Dramatic acts of aggression from a big country against outgunned independents defending their own turf can shock the world's conscience and trigger fundamental changes to the international order.
The Soviet-engineered communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and subsequent military blockade of West Berlin led directly to the creation in 1949 of NATO. The 1956 joint invasion of Egypt by the U.K. and France (with an assist from Israel) permanently discredited European colonialism, hastening that foul institution's already rapid demise. Iraq's forcible annexation of Kuwait in 1990 prompted George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev to jointly declare that "no peaceful international order is possible if larger states can devour their smaller neighbors," a principle they said would be woven into an emerging "new world order."
That order turned out great for the Kuwaiti monarchy, whose rule was restored after a U.S.-led, 39-country coalition drove Saddam Hussein's soldiers back into Iraq. But for the rest of the Middle East and North Africa, and even within pockets of comparatively stable Europe, the hoped-for settlement following the end of the Cold War has proven disappointingly disorderly—a missed opportunity to design fresh new international institutions around the imperial withdrawal of both superpowers and the concomitant reassertion of responsible self-governance across the rapidly expanding free world.
Russia's illegal, unprovoked, and unconscionably brutal assault on its former imperial holding of Ukraine has, within its first month, precipitated head-snapping changes to existing geopolitical realities. Germany kiboshed a long-planned Russian gas pipeline and significantly increased its defense budget overnight. Long-neutral Finland and Sweden started making noises about joining NATO. More refugees were displaced from their homes in a matter of weeks than in all the 1990s Balkan wars combined. Moscow's armies and armaments, while unforgiving on civilian populations, were revealed to be far less potent against actual combatants than virtually anyone predicted, scrambling conventional strategic calculations. European Union leaders fast-tracked Ukraine for membership, and for the first time agreed to take seriously France's longstanding proposal to create a meaningful defense alliance separate from the United States.
That Washington was largely a bystander to these developments is neither accident nor trifle. Compared to even three decades ago, the countries on the continent that once produced the world's most cataclysmic wars are in considerably stronger position to prevent new ones from metastasizing. The resolve of their response suggests a once-in-a-generation opportunity to retool the global order, especially America's role in it, to make Putinesque acts of aggression more costly and less likely.
President Joe Biden, as unsuited as he may look for the task, has a chance to finally wrap a bow on the Cold War, helping both America and the world become more secure by making the last remaining superpower less responsible for the world's security. It's a counterintuitive approach, one that does not fit easily into the parochial and self-centered way foreign policy is usually discussed within American politics. But events have made the improbable possible, lending urgency to a long-term rethink that may yet offer Ukrainians a short-term path toward the existential certainty they have so valiantly earned. The end of this war can, with some bold and agile statecraft, become a hinge point—not just for lasting Ukrainian independence, but for the cause of global peace.
The Politics of Postwar
"At last," President Woodrow Wilson enthused at a luncheon in Portland, Oregon, in September 1919, "the world knows America as the savior of the world!" That boast would prove premature.
Three times in the 20th century, the United States emerged at the end of a bloody and exhausting global conflict more powerful and less damaged than long-dominant European powers. Washington in each case was in prime position to shape the stuff of postwar settlement—the redrawing of borders, exchange of populations, payment of reparations, resizing and redeployment of troop levels, establishment of new security guarantees, and creation of new transnational institutions to effect these changes and resolve future disputes.
The first time, America's ambitious and naive aspirations largely (though not completely) fell short; the second time, there was literally no other country remotely prepared to shoulder the burdens of European reconstruction and global containment of imperial communism. The third cessation of conflict was, as we shall see, a zig-zaggy, loose-ended mess, with no domestic or allied political consensus about how international relations might be rearranged.
All three postwar settlements provide us with usable lessons, not least of which is the importance of public opinion on U.S. commitments to overseas entanglements.
Washington in 1918 was a newcomer to great-power status, a latecomer to the war, and brimming with new ideas about how to avoid old problems. Wilson held enough leverage after World War I to extract support among the eye-rolling European allies (England, France, Italy) for his idealistic goals of abolishing secret treaties, carving out nation-states for the long-subjugated peoples of Central and Eastern Europe, and launching his dream project, the League of Nations. But the Democratic president never could get the Republican-led Congress to support the latter, ultimately dooming the proto–United Nations to irrelevance and eventual demise.
