During the Cold War, “Whither NATO?” was a classic yawner. Suddenly, the Soviet empire collapsed. After the last Russian soldier had left Central Europe in 1994, “whither” turned into “Why NATO?” Europe was reunified, and peace would reign forever.
This happy denouement after fifty years of Cold War triggered a disarmament race in Europe. The West began to cash in its peace dividends. Just a couple of numbers: Germany’s 3,000 main battle tanks shrank to 264. Roughly half of its heavy gear was in the repair shop or dock. The Bundeswehr was cut by almost two-thirds. At the height of the Cold War, the United States had 320,000 troops in Europe; last year, they were down to 65,000, strewn across Europe from Portugal to Poland. Just a couple of brigades were actually configured for combat.
For all its fabulous riches, Western Europe did not prepare for war in order to deter it. After all, Russia’s shock divisions were no longer encamped on the other side of the Elbe River. Kant’s dream of “perpetual peace” now seemed to come true on a continent where for centuries peace used to be only a pause between two wars.
On February 24, the Kantian dream flipped into a nightmare when Vladimir Putin unleashed his war of annihilation. “You may not be interested in war,” runs a quip ascribed to Leon Trotsky, “but war is interested in you.” With the exception of NATO’s new members close to Russia, much of Europe continued to ignore the second part of the quote.
Why? Democracies are not very good at keeping their powder dry. Look at the record. Imperial Japan embarked on its highway of death across East Asia in 1931, but it took the United States ten years to meet the surging threat—and then only after Pearl Harbor. Britain and France should have known that Der Fuhrer was preparing for the Big War from day one. Tearing up disarmament treaties, he proceeded to rearm at breakneck speed. Yet “England Slept,” as John F. Kennedy’s little book of 1940 had it, and so did France. They thought they could appease Hitler, and only eleven months after Munich, they had World War II on their hands.
History teaches again and again how imperialists expand. They start out by testing the will of their adversaries and watch the reaction to their gains. Hitler annexed Austria, the Sudetenland, and finally all of Czechoslovakia. It didn’t rouse the West. Putin’s playbook reads like a rewrite. When he went to the top in 2000, he launched a massive rearmament program. In 2008 he subdued Georgia, in 2014 he grabbed Crimea while chopping off Ukraine’s Donbas. Suddenly, Russia was back in the Middle East, whence Kissinger and Nixon had extruded the USSR decades before. All the while, Putin kept testing NATO defenses on the Alliance’s periphery. In Syria, he was practically ushered in when Barack “Time for a little nation-building at home” Obama vacated his “red line.”
The West kept dozing. Obama and Donald Trump pulled troops out of Europe. The MAGA Man badmouthed NATO as “obsolete,” and Emmanuel Macron called the Alliance “brain-dead.” Future historians will not be kind to Angela Merkel, who sheltered Russia against serious sanctions. In spite of ever growing dependence on Russian energy, she defended Nord Stream 2 until her last days in office. “Reden statt rüsten”—to talk is better than rearm—was the official mantra. Plus, the mother of all follies: “Security can be had only with, not against, Russia.”
Putin must have purred with delight as he extended his claws toward Ukraine. Would Europe stop the flow of gas and shiver for Kyiv? Would the West openly arm Ukraine, let alone deploy division-sized forces to NATO’s eastern borders? Too provocative. And with what, when its tanks spend more time in the shop than on maneuver? If Putin was crazy, then only like a fox. And yet he did miscalculate.
He must have thought blitzkrieg, but the Ukrainians fought brilliantly—and the Russians like conscripts just out of boot camp. That confounded this author as well as fellow experts. In his wildest dreams, Putin could not have imagined that the West would rise in righteous anger after an endless peace. We mavens should have re-read what George F. Kennan wrote ages ago. He compared democracies, especially the United States, with
one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin: he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath—in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed.
But then it is fury unbound.
History records that democracies like to wallow in neglect, but woe when they finally wake up. Britain slept; by 1940 it was a fight to the death. In World War I, it took Woodrow Wilson three years before he went after the Kaiser. FDR deployed America’s war machine against Hitler and Hirohito two years into World War II. In short, it takes a while for democracies to grasp the nettle; but once they do, fight they will.
This is where Putin made his gravest mistake, though we can’t blame him for casting caution aside. After all, he had been on a low-cost roll since 2008 from Georgia to the Donbas. The price was sanctions that did not really bite. So, why not keep going? When the West did come together as one on February 24, he must have been as flabbergasted as a lap dog who is suddenly banished from the master bedroom. Putin should have read Kennan.
In his worst nightmare, Putin could not have foreseen that the Germans, who had turned pacifism into a state religion, would suddenly dispatch anti-air and anti-tank missiles to the Ukrainians, nor that tiny Slovakia would transfer S-300 missiles that take down high-flying planes. He must have felt contempt for Joe Biden, who had pledged, “We will lead by the power of our example, not by the example of our power.”
Back to Kennan’s dinosaur. In the end, power does displace lethargy in the affairs of nations. Never mind that, like Obama, Biden had earnestly tried to re-induct Russia into the community of nations, ended America’s combat role in Iraq, and decreed the not-so-glorious pullout from Afghanistan, following through on Trump’s deal with the Taliban. Retrenchment ruled, and Putin took notice. Why should Putin have worried about an America that had slid into a retractionist mode after George W. Bush?
