And now, less than 100 days into his administration, Biden faces a pair of pressing challenges that demand shrewdness, strength and imagination. If mishandled, they could blow up.
The first is Ukraine, where the Russians have massed well-armed troops on the border. This is not Nikita Khrushchev secreting nuclear missiles into Cuba; it is Vladimir Putin engaging in a military build-up, openly and brazenly. Having absorbed Crimea in 2014, supported pro-Russian separatists and provoked skirmishes with the Ukrainians in the Donbass ever since, he is now up to something else. Experts call it a crisis.
Maybe he plans to invade eastern Ukraine, annexing borderlands home to ethnic Russians. If so, he has to presume that the United States and NATO, which have reaffirmed support for Ukraine, will do nothing. That would be foolish.
More likely, he’s testing Biden. It’s theatre, elaborate sabre-rattling for concessions elsewhere. Moreover, rumours of war distract attention from the domestic unrest caused by the arrest and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny, the heroic, ailing opposition leader.
Biden has talked to Putin and expects to meet him soon in Finland. He will warn Putin not to invade. But will Putin be content with his “no war, no peace” pantomime of the last seven years? If not, how will Biden respond?
The second powder keg is Taiwan. As the Russians are testing Biden, so are the Chinese. One of the grim realities of international politics is the fading, high-minded hope that a prosperous China will become a democratic China, tied into the international system, moderating its longstanding claims on Tibet and Taiwan.
While China has tamed Tibet, Taiwan is a vibrant democracy and innovative economy. Its spirited people reject a union with China, which denies that Taiwan is independent.
In recent weeks, the Chinese have been tweaking the Taiwanese, again. They are mustering a show of force: menacing warships in nearby waters, warplanes violating Taiwanese airspace every day. They seem to want an incident, a casus belli.
This is more dangerous than Ukraine because the Chinese have always seen Taiwan as a renegade province. That few Taiwanese were born in mainland China and a growing number see themselves as Taiwanese, that Taiwan has been on its own since 1949, that it has built a creative culture with a respect for human rights — none of this moves the Chinese.
In 1996, when the Chinese were rattling Taiwan with missiles, Bill Clinton disarmed things when he sent U.S. warships into the Straits of Taiwan. China is stronger and more aggressive today. An attack on Taiwan would be catastrophic for both the Taiwanese — who vow to fight, using sophisticated American weapons — and the world.
Biden faces other threats: withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, returning to talks with Iran and managing North Korea, which may take advantage of a distracted America. But none is as incendiary as Ukraine and Taiwan.
Andrew Cohen is a journalist, Carleton University professor and author of Two Days In June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.
This content was originally published here.