Senators opposed the League of Nations on grounds that Article 10, committing signatories to "preserve as against external aggression the territorial integrity and existing political independence of all Members," might commit the U.S. to military hostilities without the expressed consent of Congress. (This was back when such constitutional obligations were still taken seriously on Capitol Hill.) Wilson hardened this resistance by haughtily refusing to renegotiate the article to reflect those particularly American concerns.
The subsequent GOP administrations of Presidents Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover kept the League out and the skepticism in. Such was the level of anti-interventionist sentiment throughout the 1930s that President Franklin Roosevelt felt compelled to campaign against entering World War II as late as October 30, 1940, when he promised voters that "Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars," even while Hitler, Mussolini, and their then-partner Stalin held control over nearly the entirety of continental Europe.
Historians will debate until the end of human memory the role that 1919's peacemaking played in the warmaking of 1939–45. Surely the global turn away from one of Wilson's other ideals, free trade, did not spread the peace during the 1930s, nor did the continuation of the European colonialism he abhorred. But neither Wilson nor the other internationalists of that first postwar period had a viable retort to America's domestic unreadiness to play global cop, nor to the unhappy reality that the traditional powers were still unprepared to talk seriously about transnational security guarantees applicable to small independents.
Those dynamics changed dramatically after World War II. European civilization wasn't just bloodied. It was pulverized—36 million dead, another 40 million displaced, most big cities reduced to rubble. America, on the other hand, was proud owner by V-E Day of "half the world's manufacturing capacity, most of its food surpluses and virtually all international financial reserves," as Tony Judt wrote in his masterful 2005 book Postwar. "The United States had put 12 million men under arms to fight Germany and its allies, and by the time Japan surrendered the American fleet was larger than all the other fleets in the world combined." The U.S. at that moment also enjoyed monopoly possession of the atomic bomb.
The Soviet Union, that already evil empire which nonetheless had just done the vast majority of Allied killing and dying against the Nazis, had by war's end made a mockery of its Yalta Conference commitments to allow independent self-determination for the countries of Central Europe. Instead, the occupying Red Army started imposing Stalinism almost everywhere east of Vienna. Struggling countries in the near-starving Western sphere of influence—Greece, Turkey, Italy, France, etc.—were also flirting heavily with socialism and even communism.
By 1946, Moscow and Washington were on a collision course militarily, economically, and ideologically in every corner of the globe, with the rest of the world too bedraggled to do much of anything besides occasionally game the superpower conflict to goose their own civil conflict or colonial detachment. Through wars involving superpower troops (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan), proxy armies (China, Greece, Angola), civilian scientists (arms race, space), and spies galore (Berlin), the two sides were already locked in a conflict so all-encompassing that it renders ridiculous any juvenile remark in 2022 about a "new Cold War" with Russia.
This long-game struggle, plus the short-term urgency of helping allies get their sea legs, propelled an absolute frenzy of international institution-building after the war, led at every step by the United States. In a 43-month span beginning in October 1945 there emerged, in order, the United Nations, the World Bank (which financed much European reconstruction), the Truman Doctrine of supporting "free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures," the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the Marshall Plan, and NATO.
Each of these bodies would draw their criticism over time, including in the pages of this magazine. But their combined effect—at a time when America was powerful but not omnipotent, and much of Eurasia was broken but not bowed—was to knit the Western bloc into a common system of currency and payment settlements, freer trade, and security guarantees, all aimed at warding off both realistic and paranoid fears of either Soviet attack or Axis powers revival. As Hastings Ismay, the first secretary-general of NATO, famously said about the alliance in 1952, it was intended "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." Europeans (and the Japanese, South Koreans, and so forth) were being given breathing room to rebuild themselves.
It wasn't just material conditions that enabled much more aggressive U.S. engagement after World War II than after World War I—it was American public opinion. The Cold War policy of "containment" (as coined and shaped in 1946 by the visionary diplomat George F. Kennan) had lasting bipartisan support among the voting public for the duration, with only a mid-1970s blip after the debacle of the Vietnam War and the exposure of security-state excesses.
