This week the world heard a historic statement for freedom. One-year into Ukraine's fight for sovereignty, the US President Joe Biden returned to Warsaw to again make an address at the base of the Royal Palace. He began simply, "Hello Poland. You are great allies. ...thank you for welcoming me back." He urged unity and commitment through the "hard and bitter times ahead" with "resolve to live in freedom."
Some of the framing of the speech included Polish President Duda's introductory reminder concerning the role of the Solidarity movement to overthrow a previous autocracy within his own country, Biden's visit to war-torn Ukraine a day earlier, along with a warm welcome from assembled women, men, and children of Poland, Ukraine, and other allies as he walked to the speaking podium.
This was no ordinary speech. Its design and delivery embrace a range of purposes and audiences to call for solidarity. In less than 3,000 words that accumulate many brief, lively passages suitable for media "grabs," Biden balances praise and blame, affirms the justice of the fight for freedom by Ukraine and its allies, and sharply contrasts the injustice of the aggressor's actions against Ukraine. He narrates significant events of the past year and recent days to strengthen understandings and consolidate emotional commitment to future efforts. He calls out the aggressor's propaganda and behavior, firmly highlighting the resolve and strength of Ukraine and the world's democracies.
In composition and delivery, the speech exemplifies many rhetorical principles and techniques, yet retains a grounded reality. Biden's innovations with language warrant close examination. He makes extraordinarily creative choice of words, sentence shape, and passage development, attending to virtually all of the 18 choices to find common ground with an audience that I have distilled from studies of persuasive language elsewhere.*
Among Biden's choices to find affinity and impact are his continuous melding of questions and answers, antithesis, and various modes of contrast or comparison. He also uses a variety of parallelisms in short sentences or sentence fragments, accumulating mainly everyday, shorter words that help deliver a conversational effect. Lightly touched are some glances at rhyming for contrast and emphasis, which in spoken prose can risk distraction or worse: "will fail/will prevail" and "appeased/opposed." Neologisms provide an especially potent barb when he comments on a key failure of the aggressor concerning NATO. Biden says:
He thought he'd get the Finlandization of NATO. Instead, he got the NATOization of Finland–and Sweden. (Applause.) He thought NATO would fracture and divide. Instead, NATO is more united and more unified than ever–than ever before.
Biden both respects and offsets the formal, high-tone expected for such a significant address. An energetic pace and volume throughout amplify Biden's briefly stated points and counterpoints, or questions posed then answered. He also makes much use of figurative language and frequent repetition, alliteration, parallelism, and contrasts to help underscore differences or emphasize priorities. He reserves for key emphases a lowered voice and/or slowed pace of speech. His everyday language refers graphically to specifics:
You know, this has been an extraordinary year in every sense. Extraordinary brutality from Russia's forces and mercenaries. They've committed depravities, crimes against humanity, without shame or compunction. They've targeted civilians with death and destruction. Used rape as a weapon of war, stolen Ukrainian children in an attempt to steal Ukraine's future. Bombed train stations, maternity hospitals, schools, and orphanages. No one can turn their eyes from the atrocities that Russia has committed.
And the core content of the speech is as much worth attention. Biden celebrates the selflessness of the individual and collective heroism and devotion to others that the people of Ukraine show, in contrast to the invaders' actions. Whether highlighting the "murderous assault on Ukraine" or considering principles, like "the cornerstone of peace, prosperity, and stability on this planet for more than 75 years... [now being] ...at risk of being shattered," Biden steps from dark developments to offer optimism and hope.
The tragic events of the past year he suggests provide an unambiguous answer to the question of Ukraine's ability to withstand the cruel onslaught of its aggressor. With a particular credibility injected from Biden's unannounced visit to Ukraine the day before, he reports:
Kyiv stands strong. Kyiv stands proud. It stands tall. And most important, it stands free.
But he also articulates the wider significance of the invasion of Ukraine:
It wasn't just Ukraine being tested. The whole world faced a test for the Ages. Europe was being tested. NATO was being tested. All democracies were being tested...Would we respond, or would we look the other way? Would we be strong, or would we be weak? Would all of our allies be united or divided? One year later we know the answer. We did respond. We would be strong. We would be united. And the world would not look the other way.
As a call to people of principle to feel for others, this speech is a clarion call. It delivers a battery of "ah...hah" moments that accentuate the spirit of freedom.
Biden states plainly how to answer the threats and brutality of the autocrat and any enablers:
Appetites of the autocrat cannot be appeased. They must be opposed. Autocrats only understand one word: "No." "No." "No." (Applause.) "No, you will not take my country." "No, you will not take my freedom." "No, you will not take my future."
History will eventually judge how this speech, Biden, and the actions of his Administration rank among efforts to sustain democracy, versus the long-administered firehose of character assassination and ageism propaganda that domestic sympathizers of foreign adversaries direct against him. Domestically in the United States, despite some in the media continuing to amplify a small group of local lapdogs to autocracy, bipartisan support for Ukraine and NATO remains strong.
Yale history professor Timothy Snyder provided perspective recently when asked to assess Biden's contribution. He noted three accomplishments as especially significant: 1. The Biden Administration's anticipation of the invasion over a year ago and its release of declassified intelligence to pre-empt the adversary's propaganda; 2. Flexibility in response to a changing dynamic, to address Ukraine's needs; and 3. Biden's visit to war-torn Kyiv expressed a bold commitment to Ukraine, to NATO, and to freedom.
* "Choices for Public Talk," in Australians Speak Out: Persuasive Language Styles, Albany NY: Parula, pp. 73-93
Joseph R. Biden (2023), "Remarks by President Biden Ahead of the One-Year Anniversary of Russia's Brutal and Unprovoked Invasion of Ukraine," Washington DC: Office of the President of the United States https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2023/02/21/remarks-by-president-biden-ahead-of-the-one-year-anniversary-of-russias-brutal-and-unprovoked-invasion-of-ukraine/
PBS (2023), "WATCH: Biden in Poland promises U.S. and allies 'have Ukraine's back'" https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/watch-live-biden-delivers-remarks-in-warsaw-poland-after-making-surprise-trip-to-ukraine