The Essential Nation

Matthew R. Bishop
3 min readOct 20, 2023

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Photo via U.S. National Park Service

Matthew R. Bishop — October 20, 2023

In a public address last night, President Joe Biden referred to the United States as “the essential nation.” It was the highlight of his direct pitch to the American people as he asked for $100 billion in funding to defend Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan, and the U.S. Southern Border. He framed his request as being critical for the security of the United States and the free world.

In a mixture of subtle and overt references to the Second World War, the president painted a picture of a very bleak reality were America to refuse his request. He inferred, at one point, that Ukraine would collapse within a week if U.S. support were to stop.

In knighting the United States as the indispensable champion and defender of the West, President Biden deliberately invoked the power and the myth of American exceptionalism to win over an increasingly skeptical public. Whether or not the gambit succeeds, it was a smart move. Americans today still look up to their parents or their grandparents, who fought “the good war” eighty years ago. And although most of them are no longer with us, the invocation of their memory holds great power. Joe Biden has made his request hard to refuse.

But it is also a sign of serious trouble. Presidents have only so much power and credibility to use with their public appeals. That Joe Biden has chosen this moment to expend so much of his own should suggest to us the gravity of the crisis that we face. That he expended it largely on foreign affairs, a niche subject for many Americans, is a sign that it is graver still. Such gravity demands solemn reflection and measured advice.

Joe Biden mentioned, in his speech, that the United States made mistakes and miscalculations in the aftermath of 9/11, and he attributed those errors to the overwhelming emotions of rage and vengeance. He seemed concerned that Israel today might repeat these same mistakes, unless a close friend saved them from doing so. He appears to be asking us to be that friend.

At the same time, inserting yet more references to the Second World War and its Holocaust, he reiterated his absolute support for Israel as an indispensable refuge for the Jewish people. His request, he made clear, was not to annihilate our enemies, nor to become the monsters we seek to defeat. It was to end these wars that some have given up hope of ever ending, and to build an enduring peace capable of preventing future conflict.

He further clarified that doing so does involve a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, and that it does not involve any combat between U.S. and Russian forces, or between Russian and NATO forces, in the Ukraine war. And yet the threat of a darker alternative lurked behind even these promises. What if Russian forces push forward into NATO territory, for instance? Such questions serve to remind us of just how fragile and delicate this moment is.

President Biden seeks to unite Americans as the common defenders of democracy against aggressive autocrats around the world. His extraordinary request for $100 billion would be a non-starter on any ordinary day. But as we’ve been reminded so often lately, these are not ordinary times. Americans should consider this $100 billion aid package with all the careful reflection and sincerity that they can muster.

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Matthew R. Bishop

Matt is an author, journalist, international affairs writer, and a federal civilian crisis responder for the United States.