Monday, March 14, 2022

Putin's War Is Fortifying the Democratic Alliance

I love this.

And remember what I wrote the other day: "Unipolarity Is Not Over."

From Michael Beckley and Hal Brands, at Foreign Affairs, "Return of Pax Americana?":

The United States and its allies have failed to prevent Russia from brutalizing Ukraine, but they can still win the larger struggle to save the international order. Russia’s savage invasion has exposed the gap between Western countries’ soaring liberal aspirations and the paltry resources they have devoted to defend them. The United States has declared great-power competition on Moscow and Beijing but has so far failed to summon the money, the creativity, or the urgency necessary to prevail in those rivalries. Yet Russian President Vladimir Putin has now inadvertently done the United States and its allies a tremendous favor. In shocking them out of their complacency, he has given them a historic opportunity to regroup and reload for an era of intense competition—not just with Russia but also with China—and, ultimately, to rebuild an international order that just recently looked to be headed for collapse.

This isn’t fantasy: it has happened before. In the late 1940s, the West was entering a previous period of great-power competition but had not made the investments or initiatives needed to win it. U.S. defense spending was pathetically inadequate, NATO existed only on paper, and neither Japan nor West Germany had been reintegrated into the free world. The Communist bloc seemed to have the momentum. Then, in June 1950, an instance of unprovoked authoritarian aggression—the Korean War—revolutionized Western politics and laid the foundation for a successful containment strategy. The policies that won the Cold War and thereby made the modern liberal international order were products of an unexpected hot war. The catastrophe in Ukraine could play a similar role today.

Putin’s aggression has created a window of strategic opportunity for Washington and its allies. The democracies must now undertake a major multilateral rearmament program and erect firmer defenses—military and otherwise—against the coming wave of autocratic aggression. They must exploit the current crisis to weaken the autocrats’ capacity for coercion and subversion and deepen the economic and diplomatic cooperation among liberal states around the globe. The invasion of Ukraine signals a new phase in an intensifying struggle to shape the international order. The democratic world won’t have a better chance to position itself for success.


The United States has been talking tough about great-power competition for years. But to counter authoritarian rivals, a country needs more than self-righteous rhetoric. It also requires massive investments in military forces geared for high-intensity combat, sustained diplomacy to enlist and retain allies, and a willingness to confront adversaries and even risk war. Such commitments do not come naturally, especially to democracies that believe that peace is the norm. That is why ambitious competitive strategies usually sit on the shelf until a shocking event compels collective sacrifice.

Take containment. Now considered one of the most successful strategies in U.S. diplomatic history, containment was on the verge of failure before the Korean War broke out. During the late 1940s, the United States had undertaken a dangerous, long-term competition against a mighty authoritarian rival. U.S. officials had established maximalist objectives: the containment of Soviet power until that regime collapsed or mellowed and, in the words of President Harry Truman, support for “peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation.” Truman had begun to implement landmark policies such as the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe and the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty. Yet before June 1950, containment remained more of an aspiration than a strategy.

Even as Cold War crises broke out in Berlin, Czechoslovakia, Iran, and Turkey, U.S. military spending plummeted from $83 billion at the end of World War II to $9 billion in 1948. The North Atlantic Treaty was new and feeble: the alliance lacked an integrated military command or anything approaching the forces it needed to defend Western Europe. Resource constraints forced Washington to write off China during its civil war, effectively standing aside as Mao Zedong’s Communists defeated Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist government, and to draw a defense perimeter that initially excluded South Korea and Taiwan. U.S. statecraft combined sky-high ambitions with a bargain-basement approach to achieving them.

The reasons for this shortfall will sound familiar. U.S. officials hoped that the United States’ overall military superiority—especially its atomic monopoly—would compensate for weaknesses everywhere along the East-West divide. They found it hard to believe that even ruthless, totalitarian enemies might resort to war. In Washington, moreover, global visions competed with domestic priorities, such as taming inflation and balancing the budget. U.S. officials also planned to economize by splitting the country’s rivals—specifically, wooing Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s communists once they won China’s civil war and pulling that country away from the Soviet Union.

That policy failed: Mao sealed an alliance with Moscow in early 1950. Just months before, another strategic setback—the first Soviet nuclear test—had ended the United States’ atomic monopoly. Yet even then, Truman was unmoved. When Paul Nitze, the director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, crafted his famous memo, NSC-68, calling for a global diplomatic offensive supported by a massive military buildup, Truman politely ignored the paper and announced plans to cut the defense budget.

It took a brazen international land grab to shake Washington out of its torpor. North Korean Premier Kim Il Sung’s assault on South Korea, undertaken in collusion with Mao and the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, changed everything. The invasion convinced U.S. policymakers that the dictators were on the march and the danger of global conflict was growing. The conflict also dispelled any hope of dividing Moscow and Beijing: Washington now faced a communist monolith applying pressure all around the Eurasian periphery. In short, the North Korean invasion made the Truman administration fear that the postwar world was hanging in the balance.

U.S. policymakers decided not just to defend South Korea but to mount a global campaign to strengthen the noncommunist world. The North Atlantic Treaty became the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with a unified command structure and 25 active divisions at its disposal. The Truman administration dispatched additional forces to Europe, where U.S. allies accelerated their military preparations and agreed, in principle, to rearm West Germany. In the Asia-Pacific, the United States created a cordon of security pacts involving Australia and New Zealand, Japan, and the Philippines and deployed naval forces to prevent a Chinese takeover of Taiwan.

The Korean War thus turbocharged the emergence of the global network of alliances and the enduring military deployments that constituted the backbone of containment. It precipitated the revival and rearmament of former enemies, Japan and West Germany, as core members of the free world. Underpinning all this was an enormous military buildup meant to make Soviet aggression unthinkable. U.S. defense spending more than tripled, reaching 14 percent of GDP in 1953; the U.S. nuclear arsenal and conventional forces more than doubled. “The Soviets respected nothing but force,” said Truman. “To build such force . . . is precisely what we are attempting to do now.”

To be sure, the Korean War also showed the danger of going too far...

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