Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
The post–World War II international order is often described as a product of American strength. Together with its allies, a victorious United States imposed its will on the rest of the world, crafting institutions and norms that served its interests and assured its primacy. But to an often underappreciated degree, that order is also a product of the artificial weakness of Germany and Japan. For three-quarters of a century after 1945, both countries consciously eschewed great-power status and pursued pacifist approaches to foreign policy. At the heart of the postwar order, in other words, is the unique status of the world’s third- and fourth-largest economies. Although that order has come to seem natural to many in the West, it is predicated on an arguably unnatural condition: the forced pacification of two countries that—owing to geography, demography, and history—had predictably become regional hegemons in the prewar modern era.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—and the growing antagonism between the United States and China—is threatening to upend that status quo and with it Pax Americana, which has held since the end of World War II. In response to Moscow’s aggression, Germany has fundamentally reoriented its foreign policy, pledging to radically increase defense spending and taking a hawkish line on Ukraine. And Japan, wary of China’s quest for regional hegemony, seems closer than ever to a similar transformation.
In the short term, these shifts may precipitate a consolidation or even a revival of the West. The war in Ukraine has increased the dependence of Germany and Japan on the United States and led to levels of cooperation not seen since the Cold War. But if Germany stays on its new path and Japan embarks on a similar one, something like the opposite could happen as both countries become less dependent on the United States and more closely linked to their neighbors. Such a shift would profoundly alter not just the security order in Europe and Asia but the dynamics of the Western world—and at precisely the moment when World War II passes from memory into history. On the one hand, Pax Americana will give way to more cooperative regional security orders. On the other, the United States will have to reinvent its alliances, treating allies as real stakeholders rather than infantilized junior partners. The transition could be painful and difficult for Washington in the short term. But in the long term, these changes will be healthy for the global order and even for the United States itself.
Four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the usually cautious German Chancellor Olaf Scholz gave a revolutionary speech announcing a zeitenwende—or “turning point,” roughly translated—in German foreign policy. So profound are the shifts he laid out that they could change the country’s very identity. Berlin decided to supply weapons to Ukraine after decades of resisting arming belligerents in any conflict zone, establish a 100 billion euro fund to upgrade its armed forces after years of dragging its feet on defense spending, and end its energy dependence on Russia after years of attempting to transform Russia through economic ties. The announcement of these fundamental changes has ignited a broader debate about what the zeitenwende will mean not just for different aspects of German policy but for the country’s broader role in the world. Some analysts see it as Germany belatedly waking up to its responsibilities after decades of geopolitical free-riding, but many others have been critical of the slow pace of change and fear the new policy will fall short of expectations.
The zeitenwende debate in Germany has had a powerful effect on Japan, where defense and security officials have been coming to grips with an increasingly assertive China. Confronting a rising power as opposed to a declining one such as Russia puts Japan in a more complex situation than the one in which Germany finds itself—and an arguably more precarious one in the long term. In 2005, Japan and China had almost identical defense budgets. Now, China’s defense budget is five times as large as Japan’s, and by 2030, it is projected to be nine times as large. (By comparison, Russia’s defense budget was only 18 percent larger than Germany’s before Berlin announced its zeitenwende.)
In response to Moscow’s aggression, Germany has fundamentally reoriented its foreign policy.
In order to maintain a semblance of balance in the region, Japan has pursued a three-pronged strategy. First, it has incrementally increased its defense spending in recent years, from $45.1 billion in 2017 to $54.1 billion in 2021. Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has argued that the country should aim to spend two percent of its GDP on defense, which would mean doubling its current budget. Second, Japan has sought to deepen its alliance with the United States. The LDP has begun internal discussions on nuclear deterrence, including on the controversial issue of a potential nuclear-sharing agreement with Washington, which would obligate Tokyo to take part in consultations about nuclear weapons and their use as part of a structure of shared decision-making. And Japan is also recrafting its security relations with other partners in the region, particularly Australia, India, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam. Tokyo is now incorporating these changes into a new national security strategy to be published by the end of the year.
This emergent strategy is reflected in Japan’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which differs markedly from its response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Back then, Japan sought to maintain stable relations with Moscow, in part to hedge against Beijing and in part—like Germany—to source cheap energy from Russia. This time around, Japan has come close to suspending its bilateral relationship with Russia, joined the United States and European countries in enforcing sanctions against Moscow, and delivered financial as well as nonlethal military aid to Ukraine. It has done so partly to strengthen its ties with Washington and partly because it is afraid that China might be tempted to undertake a similar assault on Taiwan. Japan wants to impose high costs on Russia so that China gets the message: invade Taiwan and you will be overwhelmed by military, political, and economic penalties.
