How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, has a point about Europe and NATO. In May, in a speech at the alliance’s headquarters, in Brussels, he told his fellow leaders that “NATO members must finally contribute their fair share.” In July, he repeated the warning in Warsaw. “Europe must do more,” he said.
European leaders may find these demands grating, especially given Trump’s unpopularity among their constituents, but they should heed them. In recent years, Europe has become a dangerous place. In search of domestic support, Russian President Vladimir Putin has turned to aggression abroad, invading Ukraine and intervening in Syria. Since any one military adventure can provide only a temporary popularity boost, Putin will always need new victims. That makes him an ongoing threat. Just when NATO has once again become necessary for Europe’s security, however, Trump’s election has thrown the future of the U.S. role in the alliance into doubt.
For these reasons, Trump is right: to strengthen NATO and encourage the United States to continue its commitment to European security, the alliance’s European members should contribute more. Just as important for European and Western security, however, is for the United States to lead other multilateral initiatives to defend the interests and values that North America and Europe have in common. Without that leadership, Europe—and the rest of the world—will be a harsher place.
For the two and a half decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the word that candidate Trump used to describe NATO—“obsolete”—was largely accurate. It no longer is. In 2014, Russia put an end to the post–Cold War European peace. It invaded Ukraine, backed pro-Russian politicians in eastern European countries, and has since meddled in elections in the United States and France. This renewed aggression stems from Putin’s need for public support to sustain the kleptocracy over which he presides. During his first two terms as president, from 2000 to 2008, the skyrocketing price of oil, Russia’s largest export, allowed Putin to buy popularity. But in 2014, two years after he returned to the presidency, the price of oil collapsed. He was forced to turn to the only other reliable source of support at his disposal: aggressive nationalism. That year, in response to a popular uprising in Ukraine, known as the Euromaidan revolution, that deposed the corrupt, pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, Putin launched an invasion, initially disguised as a spontaneous reaction by local forces. Russian troops seized the Crimean Peninsula and began a campaign to support pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s eastern provinces.
Putin claimed that Russia’s actions were necessary because the Euromaidan revolution stemmed from a Western plot to isolate, humiliate, and ultimately destroy Russia. The Russian public largely believed him. His approval ratings rose sharply, and then got a further boost from his intervention in the Syrian civil war on the side of the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Although Putin and his regime bear the primary responsibility for the return of war to Europe, the West, particularly the United States, has unintentionally helped bring about this dangerous state of affairs. In the 1990s, NATO expanded eastward, against the wishes of Russians across the political spectrum, even those favorably disposed to the West, and in spite of earlier assurances by Western leaders to their Soviet and, later, Russian counterparts that no such expansion would occur.
The West also pursued other policies to which Russia objected in vain, including the U.S.-led wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq and the unilateral U.S. withdrawal in 2002 from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, an agreement that had restricted the number of missile defense systems the Soviet Union and the United States could build. Together, these initiatives created a constituency for Putin’s claim, used to justify his aggressive foreign policies, that the West was pursuing an anti-Russian campaign that he was acting to thwart.
Whereas NATO expansion mobilized Russia, it tranquilized the West. To gain domestic acceptance of the policy, Western governments portrayed it as a harmless gesture of goodwill made by an organization that was transforming itself from a defensive multinational army into a benign club of democracies. Expansion, its sponsors claimed, would require no exertion or expense on the part of current NATO members. Nor would Russia object to it, they added, in spite of considerable evidence to the contrary. These false claims have left the ultimate arbiters of NATO’s fate—the voters of the alliance’s member countries—unprepared for the renewed threat in Europe and the need for increased efforts to meet it.
It is worth recalling the blunder of NATO expansion and the effects that the subsequent Western policies have had on Russia in case the country ever has, as it did at the end of the Cold War, a government willing to participate in a security order based on cooperation and transparency. Today, however, it is both too late and too early for such an arrangement.
The basic condition that gave rise to NATO during the Cold War, a threat from the east, has returned. But not every feature of the U.S.-Soviet conflict has reappeared. Russia has three-quarters of the territory and half the population of the Soviet Union. It poses a conventional military threat only to Europe, not, as in Soviet times, to countries elsewhere. Today’s Russia also lacks the kind of messianic ideology that drove Soviet foreign policy. Still, it does challenge Europe in two familiar ways.
First, it possesses nuclear weapons, which other European countries must balance with their own or those of the United States. The United Kingdom and France have maintained nuclear arsenals since the 1950s and 1960s, respectively. During the Cold War, the other European members of NATO, particularly West Germany, concluded that these could not deter the Soviet Union by themselves. Effective deterrence required the United States’ far larger arsenal. German nuclear weapons could have substituted for U.S. ones, but no one, least of all the Germans themselves, wanted Germany to acquire them.
The West has unintentionally helped bring about this dangerous state of affairs.
The same principle applies today. In May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel hinted at reducing Europe’s dependence on the United States by telling a crowd at a political rally in Munich that “the times in which we could totally rely on others are to some extent over.” But without the familiar U.S. role in NATO, its European members would face an unwelcome choice between Russian dominance and German nuclear weapons.
The second problem that Putin has resurrected involves the three Baltic countries, all of which belong to NATO. According to a 2016 Rand Corporation study by the defense analysts David Shlapak and Michael Johnson, because Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are so small and share borders with Russia, “as currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend” them against a Russian invasion. In the same way, during the Cold War, the alliance could not hope to defend West Berlin successfully, a small Western island surrounded by communist East Germany. Preventing a direct Soviet attack required energetic efforts by successive U.S. administrations to convince the Soviet Union that the United States was committed to keeping the city free of communist control. To protect the Baltic countries from Moscow today, Washington will have to make a similarly credible commitment.
