Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia. Never,” President Biden said in Poland on February 21. The words are confrontational and far removed from the spirit in Kennedy’s speech. They are part of a long record of American words and deeds showing that Washington is willing to risk a direct military confrontation with Russia. Today’s policy hawks would have to admit that Kennedy got the part about avoiding humiliating another nuclear power wrong. They are not shy about talking about humiliating Russia. Humiliation is seen as an aspect of policy. That stems partly from the West’s sense of maddened outrage over Russia’s behavior and partly from deliberate calculation. Humiliating Russia is built into the logic of NATO’s military response on the battlefield.
NATO wants to keep the Ukrainian army up and fighting. Its escalatory moves are aimed at raising the costs Russia must pay while denying it tangible gains. The fight in Ukraine goes on but neither the United States nor its allies have made an explicit announcement about their war aims. In fact, there are no concrete war aims, apart from the abstract notion of victory itself, which is presumably defined as a battlefield check on Russian military advance, brought about by a combination of NATO weaponry and Ukrainian manpower. Victory is the war aim, and not something else. When it’s achieved, it would be evident to all parties; we would know it when we see it. It might be accompanied by a Russian change of heart, an acknowledgment of war guilt, and offers to make amends. Swapping out a whole new set of leaders in Moscow, which has long been a policy hawk dream, would be in the cards. Sum up these things and the logic of NATO’s battlefield gambits amounts to a “humiliating retreat” for Russia.
French president Emmanuel Macron sometimes says things that put him at odds with the more hawkish voices in Europe. Apparently wanting to have it both ways, he said a few days ago that Russia must be “defeated” in Ukraine, but not “crushed.” That may sound like a distinction without a difference, but Macron was signaling his opposition to allowing the desire to humiliate Russia from commandeering the course of NATO war policy. He has also ruled out “regime change” in Russia.
Kennedy’s caution against humiliating another nuclear-armed power in a dispute does not exactly equate to the U.S. and its allies finding an “off-ramp” for Russia. The expression “off-ramp” pops up in talk about Ukraine. Typically, the speaker means that Russia is in over its head, it’s looking for a way out, and the collective West ought to respond with an accommodative gesture. Kennedy’s intent was different. From the context of the speech, he puts the burden on American behavior before a crisis arises, and not merely on creatively helping our opponent find a way out during the heat of a crisis. Kennedy meant that restraint should be the proscriptive guide to policy-making, and not merely an expedient for defusing tension. From this it would follow that the United States should never follow a course where temporary and imperfect solutions are removed from the table, leaving behind the residual choice of humiliation or nuclear war. The U.S. has done exactly that in Ukraine. Looking at the chain of events in the run-up to the war, it is hard to see how restraint shaped America’s whole-hearted support for NATO’s bold expansion right up to Russia’s fence; nor is it evident how restraint plays in the gambler’s game of war by proxy.
If the reader wants a take-away from this dismal state of affairs, then let him take some comfort in the thought that Divine Providence foreordained from all eternity that not one of the practitioners of American policy towards Russia today was in the White House cabinet room when John Kennedy drafted his responses to Nikita Khrushchev sixty-one years ago.
JAMES SORIANO is a retired foreign service officer. He has previously written for the American Thinker on the war in Ukraine.