Over the years, Germany and Japan have had several national debates about becoming “normal powers” and have gradually moved in that direction. Both countries are now more active militarily than they have been in decades, but they still punch way under their economic weight. The war in Ukraine could change that, however.
For the first time in the postwar era, both Germany and Japan face unavoidable threats. After Germany was reunified in 1990, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was fond of saying that the country was “surrounded only by friends and partners.” Now, there seems to be societal consensus in Germany that this has changed: even before Moscow launched its invasion, more than half of German respondents to a January 2022 poll claimed that Russia’s stance on Ukraine posed a large military threat to their country. And many Japanese fear that a war over Taiwan could be next. Polls shows that a large majority of the Japanese public is concerned that Russia’s war in Ukraine will impact how China deals with its territorial disputes. And as Narushige Michishita, vice president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, told me, “If there is a war in the Taiwan Strait, Japan would almost automatically be involved as Japan accommodates U.S. bases and China would attack them.”
Also auguring for a more muscular security stance is generational change: German and Japanese guilt is dying out along with the last surviving perpetrators and victims of World War II. As the historian Andreas Wirsching has argued, the war in Ukraine is accelerating Germany’s break with its Nazi past (in ways he finds troubling). Having taken a stand against Moscow, Berlin is finally “on the right side of history.” And with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, there is another villain on the European continent accused of genocide and pursuing a war of extermination. Meanwhile, in Japan, fear of China’s rising power is eclipsing the memory of the country’s past crimes, both among the Japanese public and in many Asian capitals.
German and Japanese guilt is dying out along with the last surviving perpetrators and victims of World War II.
Finally, Germany and Japan may no longer feel they can rely on the United States for their security. According to one recent poll, 56 percent of German respondents believe that in ten years, China will be a stronger power than the United States. Fifty-three percent said that Americans cannot be trusted after electing Donald Trump president in 2016, and 60 percent said Germany cannot always count on the United States to defend it and so must invest in European defense. These fears are shared among even the most Atlanticist segments of the elite. As Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the United States, told me, “Germans are fortunate to have Biden in the White House, but Germany needs to have a plan B in case there are big changes to American politics.” He believes Germany should explore the possibility of a nuclear guarantee from France, something that would have been unthinkable even a few months ago.
Doubts about American power and reliability are less openly articulated in Japan. According to an April poll, however, nearly two-thirds of Japanese support strengthening Japan’s defense capabilities, and a majority agree with the LDP proposal of spending two percent of GDP on defense. Ken Jimbo, a security specialist at Keio University, explained that after the tumult of the Trump years, many Japanese strategists think the country needs to invest more in its own defense and “diversify beyond the United States.” They watched with concern as Washington declined to intervene directly in Ukraine after highlighting the difference between a NATO and a non-NATO ally and warning of the dangers of confronting a nuclear Russia. “The question,” according to Jimbo, “is how much we can trust the United States to defend Taiwan in the face of Chinese nuclear threats.”
So far, the war in Ukraine has brought into sharper focus how much Germany and Japan need the United States. The responses of both countries suggest a revival—and even an expansion—of their traditional alliances with Washington in the short term. Not only has Tokyo sided with the West and joined the sanctions regime against Russia but Berlin has recommitted to NATO, signaled that it plans to buy U.S. F-35 fighter jets, and decided to build liquified natural gas terminals that will allow it to buy U.S. rather than Russian gas. Atlanticists in Germany hope that the war in Ukraine will bind the United States to Europe and re-create a Cold War model in which the United States leads and Europe contributes only as much as it must. But shifts in German and Japanese defense policies could in the long term create a much different arrangement, altering the regional order in Europe and Asia and transforming both countries’ alliances with the United States.
Greater German and Japanese assertiveness is likely to go hand in hand with U.S. retrenchment (and a shrinking of Washington’s relative economic and military might) over the long haul, a trend that is unlikely to change with the war in Ukraine. The United States will be forced to concentrate its limited resources on the challenges posed by China. Analysts such as Robert Kagan have argued that Pax Americana could give way to global chaos. That is definitely possible. But it is not what has happened in much of the Middle East, where the United States was most engaged for the last two decades and where it is now pulling back most dramatically. Julien Barnes-Dacey and Hugh Lovatt of the European Council on Foreign Relations have described how there was an initial surge in regional competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia and in military conflicts that drew in outside powers, such as Russia and Turkey. But then many of these conflicts slowed down, and more locally driven reordering processes began, exemplified by the August 2021 Baghdad conference that brought key regional actors into dialogue with one another.
