Harry Truman famously said of his successor Dwight Eisenhower shortly before Eisenhower took office: “Poor Ike, he won’t know what to do. He’ll sit here and bark orders but nobody will listen. It won’t be a thing like the Army.”

Harry had a point. But he forgot that before Ike was a 5-star general, he was a lieutenant. Ike didn’t get to be the Supreme Allied Commander for the most important war in human history without first paying his dues and learning to deal with people equal and more powerful than him.

I think that Donald Trump’s greatest weakness was that he spent his entire career negotiating from positions of strength. His brand was built on being a great negotiator, but in reality, he inherited a large fortune from his father that allowed him to “negotiate” by threatening to take his ball (of cash) and go home (to a penthouse) if the party on the other side of the table didn’t capitulate to him.

Unfortunately for him, once in the White House the “Truman Theory” proved to be true for him. Thanks to a little detail in the Constitution known as the separation of powers, Presidents have no power over legislators. You either negotiate with them as equals, or you fail.

On the other hand, I think that Joe Biden’s greatest weakness is that thanks to his party’s decision to get behind the “guy next in line”, he has been promoted to his level of incompetence. The Peter Principle (named for the originator of the concept) holds that in any organization, high performers will be promoted. If they perform well in their new role, they will be promoted again and again, until they reach a level where they can’t perform well. At that point, instead of being demoted down a level, they will remain in the job they aren’t quite capable of performing well. While Truman’s theory applies to outsiders coming into a new situation, the Peter Principle applies to insiders moving up the ladder of bureaucracy.

I am concerned that American diplomats and military strategists are in the same fix as Donald Trump: they’ve never had to deal with equals when it counts. The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, almost thirty-three years ago. If the men and women making decisions at the State Department and Pentagon today are for the most part in their fifties and sixties, that means they were college students or low level policy flacks at the end of the Cold War.

Sure, our current leaders may have a hand in Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and Iraq, but Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden could only dream of the resources that Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping control. And considering how the invasion of Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom were handled, well… Let’s just say that you wouldn’t hire a football coach with a mediocre record at the college level to call the plays for an NFL team.

And there is the double problem. The United States is run by a massive bureaucracy that promotes people to their level of incompetence, a la the Peter Principle, and not only are most of our leaders incompetent, they’re incompetent when negotiating from a position of strength and have never had to deal with a truly powerful opponent.

The United States has lost its institutional memory of how to deal with rivals that are equal to us. And in Russia and China we are now faced with two great powers hostile to our ideals, interests, and way of life for the first time since 1945. From the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in 1945 until the late 1980s, the United States only had to negotiate one major challenge to supremacy: the Soviet Union. From around 1990 until the present, we have contented ourselves with being the one and only great power. A great power that can’t even invade a Third World country without becoming bogged down.

An eagle may think it’s tough because it can pick off rabbits and fish with ease, but bears and dragons can do the same. The real question is can the eagle defeat another apex predator? The bear may be content to let the eagle stay in its nest on top of the mountain, but what if it doesn’t? How does a fat and lazy eagle defeat a starving bear?

I just read something by writer Kevin D. Williamson of National Review that I think is very wise: “the United States is a belligerent [in the war between Russia and Ukraine] if Vladimir Putin says the United States is a belligerent.” In other words, no matter how much we may and should want to avoid a shooting war, especially with an opponent that has as many nuclear weapons as we do, if another country wants to start a war with us, we’re going to have to fight them, sooner or later. If not in Ukraine, a NATO member country in western Europe. If not in Europe, the Atlantic Ocean. And if not in the Atlantic Ocean, it will be on Long Island, the Chesapeake Bay, and Myrtle Beach.

So, what is the United States to do? After all, per Donald Rumsfeld, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” Same for diplomacy and leadership in general. The COVID pandemic was nothing compared to what the United States would face in the event of a third World War, and we all know how poorly most elected leaders rose to that challenge.

The thing is, a lot of us, individuals, rose poorly to the challenge as well.

I’ve spent most of the prior paragraphs fulminating about institutions. But institutions are made up of individuals. An institution only does something if the individual members choose to take an action or at least go along with said action. When it comes to nations, one person can’t prevent a war from starting, or win a war after it does start. But individual actions still matter. A mass movement for good or evil can only happen if a mass group of individual decisions happen.

Therefore, the first, most important, and maybe only thing the United States as a group of people can do to avoid a war with Russia is to start expecting more from ourselves. If the American public started acting seriously about global issues and we all stopping thinking of our political opponents as our enemies, overnight the United States would look like a much less promising target. There’s a reason that Putin has been investing in spreading “misinformation” (I prefer the term “lies”, it’s more accurate) through social media for years: “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall.” – Luke 11:17 NIV

Of course, Abraham Lincoln made the second half of that verse famous in 1858, but Jesus said it first.

The best way to win a war is to prevent it. The best way to prevent a war is make sure the other guy knows he’ll lose. It does no good to wring ones’ hands and complain that Vladimir Putin isn’t playing by the rules. There will always be evil men who don’t play by the rules. But bullies don’t pick fights with the strong.

We, as individuals, need to remember how to be strong.