The Battle for the Future of the West
The real prize in Ukraine is the end of American influence in Europe.
By Tom McTague
A Ukrainian servicemen
Wolfgang Schwan / Anadolu Agency / Getty
JANUARY 27, 2022
Vladimir putin likes to say that playing chess with the United States is like playing against a pigeon: It struts around the board, knocks over the pieces, shits everywhere, and then declares victory. Playing chess with Europe, in contrast, must be like playing with a child who has forgotten the rules of the game, claims to have invented new ones, and then sulks when no one wants to play.
For so long, many people in Europe, including the U.K., have comforted themselves with platitudes that “hard power” no longer matters, that spheres of influence are outdated, and, even, that geopolitics itself has become somewhat passé. Then Russia sent 100,000 troops to the Ukrainian border. Suddenly playtime was over and once again the future security of Europe was being decided by someone else, somewhere else.
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There’s no need to overstate the case. Europe’s major powers are not absent in this Ukrainian crisis. Britain and France in particular are playing prominent roles: London is winning plaudits in Eastern Europe for its proactive stance designed to make any Russian intervention as painful as possible, and Paris is pursuing its own path, hosting a summit of Ukrainians and Russians as part of the long-running talks under the “Normandy” format that also include Germany. At each stage of this crisis, Europe’s major powers have also been consulted by a U.S. administration that seems to take its rhetoric about alliances seriously.
Still, if you step back for a moment, the situation is extraordinary. Russia is a country of 142 million people with a hollowed-out petro economy about the size of South Korea’s. Together, Europe’s big three powers—Germany, France, and Britain—dwarf Russia in terms of wealth and population; the whole of democratic Europe, even more so. And yet, Europe is of secondary importance in this crisis even though it is happening on its own continent.
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For the West, the obvious reality is that America still calls the shots. London, Paris, and Berlin each lobby the White House and, depending on the crisis and the leader, exert real influence. But for whichever U.S. president is in office, the decision is, necessarily, America first. In this case, President Joe Biden is navigating a debate raging between the traditional foreign-policy establishment that is preaching deterrence and the ever more influential “restrainers,” who argue that the U.S. cannot afford to become bogged down in another war on its imperial periphery.
Part of Putin’s game, of course, is to capitalize on this division, both within America and across the West. He smells indecision and is seeking to exploit it. According to some experts I’ve spoken with over the past week, the Russian president’s grand aspiration is to push America out of Europe altogether, negotiating a deal that recognizes Russia as a legitimate player in the continent’s security order, and reversing the losses Moscow sustained in the 1990s when its military was forced back inside its own borders. Fiona Hill, a former White House adviser on Russia, told me Putin may have calculated that Biden is the last president able to negotiate such a formal agreement on Europe’s behalf before the possible return of Donald Trump in 2024.
Other analysts I spoke with were skeptical of Putin’s strength, pointing out that none of his military options could meet his objectives. Lawrence Freedman, an emeritus war-studies professor at King’s College London, told me that Russia’s rhetoric in recent months suggested Putin is frustrated by the impasse in eastern Ukraine, unable to break it without armed force that may just make the situation worse for Russia.
Either way, what is so striking to me—apart from the monumental nature of the crime Moscow is apparently contemplating—is the extent of geopolitical positioning within Europe designed to affect not only the crisis itself, but the future shape of the continent, and the West, after Putin makes his move (or doesn’t).
The scale of Putin’s demands—to not just control Ukraine but return much of Eastern Europe to Russia’s sphere of influence—and the threat to the existing order it represents, is challenging the basic structures of the Western alliance, forcing each country within it to evaluate how their national interests are best served in the future.
In large part, the crisis is strengthening the Western alliance, not weakening it. Russia’s moves have reinvigorated the West’s principal military force, NATO. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, NATO has a real and present danger. And yet, only two years have passed since Trump was commander in chief, and no one in Europe is naive enough to think he does not stand a very good chance of resuming his presidency in 2024. The whole basis of Trump’s foreign policy, remember, was that Europe and other American allies were taking the U.S. for a ride. He even described NATO as obsolete and had no qualms about using the U.S. security guarantee as leverage in trade talks with Germany and others.
The current crisis, then, acts as a reminder of NATO’s importance, and, by extension, the importance of the American-led world, but also of its structural weakness: American public opinion. As Boris Johnson well understands, particularly today, given the very real threat to his premiership caused by his failure to abide by his own pandemic rules, the most important thing in world politics is the zeitgeist, whether or not the ideas underpinning it are sound.
