Putin Has Made America Great Again

The Ukraine crisis has revealed that the U.S. can’t shed its “big brother” image on the world stage.

Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division walk to board a plane in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on February 14, 2021 as they are deployed to Europe.
Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division walk to board a plane in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on February 14, 2021 as they are deployed to Europe. (Allison Joyce / AFP / Getty)

Donald Trump was supposed to have changed the world, robbing America not just of its luster but of its allies’ trust. Here was a president of such gauche ignorance and hostility, it seemed impossible that American power would ever be seen in the same light again. For Europe, in particular, Trump’s jingoistic belligerence was poised to be an adrenaline shot to the heart, Pulp Fiction–style, jolting the continent out of its American dependency.

And yet, here we are, facing the first serious threat of invasion in Europe since the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and it’s as if nothing has changed. The story of the Ukraine crisis so far has been about many things: blackmail; realpolitik; appeasement; even, apparently, Western provocation regardless of the facts. But, here in Europe, the one thing it very much has not been about is American decline. In fact, from here, the story of this latest crisis is of the reestablishment of America the Good, America the Bold, America the Supreme—and, by extension, Europe the Weak.

In my recent conversations with diplomats, government officials, politicians, and analysts both in Europe and in the U.S., most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the situation candidly, I was struck by this counterintuitive conclusion. While America itself continues to struggle with its own sense of decline, its dominions in Europe are choosing to suspend their disbelief in the imperium all over again. After years of grumbling about American power, it took only the whiff of a threat from Moscow for Europe to recommit to the old order, thrusting the battered old fasces of imperial authority back into the hands of the emperor in Washington.

This wasn’t the story I thought I would be telling about this crisis. When I began making calls, I thought the narrative would be the declinist one. In 1960 the United States made up about 40 percent of global GDP. President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, boasts that America and its allies combined account for little more than that proportion of global output. Such a change must have geopolitical consequences. This was merely masked for a while by the end of the Cold War.

Of course, it is possible to fit the crisis over Ukraine into this much wider narrative of American decline. The pressure being exerted by Vladimir Putin, after all, is part of a longer story in which the U.S. is forced to spend more of its resources dealing with the rising power of China and therefore cannot afford to permanently defend Europe as well. This is a shakedown that cannot be avoided.

Also reasonable is the claim that Putin might not have felt so emboldened to attempt this type of military blackmail before. Armed with his alliance with China, he can afford to test the strength of the West, not just now but for years to come, hoping to create cracks that he can then exploit. Yet what is most striking about Putin’s crisis is not how it has revealed America’s withdrawal from Europe, but just how American Europe remains.

The West, today, is trapped between an old world that no longer exists and a new one that has yet to fully take shape. In the 16th century, the Florentine historian and political thinker Francesco Guicciardini noted the danger of such moments. “If you see a city beginning to decline, a government changing, a new empire expanding,” he warned, “be careful not to misjudge the time they will take.” As Guicciardini said, the problem is that while the rise or fall of a new power is typically obvious—China’s for example—the point at which the old power is likely to be replaced is far more difficult to judge. Guicciardini wrote that “such movements are much slower than most men imagine.”

Today, as in the 16th century, anybody can see the trend. We know that the benign leviathan of Clintonian America has gone—a victim both of historic forces that weren’t within its control and of hubristic mismanagement that very much was. But it is also clear that even the America of Donald Trump and Joe Biden remains the most powerful country on the planet—at least for now. The fact that the imperial center is gripped by a kind of psycho-political civil war, conflicted about who it is and what it wants to be, is troubling for many of its allies, but not yet enough to alter the fundamental reality of where power lies in the world.

For most countries in Europe, the Ukraine crisis has revealed the wisdom of Guicciardini’s observation that jumping ship too early would be foolish. For the states of Eastern Europe and the Baltics, the immediate crisis has only proved that what matters to them above all is the American security guarantee. Offers of support from Britain or France, Europe’s two foremost military powers, are rather like petit fours at the end of a meal supplied by the U.S.—nice to have, but not the steak frites of the main course.

This realization of how little has changed in terms of the fundamental anchor of European security applies to Europe’s “big three” as well. Each of these powers—Germany, France, and Britain—is playing a role coordinated by Washington: Germany as economic leverage, France as diplomatic lead, Britain as the intelligence and military hawk. Although each might have minor quibbles with the American approach, they have all largely stuck to their script.

When he visited Washington, new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz cut a painfully junior figure to big brother Joe, to the point that he was even publicly informed that Nord Stream 2 would not go ahead if Russia invaded. To his credit, Scholz appears to have accepted a united Western front on sanctions, even though they are likely to hit his country the hardest. French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, as one foreign policy analyst noted to me, might have occasionally sounded like Charles de Gaulle in this crisis, demanding a European say, but he has acted more like Tony Blair—a diplomatic bridge between Washington and Europe.

Yet for all that Europe has rowed behind the United States, avoiding the Guicciardinian trap, the long-term challenge of relative Western decline remains. Successive American administrations are surely right that Europe needs to pay more for its own defense, and Macron is surely right that Europe risks drifting into geopolitical irrelevance if it does not, caught between a United States that wants to disengage and one that never quite seems able to.

