Thinking About the Unthinkable in Ukraine
What Happens If Putin Goes Nuclear?
For three decades, U.S. foreign policy has run on inertia and called it strategy. The Cold War had ended, but the United States nonetheless retained its Cold War alliances. The Soviet Union had disappeared, but the absence of a major threat produced much the same prescription as the presence of a major threat had: just as the U.S. military had defended “the free world,” now it would become the guardian of the whole world. When problems appeared, successive administrations generally took them as reasons to expand U.S. deployments. Even if its bid for primacy had created or exacerbated those problems, Washington had the solution: more and better primacy.
Now the war in Ukraine is tempting policymakers to repeat that mistake in an exceedingly consequential way. Just when President Joe Biden had been trying to prioritize security in Asia and prosperity for the American middle class, advocates of U.S. primacy are seizing this emotionally charged moment to insist that post–Cold War path dependency prevail. Rather than pivot to Asia, they argue, the United States must now build up its military presence in Europe to contain an assertive Russia, even as it strengthens its Indo-Pacific defenses to contain a rising China. They admit their proposal would cost hundreds of billions of dollars more in defense spending and put U.S. forces on the front lines of two potential great-power wars, but they think the price is worth it.
The Biden administration should decline this invitation to wage a risky global cold war. Although the invasion of Ukraine has revealed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to take risks in the pursuit of aggression, it has also exposed the weakness of the Russian military and economy. If anything, the war has strengthened the case for strategic discipline, by offering a chance to encourage Europe to balance against Russia while the United States concentrates on security in Asia and renewal at home. Such a division of labor is fair and sustainable. It would put the United States in the best position to limit the fallout from the war in Ukraine and achieve long-term peace and stability in Europe and beyond. Primacy’s lure is strong in Washington, but a more restrained approach is better.
Since Russia’s invasion began, advocates of U.S. primacy have contended that the war demands not only an immediate response from the United States but also an enduring grand-strategic shift. Riding a wave of anti-Russian sentiment, they want the Biden administration to cast aside the new, Asia-centric posture that it had been expected to roll out. “We cannot pretend any longer that a national security focus primarily on China will protect our political, economic and security interests,” wrote former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. “As we have seen in Ukraine, a reckless, risk-taking dictator in Russia (or elsewhere) can be every bit as much a challenge to our interests and our security.” To keep the war from expanding, the Biden administration has boosted the number of U.S. troops in Europe to around 100,000—a level not seen in decades.
But a bid to restore global military primacy is no more merited today than it was before the invasion. Putin’s gruesome attack has made the Russian threat visceral, but it has not actually increased the threat or produced other compelling evidence for taking on new commitments or missions. Gates appears to confuse a humanitarian calamity with a threat to the United States. As the Biden administration has maintained, vital U.S. security interests are not at stake in Ukraine, and so the United States will not intervene directly against Russian forces. Especially unclear is why Putin or just any “reckless, risk-taking dictator” should be presumed to challenge U.S. interests on a similar magnitude as China, the world’s number two economic and military power. Thinking that way could lead U.S. officials to give up on formulating strategy on the basis of discernable national interests. The United States would find itself policing the world, no matter the stakes.
If Russia were to overrun the heartland of Europe, the United States’ security and prosperity would become endangered, since much of the wealthy and populous region would come under Moscow’s control. In the late 1940s, the United States waged the Cold War in part to prevent the Soviet Union from using its formidable resources to conquer noncommunist Europe. In a March article in Foreign Affairs, the scholars Michael Beckley and Hal Brands implicitly resurrected this strategic objective by invoking “the policies that won the Cold War” as a model for what to do today: contain Russia and China simultaneously through U.S. military buildups in both Europe and Asia. By their estimate, this course of action would require boosting defense spending over the next decade from 3.2 percent of GDP to five percent of GDP, making for a 56 percent increase.