In the 11 presidential elections from 1948 to 1988, only once did the unambiguously more dovish major-party presidential candidate win the election—Jimmy Carter in 1976. (Lyndon B. Johnson certainly managed to portray Barry Goldwater as a trigger-happy nuke-loving lunatic, but the president was well underway in kickstarting the aforementioned Vietnam debacle.) In most presidential races, the bigger Cold War hawk won.
Democratic legitimacy was the secret sauce in both the post–World War I withdrawal from European affairs and the post–World War II assumption of vast new responsibilities. In each instance, intentionally or not, U.S. policy was tethered to U.S. public opinion. After the Cold War, those strands began to diverge.
The Unfinished War
"The wars of the past prompted our predecessors to create institutions that are supposed to protect us from war," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told a joint session of the U.S. Congress on March 16. "But unfortunately they don't work; we see it, you see it. So we need new ones, new institutions, new alliances….We propose to create an association, U-24, United for Peace, a union of responsible countries that have the strength and consciousness to stop conflicts immediately, provide all the necessary assistance in 24 hours if necessary, even weapons if necessary. Sanctions, humanitarian support, political support, finances: everything you need to keep the peace."
Zelenskyy was onto something about the failure of old institutions and the necessity of new ones, and not just for Ukraine's sake. But how did we get so far from the Bush/Gorbachev 1990 ideal of making gross violations of sovereignty an intolerable offense against the international community?
Regrettably, Washington plays a lead role in this degradation—beginning, paradoxically, with the same Gulf War that once was a model for elevating the principle of sovereignty.
Operation Desert Storm, the first major U.S. military effort since Vietnam, required just 42 days of aerial bombardment and 100 hours of combat operations on the ground before Kuwait's government was restored. Those much-quicker-than-anticipated results produced an audible American exhalation of relief, as the dreaded "Vietnam Syndrome" of military hesitancy was said to have been exorcised once and for all. Interventionism was no longer a dirty word.
So foreign policy thinkers went lunging for more, in the form of a deceptively named new category of warmaking: the "no-fly zone." From March 1991 to the onset of a new Iraq War in March 2003, the U.S. and British flew warplanes continuously over more than half of Iraqi airspace, bombing Saddam's anti-aircraft installations and providing air cover for separatist Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south. It was a remarkable, yet only occasionally remarked-upon, violation of Iraqi sovereignty, softening the ground both literally and figuratively for more reckless uses of force later.
Back home, meanwhile, public opinion quickly soured on foreign adventuring. President George H.W. Bush went from an 89 percent approval rating just after the Gulf War in February 1991 to 44 percent one year later, despite the Soviet Union finally imploding in December 1991. The president on whose watch the communist threat collapsed, South African apartheid was dismantled, and Vietnam Syndrome was expunged received a shock primary challenge from anti-interventionist Pat Buchanan and then a thorough clock-cleaning by a small-state Democratic governor whose internal campaign mantra was "It's the economy, stupid."
Americans' preference for peacemaking over policing coincided happily with the need to negotiate a postwar settlement, not just with Moscow, but with Russia's former imperial holdings, plus a developing world that was only then starting to embrace reconciliation and liberal democracy in the absence of superpower meddling. There were still borders to draw and ratify, reconstruction to initiate, restitutions to consider, stranded minority populations to protect, troop levels to reset, and—above all else for newly independent countries—security guarantees to establish.
Washington, and the rest of the Western powers, responded to the moment with incoherence.
In fairness to Bush, his successor Bill Clinton, and the leadership of France and the United Kingdom, events on the ground were happening faster than even the most agile of diplomatic bureaucracies could process. German reunification went from impossible to inevitable in just three weeks (much to the initial chagrin of Margaret Thatcher, among others). The duration between the dissolution of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact—the only military alliance in history to be used in combat primarily against its own members—and the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself was a matter of months.