Over the past week, I spoke with current and former ambassadors, political advisers and analysts—including those who have spoken with Biden and Boris Johnson—and the picture that emerges is a strange one of impressive short-term Western unity and long-term incoherence. The Ukraine crisis has reinforced an American dominance that everyone believes is unsustainable. The result is conservative management of this crisis that is both sensible and admirable, but also limited (and, potentially, ineffective in actually deterring Putin). Given that Russia is a military superpower and has demanded direct talks with Washington over the future of Ukraine and NATO, Europe's supporting role in this crisis makes sense. But it also makes sense because Europe remains so weak.

The bigger picture right now is bleak for Europe. In Libya, lawless gangs control jails paid for with EU cash amid general disorder following failed Franco-British intervention supported by the U.S. France, meanwhile, is pulling out of Mali after nine wasted years failing to drive out the country’s jihadists. To add insult to injury, the Malian government has turned instead to Russia for support. The idea that Europe could intervene almost anywhere without American hand-holding, let alone with Russia, is absurd.

France’s withdrawal from Mali has revealed the country’s geopolitical shrinkage. Yet its attempts to forge a leading role in Europe are failing. To date, France has made only marginal progress in convincing Germany to reform the EU and ensure that it does not slide into what Macron has described as “geopolitical irrelevance.” Whenever the EU has faced a crisis, it has tended to do just enough to get through the problem—and little else. The euro remains so structurally flawed that few think it can seriously rival the dollar; the EU has failed to build itself almost any foreign-policy clout, with little military-industrial capacity and barely any coordinated defensive capability. And the problem is, this is how Germany likes it.

A former ambassador of a major EU power to Berlin told me that Germany will simply not change its position; its economy is too successful for it to do what is necessary for the EU to become an independent force. At heart, Berlin is happy with the status quo, weathering whatever storms blow in from Washington. If it is forced to change course, then it will, but sees no point in preempting this given the enormous benefits of being the preeminent economic power in Europe without the responsibilities of a decisive global power. Angela Merkel, after all, was prepared to wait out the Trump presidency, confident that the West’s structural stability would hold. And she was right, at least for now. One former European ambassador to Washington told me he had come to the conclusion that nothing would change in Europe until America pulled out, leaving the continent to fend for itself.

But a disconnect between words and actions seems to exist in more places than just Europe. For at least a decade, Washington has been warning its European allies that it was losing patience paying for their defense. In 2011, Barack Obama’s defense secretary Robert Gates spoke of America’s “dwindling appetite” to carry on footing the bill while Europe failed to put its hand in its own pocket. In this respect, Trump’s animosity was merely the inevitable—if brutal—product of Europe’s failure to heed this warning.

Is the United States really prepared to do what is necessary to force Europe to share the burden? Just as there is a tension between what Europe says it wants and how it acts, so too does the United States seem unsure whether it wants European autonomy and everything that comes with that. Does it want to give up the leverage it currently has over a potential economic rival? Does it want to encourage the growth of the European defense industry to equal its own? Does it want Europe to reform its currency to challenge the dollar? Like Germany but in reverse, does the United States really want to change the status quo that has worked so well for so long?

The ambiguity in the American position is reflected in the current administration, which seems caught between wanting to be more hard-edged and nationalistic in its foreign policy—ending distracting “forever wars” without consultation, gazumping allies’ defense contracts and the like—and not being quite comfortable giving up its idea of itself as the force for rules-based internationalism.

Some of its European allies are frustrated at this apparent indecision. Take AUKUS, the new alliance between the U.S., Britain, and Australia that so infuriated the French. After signing the deal in September, which cost France billions in lost revenues, undermining its defense sector and ability to project its force in the Pacific, Biden did not seem willing to defend the grand strategic calculations behind the move, seeking instead to send his officials on an apology tour of Paris to repair relations. In the end, it looks less like a strategic decision to form an alliance with America’s most reliable military partners, and more like an opportunity to take a juicy defense contract without wanting much to change as a result. One frustrated former diplomat told me that Biden was a realist but members of his team were products of the old Washington consensus, “hence their half-baked internationalistic-nationalistic policy.”

Another former European ambassador told me that such was Europe’s dependence on the U.S. that the Biden administration had a golden opportunity to pressure EU leaders on a range of other areas, including tariffs, global tax reform, and the regulation of Big Tech. But the fact that this administration has not done so should not give Europe cause for comfort, this former ambassador said, because the Republicans will be less sentimental.

In a sense, this is the story of both sides of the Atlantic. The United States and Europe can see the new world coming and the logical consequences that entails: more autonomy and more competition. The Biden administration, like the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations before it, sees the need to pivot its focus toward Asia and for Europe to do more to look after itself. The Europeans, too, can see the tide of American power turning. Yet, for now, both are content to plod along in the shallows, ignoring the currents pulling events around them.

In his inaugural address, Biden’s message to the world was that America had been tested, but had come back stronger as a result. The country would, he said, “lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.” America, he was saying, was ready to resume its role as leader of the free world, a “trusted partner for peace, progress, and security.”

Rereading these lines today, in light of the Ukraine crisis, you can conclude that he has partly made good on his promise, despite the debacle in Afghanistan. He has shepherded the West into a unified position on Ukraine through careful and conciliatory diplomacy. Yet Russia’s challenge to the West today, as it amasses its troops on Ukraine’s borders, is predicated on its belief that American power is retreating, and with it the power of its example. Europe’s response, however, has been to reveal how powerful America remains. The truth is that it’s possible for both sentiments to be true at the same time.