But it is difficult to discern how Russia could drive far into Europe, even if it tried. Before the invasion, the EU’s economy was roughly five times as large as Russia’s, by the conservative metric of purchasing power parity, and wartime sanctions are set to widen the gap. Taken together, the European members of NATO already outspend Russia on defense, and Europe’s geopolitical awakening will only push them to spend more. And the lackluster performance of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine does not augur well for their prospects against NATO in the near term.
For three decades, U.S. foreign policy has run on inertia and called it strategy.
Rather than explain how Russia could possibly come to dominate Europe, then, Beckley and Brands adopt an expansive conception of the United States’ interests and responsibilities that would have made George Kennan, the architect of Cold War containment, blush. They would seemingly have the United States go to war to stop any act of “autocratic aggression” in eastern Europe or East Asia, and perhaps wherever else “the international order” might appear to be imperiled. Indeed, as inspiration for their approach, they draw on NSC-68, the strategic document of 1950 that called for limitless anticommunist crusades and exorbitant military spending. As the historian John Lewis Gaddis has put it, NSC-68 “found in the simple presence of a Soviet threat sufficient cause to deem the interest threatened vital.” In other words, NSC-68 had the United States assume vast costs and risks without reference to the country’s safety and well-being; it severed the link between U.S. policy and U.S. interests. It should not be a template for our time.
The call for a cold war against China and Russia would have Americans take on enormous burdens not because specific U.S. interests require it but because U.S. primacy does. No longer able to maintain global military dominance at the current level of exertion, the United States is now supposed to plow ever-greater resources into the endeavor. Perhaps the country could get away with strategic excesses in the 1950s, when it accounted for some 27 percent of world economic output, nearly double the combined Soviet and Chinese share of 14 percent. In 2020, by contrast, the United States accounted for 16 percent of global GDP. China and Russia together came to 22 percent. China alone topped the United States. It is doubtful that sheer will can overcome the chasm between the United States’ material superiority during the Cold War and its shortfall today.
Coming out of World War II, the American public understood the implications of undertaking obligations to defend other countries. By contrast, most Americans alive today, having never seen a great-power war or paid tangible costs for smaller wars, are not used to enduring hardship for foreign policy choices. Their well-founded suspicion of far-flung military interventions creates uncertainty about how the United States would truly act if one of its dozens of defense commitments came due. It also raises doubts about whether high defense spending could be sustained indefinitely.
Rather than lock a new cold war into place, Biden should remember what produced the United States’ greatest successes during the original affair: a willingness to adjust to changing circumstances and weigh creative options without clinging to outmoded habits. The Marshall Plan, for example, broke with precedent by extending government funds to rebuild European countries that might have turned communist. Decades later, U.S. policymakers saw an opportunity to stabilize superpower relations and achieved détente, devising mutually beneficial arms control measures and stabilizing Europe through the Helsinki Accords. These achievements deserve to be emulated—and that requires eschewing misplaced nostalgia.
The war in Ukraine has made strategic discipline not only more necessary but also more achievable. By turning Europe into a more unified and determined geopolitical actor, the war has generated international dynamics that are conducive to U.S. restraint. Biden should reject a cold war strategy of dividing the world and keeping one half dependent on the United States. He should not allow Putin’s aggression to define the United States’ concept of itself and its role in the world. Instead, he should seek to make the world resilient—more capable of effective and collective action and less reliant on U.S. military protection.
The first step is to support Ukraine while avoiding escalation into a direct clash between U.S. and Russian forces. Having galvanized domestic and international action, the Biden administration should avoid the rhetorical inflation of its aims and stick to a clear goal: not to defend Ukraine but rather to help Ukraine defend itself and end the war. Accordingly, the administration should push for a peace settlement with as much vigor as it has displayed in imposing costs on Russia.