The West did some things right. Political leaders, including from parties of the left, pushed harder in the '90s on the free trade that had built so much wealth in the noncommunist bloc during the Cold War. Trillions of dollars worth of state-owned companies in Western Europe were privatized; the formerly communist countries mostly transitioned into recognizable market economies (albeit with some corruption involved in the privatization process), and the world overall enjoyed history's most rapid eradication of extreme poverty. Real per-capita gross domestic product in the Baltic states (Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania) has increased sevenfold in two decades. In most of Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, Washington retreated considerably from its activist role in influencing political developments.
But on the harder questions of ratifying new borders, coping with disputes over dissolving states, and creating new security arrangements, the West was left standing athwart history, yelling "Slow down!" Still touchy about a resurgent Germany and accustomed to dependency on America, Europe utterly squandered the opportunity to either create a new defensive structure altogether or more firmly take the reins of NATO. As Slobodan Milošević ripped Yugoslavia apart and besieged the once-great European cosmopolis of Sarajevo, officials in Paris, London, and Bonn dithered and bickered. Only the deployment of American warplanes in 1995 stopped the slaughter, reinforcing the fatally flawed notion that the U.S. Air Force was the world's enforcer of last resort for human rights violations.
In the absence of new continental security guarantees, the nascent democracies in Central and Eastern Europe went knocking on NATO's door. Initially reluctant to "poke the bear" in Moscow, Clinton (especially in his second administration) began to view the extension of post–World War II institutions as preferable to letting friendly independent countries drift in eternal limbo next to an unstable, nuclear-armed power.
Those Americans opposed to NATO expansion, including a late-in-life Kennan, had a point about the dangers of U.S. triumphalism and Russian paranoia. But long before Clinton warmed up to protecting the Visegrád countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) and the Baltics, Moscow was already monkeying militarily in its "Near Abroad"—the Transnistria region of Moldova in 1992 and Georgia's Abkhazia region in 1992–93. And the greatest single act of Kennan-friendly post–Cold War diplomacy—the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for promises of nonaggression from Russia, the U.S., and the U.K.—was torn up by Putin's annexation of Crimea in 2014, then pounded into dust on February 24, 2022.
The New Way Out
"Properly understood," the prominent international-relations scholar Stephen M. Walt wrote in a March 21 Foreign Policy symposium, "the war in Ukraine shows that Europe taking greater responsibility for its security is not only desirable but feasible….The bottom line is that Europe can handle a future Russian threat on its own."
In May, the European Union is slated to take up France's longtime dream of creating a continent-only defense apparatus. The Biden administration should do everything in its power to encourage this development, both overtly and behind the scenes.
Swearing off future NATO membership is a core Putin demand in negotiations with Ukraine; Zelenskyy, with evident and understandable reluctance to give a murderous aggressor any reward, has expressed willingness to take NATO aspirations off the table. But that shouldn't prevent him from working with French President Emmanuel Macron and the assertive new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz right now to line up a nuclear-backed security guarantee that need not involve Washington. The Europeans can in turn press Ukraine (and then Moldova, Georgia, and whoever else) to provide full constitutional protections for Russian-speaking minorities. And having established that hand-off of regional responsibility, America can then encourage Japan and South Korea, for starters, to flex their own muscles in the face of potential Chinese meddling.
Washington has serially underestimated the destabilizing role of its own military supremacy. Starting with the no-fly zones in Iraq, continuing with the herky-jerky interventions in Somalia and Haiti, accelerating in the former Yugoslavia, then exploding in Iraq and Libya, unprovoked unilateral (or thinly multilateral) interventions into the affairs of sovereign countries have been, on balance, a disaster. Iraq and Libya in particular helped destabilize the broader Middle East, kicking off the worst global refugee crisis since World War II, at least until Ukraine.
America's foreign policy establishment should have greeted the end of the Cold War as an opportunity not only to sew up loose ends in Europe, but also to abandon the Eisenhower Doctrine of effecting regime change and taking quasi-colonial military responsibility for securing the flow of oil in the Middle East. A world that feels like it has no responsibility for its own affairs is less likely to act responsibly. And an America that recognizes no limits to its power is more likely to act in corrupt ways, while encouraging the paranoid and malevolent to affix an ever-larger target on Washington's back.
