He clearly regards Mr. Xi as a worthy competitor who will force America to up its game — thus the focus in his speech on education, speedier, universal internet access, and on partnerships with industry in new technologies. Mr. Biden has made clear to his aides, in lengthy Situation Room sessions on China strategy, that his administration must finally focus the country on the existential threat of a world in which China dominates in trade and technology, and controls the flow of electrons — and the ideas they carry.
In contrast, he regards Mr. Putin’s Russia as a declining power whose only real capability is to act as a disrupter — one that seeks to split NATO, undermine democracy and poke holes in the computer and communications networks that the United States, and the rest of the world, depend upon. That came through in the speech. While he did not repeat his reference to Mr. Putin as a “killer,” he focused on the recent sanctions. “He understands we will respond,” he said, while opening the door to new agreements on arms control and climate.
But making this twin strategy of competition and containment work, Mr. Biden acknowledged at one point, depended on persuading Americans to make the necessary investments, and convincing allies that the United States would have their backs.
The pandemic response, he suggested, paved the way. One hundred days ago it would have been hard to imagine any country turning to the United States for coronavirus aid; now India has, and the pressure on Mr. Biden is how fast he can deploy vaccines to the rest of the world, at a moment that domestic politics suggests he needs to vaccinate all willing Americans first.
But when the pandemic abates, the divisions in the United States will remain. And those divisions, he knows, will be exploited by Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin to further their argument that America is in terminal decline.
It is still a powerful argument, one that Mr. Biden acknowledged when he described his conversations with nearly 40 world leaders.
“I’ve made it known that America is back,” he said. “And you know what they say? The comment that I hear most of all from them is they say, ‘We see America is back but for how long? But for how long?’”