In September 2014, in a speech in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, U.S. President Barack Obama declared, “We will defend the territorial integrity of every single ally . . . because the defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London.” By contrast, during his trip to Europe last May, Trump conspicuously failed to endorse Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty, which pledges every member of the alliance to the defense of the others. Only in June, at a press conference with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, did Trump commit the United States to that provision of the treaty.
This indifference to the established U.S. role in Europe is not simply a personal eccentricity that will vanish after Trump leaves office. American voters, after all, knew his views and elected him as commander in chief. For many of them, talk of Russian threats and U.S. deterrence in Europe seems long out of date. Even Americans sympathetic to the need for a continued U.S. military presence on the continent know that the wealthy European countries are capable of contributing more to their own security. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis spoke for many when he told NATO members at a meeting in Brussels in February that they would have to increase their military spending since “Americans cannot care more for your children’s future than you do.”
In 2014, the European members of NATO did agree to devote two percent of their GDP to defense by 2024, but only five of the 29 NATO members are currently doing so. That target is an arbitrary one, and achieving it would not by itself maximize the alliance’s military power. Still, reaching it would send a signal to the American public that Europe was taking its own defense seriously and thus deserved U.S. support.
Important as increased defense spending is, NATO cannot effectively meet the threat that Putin’s Russia poses through military means alone. After all, the military confrontation between the two Cold War blocs ended in a stalemate. It was in the economic sphere that the West triumphed: its free-market economies decisively outperformed the centrally planned systems of the communist world. The prosperity of West Germany juxtaposed with the relative economic backwardness of East Germany offered the most telling contrast.
Today, the rivalry between Ukraine and Russia comes closest to replicating the competition between the two Germanys. A stable, prosperous, and democratic Ukraine would provide an example to the people of Russia that would do more than anything else to discredit and subvert the kleptocratic Russian political system.
The twin shocks of the Euromaidan revolution and the Russian invasion have produced a Ukrainian government committed, at least rhetorically, to liberal democracy and a market-based economy. Although it has made some progress, the country remains far from achieving either. Success will depend principally on the efforts of the Ukrainians themselves. Still, other countries can provide economic support for the reformist government in Kiev, as some European countries, through the EU, have already done. In this way, European countries are making an important contribution to European security.
In addition to supporting Ukraine, the West has sought to punish Russia. In response to Russia’s invasion, the United States and the EU imposed sanctions on several Russian individuals and businesses. Together with the low price of oil, these have hurt the country’s economy, damaging Putin’s standing with the Russian public. They have also signaled that further assaults will trigger even stiffer economic penalties.
Because they have taken an economic toll not just on Russia but also on the countries imposing them, the sanctions have become controversial in Europe. Indeed, Putin may well have reckoned that public opposition would, before long, force European leaders to lift them. If so, he was wrong. They have remained in place, largely thanks to the efforts of Merkel, who understands, as many of her compatriots do not, the threat that Putin poses. The United States and the EU should be prepared to impose additional, stiffer economic penalties if Russian policy warrants them.
Europe is not the only place where an aggressive power is threatening the security of its neighbors. In the Middle East, Iran has pursued nuclear weapons and fought proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. In response to its aggression, European countries joined the international sanctions regime against Iran that preceded the 2015 nuclear agreement, which slowed Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Given the weakness of the restraints in that deal and the vigor with which Iran is working to dominate the region, the United States and European countries may soon need to reimpose economic constraints on the country.
European countries also have a role to play in protecting Western interests and values in Asia. There, China has claimed sovereignty and built military bases in disputed areas of the South China Sea. At the same time, it has wielded its growing economic power to try to extort political concessions from other Asian countries. In 2010, for instance, the Chinese government blocked some exports of rare-earth minerals to Japan until the Japanese government released a Chinese fisherman it had arrested near the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, an archipelago in the East China Sea. Earlier this year, in response to an agreement between Seoul and Washington to deploy a U.S.-made system of ballistic missile defenses in South Korea, China began an unofficial economic campaign against the country, banning certain imports and pressuring Chinese travel agencies to halt sales of trips to South Korea.
The United States and Europe have already taken some economic steps to support their fellow democracies in Asia. In the future, European countries should participate in multinational efforts to resist Chinese economic pressure, through compensation to targeted countries, counterboycotts, or sanctions. To be sure, to expect European voters to make economic sacrifices for the sake of faraway countries is asking a great deal of them. But such global economic and political solidarity may prove necessary to cope with China’s expansive ambitions.
For Western responses to expansive Chinese and Russian conduct to succeed, the United States must lead the way. Only it has the power and the standing to launch global initiatives of this kind, as it did, for example, in 1990, when President George H. W. Bush assembled the worldwide coalition that evicted Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Unfortunately, Trump has shown neither the inclination nor the ability to exercise such leadership.
Forming a global coalition to resist Chinese economic bullying and Russian aggression will also require a broad sense of community among democracies, based not only on shared interests but also on common values. At the core of European leaders’ unconcealed distaste for Trump seems to be their dismay that, unlike his predecessors since at least Franklin Roosevelt, and despite giving a rousing defense of Western values in Warsaw in July, he does not subscribe to the idea of a global democratic community.
Europe must take more responsibility for defending Western interests and values, but it cannot replace the leadership of the United States. Without that leadership, the world that the democracies made with their victories in the three great global conflicts of the twentieth century—the two world wars and the Cold War—a world freer, more peaceful, and more prosperous than at any other time in history, will not endure.