In Europe, U.S. retrenchment could yield greater sovereignty once Europeans finally realize that the war in Ukraine will not stop Washington’s long-term pivot to Asia. One reason that Europeans have failed to develop a common foreign policy is their lack of trust in one another. But Moscow’s aggression has brought Europeans together, convincing countries that previously favored engagement with Russia, such as Germany and Italy, to embrace a policy of containment. If this convergence holds, one could see a real European strategic alignment, backed eventually by a European armaments industry and even conceivably by a more common European nuclear deterrent (or at least a willingness by France to share its deterrent). In the long term, Europe could forge a common framework to manage relations with other powers, such as Russia and Turkey, including through deterrence, selective decoupling to minimize tensions, and some form of dialogue to prevent escalation. Instead of continuing to expand the EU and NATO, Europe might opt for smaller, more flexible multilateral arrangements involving some of the most important players, much like the Quad in Asia. In short, the European order might become more Asian.
Greater German and Japanese assertiveness is likely to go hand in hand with U.S. retrenchment.
At the same time, Asia is likely to become more European. The United States will maintain its shift in focus to the Indo-Pacific, but its economic and military weight will shrink compared with China’s. As a result, Tokyo and other regional powers will probably strengthen their ties with the United States yet continue to diversify beyond their traditional alliances with Washington. As Michishita put it: “What we are trying to do is to invite more friends into the Japan-U.S. alliance.” Already a new Asian order is emerging that includes ties with the United States and closer cooperation among powers such as Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam. Jimbo says Asian countries won’t form a NATO-like alliance but rather increase cooperation in areas such as intelligence, maritime security, and law enforcement. In trade and commerce, a certain level of regional integration has already occurred without Washington’s participation through the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—which took shape after the United States walked away from its predecessor—and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
In terms of security, a more balanced division of labor could emerge. Europeans will have to take more direct responsibility for security in eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East. In Asia, regional powers will have to invest more in their own capabilities to balance Chinese influence in the region. Elbridge Colby, who served as a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Trump administration, put it this way in an interview with Nikkei Asia: “The United States is 5,000 miles away from Japan and Taiwan, so we need Japan to do more.” And as the European and Indo-Pacific theaters become more connected—not least through the Sino-Russian rapprochement—it is even possible that European and Asian powers will support one another. Japan and South Korea, for instance, might ask Europeans to reciprocate their support for sanctions on Russia. The result would be more complex regional orders in which the United States still plays an important role but no longer calls the shots.
The Biden administration hopes that the war in Ukraine will cement a global alliance of democracies, putting both Russia and China on the back foot. As a result, Beijing regards the conflict as a proxy war aimed in part at weakening China by convincing Asian countries of the parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan. The other side of this coin, of course, is Washington’s effort to convince Europeans that if they want to continue to benefit from U.S. support, they will need to align with the United States against China.
But as Germany and Japan become more powerful and more embedded in their respective regional security orders, they are likely to become more assertive in setting their own agendas. That is precisely what happened in the Middle East, where U.S. retrenchment has made countries less willing to follow Washington’s lead without getting something in return. Saudi Arabia, for instance, rejected U.S. requests to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and to increase oil production to meet elevated demand. Instead, Riyadh worked with Moscow to keep oil prices high. Other U.S. allies in the region, including Israel and the United Arab Emirates, have been similarly resistant to U.S. demands.
Many American analysts and officials seem to think that the historic debt of U.S. allies means that they can be expected to side with the United States against China in more and more domains and at ever greater cost. Trump provided the perfect illustration of this when he threatened to withdraw from NATO while demanding that Europeans ban the Chinese technology giant Huawei from their 5G networks.
But the changes afoot in Berlin and Tokyo suggest that a different kind of relationship is on the horizon, one that is more balanced than the alliances Washington built and maintained in the postwar era. As the relative importance of U.S. defense contributions falls and the costs of alignment rise, it seems unlikely that Washington will be able to count on automatic support. Instead, the United States will have to get used to more cooperative and equitable relationships in which alignment is earned. This will create challenges and headaches initially, especially as Washington is forced to rein in its unipolar instincts. But if the new international order proves stable and helps promote U.S. interests, American taxpayers might once again start to see the country’s network of alliances as an asset rather than a drain on public resources. Not only could the burden of providing security be shared more equitably in such an order but the United States and its allies would be able to establish standards and promote liberal values that, although not solely American, would definitely be more American than Chinese. In other words, Pax Americana could give way not to chaos but to a cooperative model of shared leadership.