Fortunately, American public opinion points to a way out of this cycle. Just as voters trimmed the sails of Wilsonian idealism and then buttressed the containment strategy throughout the Cold War, they have, with the understandable exception of the immediate post-9/11 period, consistently expressed opposition to U.S. interventionism abroad over the past 30 years.
From the demise of communism until 2020, every time the White House changed political parties the winner was always the candidate with the less interventionist foreign policy platform—Bill Clinton in 1992, George W. Bush in 2000, Barack Obama in 2008, Donald Trump in 2016. Both Obama and Trump shocked prognosticators by overcoming heavily favored primary opponents, largely (though not only) on the question of war. Even Joe Biden in 2020 campaigned on getting out of Afghanistan, which he, unlike the putatively anti-interventionist Trump, managed to accomplish, if incompetently.
For decades, interventionists—many of whom have a natural sympathy for the freedom-seeking Ukrainians of the world—shrugged off the massive gap between aggressive U.S. foreign policy and the less ambitious American electorate. John McCain in 2008 could not even fathom what the problem was with the idea of U.S. troops being in Iraq for another 100 years. This was a mistake politically, strategically, and morally.
International institutions without democratic legitimacy cannot long last. Responding to the end of the Cold War by letting post–World War II institutions run on autopilot was a recipe for alienation, giving populists of all stripes a reason to rail against faraway, out-of-touch elites. Biden, and foreign policy analysts of all stripes—interventionists, realists, America firsters—should realize they each have an opportunity to infuse at least some of their core values into a new strategic alignment that a majority of Americans are primed to find more congenial.
Ukrainians, who have aroused the world's sympathy, have a better chance of being saved today and protected tomorrow by a European-led alliance, as do their cousins in Moldova and Georgia. Taiwan and other potential targets of Chinese expansionism will be more secure in an Asia with a stronger and increasingly responsible Japan and South Korea. The Middle East and North Africa will better be able to resolve their own considerably messy affairs without Washington thumbing the scales for dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia and against victims such as the people of Yemen. By not making the White House the protagonist of every international story, we can begin to correct the chest-thumping politics of "credibility," in which every distant atrocity is interpreted as a strength-test for the commander in chief.
Realigning foreign policy with domestic preferences requires both unorthodox thinking and forthright public messaging. Instead, we have Joe Biden. On March 26, in a major Warsaw speech about Putin's war, the malaprop-prone president ad-libbed at the end, "For God's sake, this man cannot remain in power." No matter how fast the White House walked back the statement, the impression was solidified in certain corners that the real business of Washington and its alliances is not self-defense, but aggressive, unpredictable regime change. This is not the path toward international peace and stability.
Nor is trade protectionism. In his State of the Union address on March 1, Biden managed to pivot in a few short paragraphs from unified free-world support for Ukraine to calls for autarkist trade and procurement policies. He praised Ukrainians' "iron will" in one breath, while rejecting Ukrainian iron for American infrastructure projects in the next. Instead of viewing tariff reductions as a mutually reinforcing tool for strengthening the economies of and relations with friendly nations, a core American idea for most of his lifetime, Biden is continuing the 1930s-style populism favored by his predecessor.
There is such a thing as the free world. A wonderful thing it is, too, filled with wealth, untapped capabilities, and a natural empathy for the unfairly attacked. Contrary to Wilson's missionary zeal, that world does not require a savior, nor does any nation volunteering for such a role get any closer to heaven. Most of America's grievous mistakes have come from a place of paternalism; most of its redemption will come from having the faith to let its friends figure things out on their own.
Russia, in one short month, has revealed itself to be a Potemkin power with nukes, willing to commit mass murder and accelerate toward full dictatorship in order to fulfill unrequited nationalist fantasies about reassembling some of its lost empire. There is even less sympathy for Moscow now than there was in 1991, but there should also be much less fear. If lowly Ukraine can battle Putin to an expensive stalemate, imagine how he'd fare against Poland, let alone a robust European defense community anchored by France and Germany. The United States need not be anything more than a bit player in that story.