Military alliances are fragile. Some are held together by intimidation on the part of the hegemon. These tend to collapse as soon as the power at their helm suffers a defeat or evidence's weakness. Witness the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. Others are summoned into existence by a common threat. When that threat recedes or disappears altogether, the members celebrate their victory, then begin to eye one another warily—as the United States and the Soviet Union did after 1945. If the falling out of these two powers took place quite quickly, it was arguably because their regimes and the attendant ways of life were opposed and there was little to unite them apart from their fear of Nazi Germany.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) owed its existence to the Soviet threat. If it survived the defeat of the Soviet Union and its dissolution, that was largely due to the fact that the United States and its allies in Europe were culturally and politically alike and were bound together by trade and a desire to extend the reach of the commercial republican experiment. If truth be told, however, the NATO alliance had well before the beginning of 2022 become an empty shell. For Emmanuel Macron to describe it in 2019 as “brain-dead” may have been rude, but his comment was also apt—and the fact that NATO had acquiesced in the Russian seizure of great swathes of Ukrainian territory five years before proved his point.
NATO’s de facto dissolution arose as a consequence of an illusion that history had come to an end, that a new world political order had emerged, and that there would be no more wars of any consequence. Woodrow Wilson’s dream had come to fruition. The Cold War had really been the war to end all wars. Or so it seemed.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion on February 24, 2022, of what remained of Ukraine after 2014 shattered this illusion. It resembled Hitler’s seizure of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939. It destroyed once and for all the supposition that the man’s ambitions were restricted to territory where Russian speakers formed a majority, and it awakened even the Japanese, convincing them to get serious about the Chinese threat and double their military budget.
Had the leaders of what was once called the Free World read Polybius, their ruminations on what he wrote might have tempered their susceptibility to utopian dreams and encouraged vigilance. In pondering the settlement that ended the First Punic War and prepared the way for its successor, the Greek historian articulated a principle that applies to virtually any arrangement that a polity negotiates at the end of an extended conflict with a genuine strategic rival.
“Statesmen,” he warned, “must take heed lest the aims of those breaking off hostilities…escape their notice. Above all else, they must ascertain whether those coming to terms have yielded to circumstances or are broken in spirit. In this fashion, they can be constantly on guard against the former, who are apt to be lying in wait for a favorable opportunity, and they may trust in the latter as subjects and true friends and readily call upon them for whatever services occasions demand.”
As Polybius implies, if the conditions that initially gave rise to a strategic rivalry persist, that rivalry is almost certain to revive, and a renewal of war (hot or cold) may well be the consequence.
Russia’s imperialism was not a product of communism. The country’s predilection for imposing itself upon its neighbors has a long history. Just ask the Finns; the Estonians, Lithuanians, and Latvians; and the Poles. Or interrogate the Uzbeks, the Kazaks, the Azerbaijanis, the Mongols, the Tajiks, the Turkmen, the Kyrgyz, the Moldavians, the Georgians, the Armenians, and the peoples of the Transcaucasus. In and after 1989, the Russians “yielded to circumstances.” They were not “broken in spirit.” We should not forget that it took two world wars, innumerable deaths, and terrible suffering to break the spirit of their German neighbors.
Of course, some argue that NATO expansion caused Russian belligerence—that had we allowed the Russians a sphere of influence including the states that constituted the old Czarist empire they would now be our allies against China. They point to the Russian fear of an invasion from the west—as if anyone could believe that today’s France was capable of Napoleonic ambitions or that today’s Germany still harbored the ambitions evidenced by the Kaiserreich in World War I and Hitler in World War II. Others contend that there is no Ukrainian nation and that Ukraine is really a part of Russia and that its independence is artificial—a regrettable consequence of Lenin’s decision to reconstitute the old Czarist regime formally as a federation of Soviet republics and of the reaffirmation of that arrangement by Stalin, Khrushchev, and their successors.
The Ukrainians who have sacrificed their lives on the battlefield in the last seventeen months have disproven the latter claim. And Russia’s closest European neighbors—the Swedes, the Finns, the Poles, the Estonians, the Lithuanians, the Latvians, the Moldavians, the Rumanians, and the Czechs—are united in seeing Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a threat to their own well-being. Russian imperialism is not remembered as something benign. All of the peoples once under the Russian yoke—including the Uzbeks, the Kazaks, the Azerbaijanis, the Mongols, the Tajiks, the Turkmen, the Kyrgyz, the Moldavians, the Georgians, and the Armenians—want to be free.
The effect of this war has been to breathe new life into NATO. The French are, as always, stand-offish. Macron is no less eager than his predecessors to gain something for France at the expense of its allies, and the Germans are reluctant to fully abandon the illusions that, in the days of Angela Merkel, very nearly made their country a dependency of Russia. Strategic autonomy is their watchword; appeasement is the effectual truth of that aim. But the other nations in the alliance—including the Finns who have joined it and the Swedes who will do so—are now alert and vigilant. In the meantime, the Poles are building a mighty army. The alliance is in better shape than it has been at any time since the mid-1990s, and it owes that health in large part to NATO’s expansion—which is to say, to the presence within it of the former members of the Warsaw Pact, who are less inclined to complacency and accommodation than the Germans and the French.
One can, of course, cite Turkey as an exception. The rise to power of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and of the Islamist party that he leads has rekindled the Ottoman ambitions that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk spurned, and his government, in a manner that would put even the French to shame, is intent on exploiting the Ukrainian conflict for its own profit. But the Ottoman delusion will not last. None of the peoples once governed from Constantinople look back on their subjection with nostalgia. In any case, Erdoğan was very nearly defeated in the recent presidential elections; his tenure at the top will soon come to an end; and there will come a time—fairly soon—when the Turks once again begin to think of their country as an extension of Europe.
The only question that remains to be pondered is whether Ukraine should be brought into the NATO alliance. That question will, I think, be answered on the battlefield. If the Ukrainians sustain themselves against their Russian foe—as they are likely to do—bringing them into NATO will contribute mightily to the containment of the one country that is a threat to peace and freedom in Europe. Surely, that is what the Swedes, the Finns, the Poles, the Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians, the Moldavians, the Rumanians, and the Czechs want: a well-fortified barrier against Russian expansionism.
A Ukrainian victory might also encourage Chinese sobriety. That is what the Taiwanese think. After all, Xi Jinping is the Chinese Putin; and, though China has had ample experience with defeat in the last two centuries, it, too, “yielded to circumstances” and was never “defeated in spirit.” Had the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia not succumbed to the Wilsonian dream, we would now be in a better relative position. It would be a good thing if Xi Jinping was left wondering whether, if he continues on the path laid out for him, there will be a reckoning awaiting him comparable to the one faced by his Russian counterpart. The resolve displayed by the West in Europe may yield dividends in Asia.