In the run-up to the Russian invasion, Biden at last reversed America’s inward-bound course, beefing up the U.S. presence in Europe. His current request for defense spending is $70 billion above what he had asked for last year. Biden began to signal that the United States would be the “indispensable nation” again, to invoke a self-congratulatory line used by both Bill Clinton and Obama.
Putin now faces a global coalition that encompasses not only NATO and the EU. Even perennially neutral Switzerland has joined the hardened sanctions regime. Count in Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan, and tiny Singapore on the other side of the globe. Finland and Sweden are sidling up to NATO. Balance-of-power politics tarries, but it finally kicks in.
It is an astounding testimony to Western cohesion. But only in fairytales do such miracles come out of thin air. True, the revulsion triggered by Russia’s slaughter of the innocents and the flight of four million Ukrainians have also galvanized the West. Still, heartbreak and outrage are not enough to corral cold-eyed states that always weigh moral duty against self-interest.
A posse does not arise spontaneously. There has to be a Great Organizer who convinces, coopts, and cajoles. Britain, France, or Germany could not do it—Europe’s Big Three. They cannot trade on the enormous economic and strategic power at the disposal of the United States. Nor would Trump have scored, even if he had wanted to take on his erstwhile buddy Putin full-bore. It takes more than grandstanding. Bullies can beat you up; they are never elected class president.
Biden, though, is the Un-Trump. Never before has an administration managed to harness so many unruly allies in so short a time (the two Bushes had to labor for months). It takes fast-paced diplomatic footwork to recruit nations, plus muscle and trust. Clout breeds convening power, agenda-setting, and “follow the leader.” Trust reassures would-be partners. The posse fell in behind the sheriff because he would not drag them into all-out war in the shadow of nuclear weapons. Plus, the mighty United States offered reinsurance. Mr. Big would not abandon the allies in case Putin attacked NATO territory. Good umbrellas make for good friends.
If you wish, Biden is the real MAGA Man. For all his pratfalls and his less-than-perfect command of the facts, the forty-sixth President might just be the right President at the right time. Same for his team in the national security establishment. In Trump’s days, allies did not even know who tomorrow’s secretary of defense or national security advisor would be. So, better not to commit.
So much for the accolades. Now to the darker side of the Ukrainian war—Phase II. Phase I was heartening to no end. The Ukrainians fought bravely and well, aided by the moral revulsion fed daily by Russia’s war against cities and civilians. Phase II will be more treacherous. Those valiant Ukrainians will lose the advantage of fighting an invader who turned out to be badly led and trained.
Any army learns from its failures, and so will the clumsy, top-down military of the Kremlin. It will seek to consolidate its grip on the southeast, populated by Russian-speaking loyalists. Reversing conquest is harder than halting it. Fighting closer to home in the second round, the aggressors enjoy Clausewitz’s “interior lines” previously held by the Ukrainians in the battle for Kyiv. Russia still rules the skies, and Putin has named a new commander whose reputation as ruthless killer in Syria precedes him. Escalation and more mass murder loom—what Biden has termed “genocide.”
The cold logic of war now bids the West to raise the ante, and mounting risks will strain the coalition. It will have to intensify the training of Ukrainian fighters and send thousands of tons of ammunition, both smart and dumb. The United States will have to broaden intelligence sharing, space-based as well as tactical, to enable the Ukrainians to achieve surprise and disrupt the Russian order of battle. NATO will have to deliver heavy weaponry, not just 155-millimeter artillery, as it finally does, but also long-range anti-air and anti-ship hardware that will dent Russia’s air and naval superiority. And all this while Putin keeps waving the nuclear club to intimidate the West.
Hence, the biggest question of them all: How long will this wondrous Western amity last? Will Berlin practice propitiation again while Paris shifts, as so often, toward mediating between East and West in order to pocket the broker’s fee? On the home front, Biden will be tested by raging inflation, which saps his domestic support. Bipartisan unity on Ukraine might wane once the war begins to look indecisive and the electorate is no longer glued to the TV screen that brings the horror into its living rooms.
This is where Biden will be tested in the months (and perhaps years) to come. Will he perform as well as in past months? Ordinary mortals do not have the gift of prophecy. But we did learn that Mr. Foot-in-the-Mouth has grown in war, matching resolve with restraint and hardware with diplomacy. War does concentrate the mind, and so Biden might even get a shot at greatness, as previous war Presidents (LBJ aside) did, if we can save Ukraine.
We always know how wars begin, not how they end. But make no mistake about the stakes in Russia’s war of conquest. Ukraine is not a “quarrel in a far-away country, between people of whom we know nothing,” as Neville Chamberlain said in 1938 when he gave away the Sudetenland. Ukraine is where the future of Europe and a decent world order will be decided. Realism warns that even furious dinosaurs eventually tire of the burden when their own lives are not on the line.
Josef Joffe serves on the editorial board of American Purpose. A fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, he teaches international politics and political thought at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Image: The White House - https://www.instagram.com/p/BEvzFGwFwc2/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=96779510
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