And when it comes to what the West should do to revive the West, no one can agree. France’s Emmanuel Macron last week argued with a straight face that apparently now was the moment for Europe to assert its “strategic autonomy” from the U.S. To Macron, Russia’s ability to bypass Europe to talk directly with the U.S. only confirmed his belief that the continent needed to become an independent actor on the world stage. In a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Macron said that it was time for Europe to conduct its own dialogue with Russia, to create a “new security and stability order for Europe.” This is a drum he has been banging for quite some time to little effect. He could not have picked a worse crisis within which to assert Europe’s independence from America. Piddling around in the Sahel might be possible without the U.S., but not dealing with a nuclear Russia apparently set on invading a sovereign state in Europe.
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Although it is understandable that Macron would use this latest crisis to jump back on his favorite hobbyhorse, he risks looking ridiculous—less an inspired general atop a rearing Marengo than a powerless captain on a stubborn Shetland pony. With the Russian army massing on Ukraine’s borders, what possible reason would any Eastern European state have to contemplate swapping Washington for Brussels as its primary representative on security matters, particularly given that Paris and Berlin have not been the most hawkish on this issue?
The fact is, and Macron understands this, Europe has no strategic autonomy—neither in its wider form, including the U.K., nor as the European Union. Not only does it have no way of projecting its power militarily, but it cannot properly patrol its borders or guarantee its energy supply, much of which comes from Russia. The U.S. has even made plans to bolster fuel supply to the EU should Russia retaliate against Western sanctions by cutting off fuel to the continent. But the EU’s geopolitical weakness runs deeper than its energy and security dependency: The EU does not have a Silicon Valley or a Wall Street, and remains dependent on the American financial system and Chinese trade.
Britain, meanwhile, having cut itself out of the EU, has been hyperactive in its efforts to remind allies of its continued relevance. London has released intelligence about Russian war plans, dispatched weapons to Ukraine, and made diplomatic shows of support to a range of Eastern European states. Such have been its efforts that #GodSavetheQueen was trending on Twitter in Ukraine after a planeload of arms arrived from Britain last week (flown around German airspace to avoid any diplomatic difficulties that might emerge from Berlin’s policy of not exporting weapons to conflict zones). The purpose of this effort is to maintain support for NATO as the principal organization of Western security and, by extension, to ensure that Britain cannot be ignored.
And although Britain’s hawkish policy might be dismissed by the French as being the stance of “a chest-banging gorilla who will not charge,” chest banging is not without its merits for Britain. No one in the U.K. government is suggesting that Britain will charge, or has any intention of charging, but it is happy to be noticed. The more Britain can convince European states that it remains a serious security partner, the less likely it is to be cut out of Europe’s future security order. What would Poland or the Baltics have to gain from supporting alternative security arrangements that might challenge the supremacy of NATO, thereby weakening both British and American commitment to European security?
And yet for Britain, the fact remains that it must work harder to maintain its influence because it is, as of January 31, 2020, outside the EU and, whatever the U.K. might secretly wish, that union will likely only grow in power as an independent actor within NATO.
Germany, meanwhile, continues its decades-long game of pretending that it isn’t really a power at all. Despite being the richest and most powerful country in Europe, it acts as though it were a kind of morally superior Switzerland, peaceful and objective. Frustrated officials I spoke with said Germany was trying to have its Western cake and eat it too, lodged firmly in NATO and the EU, and determined to withstand involvement in America’s geopolitical considerations for as long as it can to avoid contamination by any unnecessary moral or economic costs that come with being a power.
The irony is that each position taken by Europe’s big three undermines the other two. America remains Europe’s fatherly overlord, just as it was when the Balkans collapsed in the early 1990s, only this time it is an aging and slightly more bedraggled protector with enemies that appear stronger than they were. The result, in other words, is stasis, which, if you are being cynical, suits everyone in Europe just fine: America continues to pay, and no hard choices have to be faced.
The problem for Europe is that with each new crisis, Washington’s commitment to its own hegemonic world order continues to weaken, but nobody has any real idea what to replace it with.
Whatever happens next, this feels like a pivotal moment in the 21st century. The countries that make up NATO remain some of the wealthiest and most advanced societies on earth. So far, the West has united in a fairly impressive manner in the face of Russia’s aggression. Yet the fact remains that one half of the empire is overextended and the other is underextended. The pigeon and the child might not like the brutal geopolitical chess game that Putin (or, for that matter, Xi) is playing, but it’s time they sat down and relearned the rules before they are placed in checkmate.
Tom McTague is a London-based staff writer at The Atlantic, and co-author of Betting the House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.