Author: Amitav Acharya, American University
Not long ago, Europe was seen by the world as a model for peace and cooperation. The Cold War had ended with the peaceful implosion of the Soviet Union. The EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were seen as a beacon for the rest of the world, including Asia and the Middle East, to emulate. Today, these claims are shattered.
While the Ukraine situation continues to evolve, there are some immediate consequences. The Ukrainian crisis is another nail in the coffin of the post-war liberal order. The order was already fraying due to a global economic shift from the West to China. That shift was in motion even before US President Trump assumed office with a foreign policy agenda that distrusted both economic globalisation and multilateral institutions. Upon taking office, US President Biden pledged to ‘repair our alliances and engage with the world once again’.
The Ukraine crisis is set to impede multilateralism, paralyse the UN Security Council and limit cooperation among the major powers. It is likely to return the world to opposing power blocs where the United States and its NATO allies face Russia and China.
In confronting Russian President Putin, Biden has turned to NATO. There have been celebrations about renewed NATO unity induced by Putin’s provocations. But NATO has been part of both the problem and the solution. Writing in the New York Times in 1997, George F Kennan — the father of the US ‘containment’ strategy against the Soviet Union — warned that ‘expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era’. Kennan’s warning has proven correct.
A host of top policymakers and strategists also opposed NATO expansion or Ukrainian membership of NATO — including Henry Kissinger, William Burns, Malcolm Fraser, Edward Luttwak, Sam Nunn, Jack Matlock, Paul Nitze, Owen Harries and William Perry.
Dismissing NATO expansion as a factor behind Putin’s Ukraine putsch is questionable. Not only realists like Kennan and Kissinger — who in 2014 argued for Ukraine to stay out of NATO — but liberal internationalists agreed on the war-making effects of European alliances, leading them to advocate for a collective security system. Liberal internationalists today who see NATO as indispensable to their cause and have backed its post-Cold War expansion should keep this in mind.
The Ukraine crisis not only challenges peace in Europe — it also tests US global strategic goals. Upon assuming office, Biden’s policy goal on Russia was to make it ‘stable and predictable’. But the United States is now facing the prospect of a two-front war, especially if Putin’s military moves go beyond Ukraine. In sending troops to Ukraine, Putin has threatened to inflict ‘consequences you have never encountered in your history’ on countries that try to stop him, a threat directed more at Europe, including the new NATO nations in the Baltic states.
Biden has said that the United States had ‘no intention of fighting Russia’, but he also wants to ‘send an unmistakable message that the United States together with our allies will defend every inch of NATO territory’. Some of that territory could turn out to be the Baltic states. Would the United States risk a nuclear war to defend Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn?
More importantly, can Washington put adequate resources to defend NATO while pursuing its Indo-Pacific strategy? The United States won the Cold War by concentrating on one enemy — the Soviet Union. This helped the United States to counter the Soviet Union’s geopolitical adventures in places such as Cambodia and Afghanistan. Now, Russia and China are uniting against the United States. China has refused to condemn Russia’s breach of the non-intervention principle that it is supposed to be an ardent advocate of.
China could secure geopolitical gains if Washington’s attention and resources are diverted to Europe. This would be an ironic reversal of the ‘rebalancing’ strategy of the Obama administration, and counter to the purpose of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Ukraine invasion comes at a time when China is mounting new military pressure on Taiwan. Ukraine could turn out to be Putin’s Afghanistan, sparing the United States the strategic burden of a two-front war.
But Ukraine is no Afghanistan. It is much closer geographically and culturally to Russia. The strategic stakes for Russia in Ukraine are far greater than in Afghanistan due to continuing pressure from NATO. Putin is not going to entirely leave Ukraine without significant concessions from the West, including on Ukraine’s membership of NATO. If Biden makes similar commitments to nation-building in Ukraine as the United States made to Afghanistan, it may turn out to be Biden’s Afghanistan rather than Putin’s.
For ASEAN, the Ukraine conflict brings home the realisation that collective military alliances can be destabilising. This applies not only to NATO-like military arrangements in Asia, but security arrangements directed against China like the QUAD and AUKUS, if they are pursued without regard to regional sensitivities. As ASEAN saw during the Cold War, collective military alliances are more likely to provoke than deter conflict.
Amitav Acharya is a professor of international relations at American University in Washington, DC, and the author of The End of American World Order.
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