A negotiated agreement will almost certainly require lifting at least some of the harshest sanctions on Russia, including the freeze of the Russian central bank’s assets. The administration should proactively communicate an offer of sanctions relief to Moscow, which might not otherwise believe that such relief is possible. In conjunction with a pledge by Ukraine to give up on trying to join NATO, Biden should also be prepared to state publicly that the United States opposes further consideration of Ukraine’s membership prospects, which were never high to begin with. After the war, the United States should continue to send weapons to Ukraine to help it defend itself. It would not be necessary or wise to pledge to go to war on Ukraine’s behalf, a commitment that would diminish American security and expand the U.S. military role in Europe.
While avoiding the worst outcomes in Ukraine, Biden should take advantage of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put the European security order on the path to self-sufficiency. With immense economic and demographic superiority, Europe is more than capable of developing the military power to balance Russia. Now, it seems increasingly willing to do so. But if Washington does not get out of its own way, change will not happen.
Biden should reject a cold war strategy of dividing the world and keeping one half dependent on the United States.
Biden should back European strategic autonomy and make a six-year plan, to cover the rest of his term and the next one, to transition European defense to European leadership. The administration should press European countries to provide new manpower in the eastern countries of NATO and replace the additional U.S. troops sent there since January. And it should help European capitals coordinate their next steps: improving their forces’ readiness and sustainability, developing capabilities for high-end operations, and harmonizing EU defense capabilities with those of a European-led, U.S.-supported NATO.
Limiting the United States’ burdens in Europe would enhance its strategy in Asia. Biden would spare himself and his successors from facing the devil’s choice that advocates of primacy would force on generations to come: weaken the United States’ Indo-Pacific defenses in the event of a European war with Russia, or prepare to fight two great-power wars by raising defense spending so high as to court a political backlash. U.S. policymakers must steer clear of these unacceptable options. Nor need they resign themselves to a strategic competition with China so intense and encompassing as to resemble the early Cold War.
Military restraint is desirable on strategic grounds, but it is also essential to freeing U.S. statecraft to pursue what matters most. The priorities that Biden identified when he came into office—delivering prosperity for ordinary Americans and tackling climate change and pandemics—remain just as important today, and the war has made them even harder to address. Russia’s war and Western sanctions risk triggering a global recession or contributing to a period of stagflation. A downward economic spiral could even accompany a downward security spiral; countries could divide into economic blocs for fear that geopolitical contingencies may one day suddenly force them to join one grouping or another.
The United States should act to arrest deglobalization, which would depress growth and innovation and inhibit climate cooperation. Rather than succumb to a cold war framework, it should remain economically engaged with China and respect the sovereign choices of countries in the developing world to abstain from sanctions on Russia and otherwise opt for nonalignment. As surging prices compound the effects of the pandemic, the United States should rally its European and Asian partners to provide funds and technology to build renewable energy capacity in developing countries. Climate change is perhaps the biggest threat to the American people. If it remains a sideshow in national security policy by the end of Biden’s tenure, then his foreign policy will have failed, no matter how well he handles the war in Ukraine.
Among the priorities of the twenty-first-century United States should not be relations with Iran. Nevertheless, the country may soon vault to the top of the president’s agenda. Negotiators are currently trying to resurrect the agreement to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. If those talks break down, the Biden administration will have to decide whether to support a military strike on Iran, even though it will likely regard the country as a negligible concern and a distraction from Ukraine. But even Ukraine is a distraction from what the administration had hoped to focus on: competition with China, not to mention rescuing American democracy, mitigating a pandemic, and preserving a habitable planet. Such cacophony is the predictable result of the quest for global military primacy—not control over world events but the forfeiture of self-control. The problem will get ever worse as the unipolar moment continues to recede.
A new cold war promises clarity of purpose. In reality, it would impose enormous costs and generate unnecessary risks. It would not, moreover, make other priorities go away; it would more likely exacerbate the United States’ domestic travails and stifle urgent international cooperation. After 9/11, the United States allowed itself to become consumed by fears of the enemy. After Ukraine, the Biden administration should let nothing keep it from advancing the best interests of Americans.