For a president who spends his days confronting Russia and China, a domestic focus

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WASHINGTON — When President Biden delivered his State of the Union address a year ago, war had broken out in Europe days before and it seemed inevitable that Vladimir V. Putin would quickly take control of Ukraine. . China, the Pentagon kept repeating, was America’s “rhythmic” challenge, a long-term technological and financial competitor, but it was unlikely to pose an imminent challenge to Taiwan or the United States. United.

On Tuesday evening, Mr. Biden faced a changed world.

Simultaneously managing an aggressive Russia and a risk-taking China could prove the biggest challenge of his next two years. And they will increasingly occupy his attention, especially now that Republican control of the House is all but ending its national legislative agenda.

It was therefore particularly striking that in the President’s State of the Union address on Tuesday evening, he chose to spend relatively little time on America’s global role, focusing instead on his “Made in America” ​​effort. “to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States, even at the cost of the wrath of America’s closest allies and major trading partners.

History may well conclude that reconstituting the NATO alliance and uniting disparate Asian allies to face a combative Russia and a rising China was Mr. Biden’s most notable achievement, especially for a president who sees himself first and foremost as a master of foreign policy.

But it has made Mr. Biden’s choice to downplay those achievements all the more stark, perhaps because he knows that re-engaging America in the world is both costly and, at the opening of an election cycle, a political hard sell. Containing Russia and competing with China may be the work of decades, but it will add tens or hundreds of billions of dollars to an already stretched budget.

Thanks to Western aid and Ukrainian resilience and ingenuity, the war now seems to have settled into a long and crushing conflict, in which Washington and Moscow find themselves in an almost direct armed conflict, arguably the moment the tensest between the two superpowers since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. And the more the Ukrainians manage to use American precision missiles, German-made tanks and NATO munitions, the more likely it is that Mr Putin will again threaten to detonate a nuclear weapon if necessary to gain what he sees as an existential fight.

Since the summer, Mr Biden’s intelligence agencies have been reassessing a China that seems much more willing to take risks – threatening Taiwan, defending disputed territory in the South China Sea and last week sending a spy balloon drifting overhead. above the continental United States which seemed to encapsulate the problem of a surveillance state with no qualms about its ambitions.

Now Mr. Biden’s national security team is debating which China will be harder to deal with: a confident, rising power or one that in recent months has seemed to stumble, unable to handle the COVID-19 virus, and increasingly stressed as he tries to restore the dramatic economic growth that has been key to his power.

As the president discovered when the nation gasped after China’s balloon and its mysterious payload of high-tech sensors, even small incidents with Beijing can escalate quickly. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is postponing his trip to China, the first by a State Department head in years. Republicans argued Mr Biden was ‘weak’ for ordering the balloon to be shot down only after it had crossed the country; Beijing accused him of a “clear overreaction” and said it reserved the right to retaliate. It was a reminder that in both countries, domestic political demands can force leaders to take a harder line, a prescription for inflaming an already strained relationship.

These are the questions that dominate Mr. Biden’s days, as he descends into the crisis room to gauge progress in Ukraine’s Donbass region, or travels to groundbreaking ceremonies for new semi-production plants. -Intel or IBM drivers, so that the United States is less dependent. on Chinese production.

And yet, Mr. Biden mentioned Ukraine only briefly on Tuesday evening – far less than last year. He invited the Ukrainian ambassador to the speech and thanked her, but never referred to Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president who visited Washington just two months ago to thank a joint session of Congress for American support.

Instead, he focused on his plan to spend $52 billion to revive chip production. “We’re going to make sure the supply chain for America starts in America,” he said.

To give America time to catch up, he cut off China’s supply of the most sophisticated semiconductor production equipment and convinced Japan and the Netherlands to do the same.

“The reality is that history shows that whenever powerful nations have access to advanced computing capabilities, they deploy them for intelligence and military purposes,” Chris Miller, a professor at Tufts University and author of “Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology,” said on the Marketplace radio show.

Mr Biden mentioned the name of President Xi Jinping, repeating his assertion that he was seeking competition, not conflict, with China – but he never mentioned the ball.

The closest it came was this warning: “Make no mistake: as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.

Mr Biden also tried to argue on Tuesday evening that in his challenge to himself and the country – to show that “democracy works” and can overcome autocracies – he has begun to show progress. “Over the past two years, democracies have gotten stronger, not weaker,” he said. “Autocracies got weaker, not stronger.”

It was part of his argument that while democracy is messy, once America pulls itself together, it can prevail. “Before I came to power, history was about how the People’s Republic of China was increasing its power and America’s failure in the world,” he said. “No more.” He then went further, implying that no other world leader would want to switch places with Mr. Xi, given the extent of his recent problems.

Perhaps it was a premature declaration of victory. Yet despite his domestic focus, Mr. Biden had plenty to brag about Tuesday when it came to leading an international response to Russia’s aggression. “Since George HW Bush brought together the allies for the Persian Gulf War, no president has brought together this type of alliance,” said Robert Litwak, director of security studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who has much has been written about superpower competition. , particularly in the nuclear field. “It required a retooling of American foreign policy.”

After four decades of hard work in foreign policy, Mr Biden managed to convince a reluctant Germany to cut off the Nord Stream II gas pipeline that made it dependent on Russian-generated energy and bail it out of its post-WWII reluctance world to rebuild important military power. A few weeks ago, he even agreed to send Leopard tanks to help the Ukrainians break through the Russian trenches, a move that would have been almost impossible to imagine the last time Mr Biden addressed the joint session. of Congress.

But as George HW Bush learned the hard way, voters are often unimpressed with foreign policy achievements: He was defeated in 1992, just a year after his victory in the Middle East. Some of Mr. Biden’s advisers worry that history will repeat itself, noting that the cost of gasoline and eggs has a way of swaying voters that Russian and Chinese power grabs don’t.