Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is described as the end of the post-Cold War period. That is not exactly correct. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, we have known three different eras. Each of them lasted about a decade.
There were the years at the end of history in the 1990s, when Washington believed that the main task of foreign policy was to move the world into a more democratic, free-market, rules-based order. . These priorities faded after 9/11, when no international issue mattered more to policy makers than the fight against militant Islamism. A decade later, after Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011, Barack Obama effectively called for an end to the war on terror, saying it was time to “focus on nation building here, with us”.
It was a decade whose bracing instincts were characterized by two telling reactions by two presidents to two crises – both involving Ukraine.
The first was Obama’s lukewarm response to Russia’s 2014 takeover of Crimea, after which he refused to provide lethal military aid to Kiev on the theory that Ukraine’s future was a core Russian interest. but not American. The second was Donald Trump’s volodymyr Zelensky attempt in 2019, in which he tried to withhold security aid from Ukraine in exchange for slurring the Biden family.
In other words, Obama looked at Ukraine and asked, “What’s in it for us?” Trump looked at Ukraine and asked, “What’s in it for me?” For neither president was the issue of preventing another Russian invasion, much less encouraging the democratic development of Ukraine, a particular priority.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin looked at Ukraine and concluded: “That’s it for me.”
The Russian president may have had various motives for invading Ukraine. But it would be foolish to assume that he too was not seduced – by our apparent indifference to the fate of Ukraine; by the willingness of successive American presidents to continue doing business with him even as he invaded neighbors, poisoned dissidents, hacked into our networks and interfered in our elections; by Europe’s military weakness and growing dependence on Russian energy; by merging an axis of autocracy determined to overthrow the American-led liberal order.
All of this made Putin’s bet on Ukraine seem like a good bet – except for his failure to consider the courage of the Ukrainian people, their magnificent president, and the incompetence of their own military. This courage gave the West time to band together to help save Ukraine. It should also be an opportunity to rethink how we view foreign affairs for the next decade. We need new rules for a new world.
What should they be? Some ideas :
Free trade for the free world. Economic nationalism never works. Disconnecting the Russian economy from the rest of the world is already painful. And the only long-term hope for decoupling from China is through deeper economic integration of free and allied nations. This means reviving the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a free trade agreement with the European Union and another with Britain.
Help those who help themselves. If a lesson of the last 20 years is that we cannot fight for the freedom of those who will not fight themselves, the lesson of Ukraine is that we can at least give those who will fight the tools to so they can finish the job. One model is the nuclear-powered submarine deal the United States and Britain signed last year with Australia, which the administration must accelerate if it is to have a deterrent effect on the China. Another model is Israel, which we arm with American jets so that we never need to defend it with American troops.
Parallel world institutions. China has trashed the World Trade Organization by refusing to honor its commitments. Russia ransacked Interpol using the agency to persecute political dissidents. The Biden administration may not want to leave these legacy organizations, but it can reduce their relevance by investing in new or fledgling organizations in which democracy buys membership.
Be honest about energy. The world will need carbon-based fuels for decades to come. And we’d be better off extracting more of it in North America – including on US federal lands – than by asking Saudi Arabia to increase production or hoping to get more from Venezuela and Iran with a easing of penalties. The alternative to increased domestic oil and gas production is not just clean alternative energy. It is also disgusting energy in the petroleum state.
Get serious about defense. The dumbest debate in foreign policy circles is whether China or Russia is the bigger threat. The real answer is that we don’t have the luxury of choosing. But we have the luxury of spending more on defense, which at less than 4% of gross domestic product is about half of what we spent in the prosperous 1980s. A navy of 500 ships – an increase of 200 ships – should be a national priority.
Play to win. “Here is my Cold War strategy,” Ronald Reagan once told his adviser Richard Allen: “We win, they lose.” He said that in 1977, when it sounded like a pipe dream. Twelve years later, it was a fact. Let’s aim for a world not haunted by people like Vladimir Putin.