The West’s World War II Moment

The principal strategic threat to the Western world has shifted, creating a whole new set of problems.

A blurry white star in a red sphere against a black background
Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Defenders of the West have a tendency to gaze wistfully at the past, lamenting how far today’s leaders have fallen. Where America and its allies used to build things, create institutions, and win wars, now they seek only to hold ground, conserve what they have, and escape conflicts.

Such nostalgic longing isn’t hard to understand. Immediately after World War II, Europe was in ruins, its industries and infrastructure destroyed. Without American intervention, much more of Europe could well have fallen under Soviet control. But in the space of a few years, the United States financed Europe’s recovery, committed to its defense, and pushed the continent toward ever-closer union. It was an extraordinary age.

These enormous changes were not simply the result of the leaders of the time coming together. “Men make history, but they do not make it as they please,” wrote Karl Marx. They make it, instead, under the circumstances given to them. At the end of the war, circumstances changed, global power shifted, allowing leaders to do great things. Today, a similar change may be under way—though it’s hard to see anything great resulting from it.

After World War II, the principal security threat to democracy shifted, almost overnight, from Germany to the Soviet Union. And this changed everything. To deal with the new reality, the U.S. realized, Germany—or at least the bit of Germany under Allied control—would need to be rebuilt as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. The prospect of German reindustrialization and rearmament, however, reignited age-old French fears. Traditionally, to address this problem, France would ally itself with Britain. But in 1950, France took a historic leap in the dark, announcing the first step toward economic integration with Germany, laying the foundation for today’s European Union. Now that the U.S. had guaranteed European security, France could transfer its insurance policy from Britain and join with Germany in ways previously thought impossible.

The Soviet threat kept the U.S. in Europe. And the U.S. presence in Europe created the conditions for Europe to unite. Since 1950, the basic tenets of this security order have not changed. American power has guaranteed the security of the West, allowing Europe’s democracies to band closer together. In 1990, when the Soviet threat collapsed, the U.S. did not withdraw this security guarantee, but expanded it eastward, entrenching its hegemony.

In one sense, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February appears to have reinforced the foundations of this American order—NATO seems more united, the democracies of Europe and North America are working together to oppose Moscow’s expansionism, and many are ramping up their defense capabilities. Looking at the world more broadly, however, the underlying reality has changed, just as it did after World War II. Today, even as Russia stalks NATO’s border, a new, far larger threat to the American-led order looms farther to the east: China.

Beijing may not seek a world revolution, as the Soviet Union did, but it seeks regional dominance, control of global trade routes, and Taiwan. Its autocratic state-capitalism model offers inspiration to opponents of democracy, and as it has grown in power, it has begun to see Washington and its allies as seeking to constrain its strength.

Indeed, fully understanding the invasion of Ukraine is impossible without considering the geopolitical environment in which it is taking place. Russia is emboldened in its quest to recapture lost influence in Europe partly because of its alliance with China and the calculation that American power is giving way.

In fact, China’s rise challenges the notion of the West itself. Where the Soviet Union posed a direct threat to Western Europe, China threatens America’s liberal democratic protectorates on the other side of the world: Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, and others. Suddenly to think of the West comprising only the two sides of the North Atlantic no longer makes much sense. If there is a “West” today—a free world allied to the U.S.—it stretches from Western Europe to the Far East and Australasia.

To understand this world, you only have to look at those that have sanctioned Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, a group that extends beyond Europe to include Australia, Japan, and Taiwan. And yet there is nothing institutional that ties this world together, beyond the base reality of American power. Like the Holy Roman Empire that was once dismissed as being neither Holy, Roman, or an Empire, the Western alliance today is neither Western nor an alliance.

So, as in the late 1940s, the principal strategic threat to the Western world has shifted, creating a whole new set of problems. States opposed to the American order feel empowered. Yet unlike in the ’40s, Western institutions show little sign of changing to meet the new reality. The old order has been so solidly constructed that it appears to have trapped its defenders, who are unable to muster the energy, ambition, or imagination to build anything new.

It is now a common argument that if the leading military powers in the Western world—the U.S., Britain, and France—had shown more commitment to their mission, the world would be safer and more orderly. If they had intervened to enforce Barack Obama’s red line in Syria, or had corralled a wider coalition to punish Vladimir Putin’s earlier incursions into Ukraine, the U.S. would still be dominant, its adversaries too scared to emerge from their shelters.

There are many versions of this argument. The New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote that the biggest problem for the U.S. was that it had lost its self-belief. In The Atlantic, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the weakening of American democracy at home was to blame. Outside the U.S., former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recalled a bygone period characterized by “a strong center ground where, at least on foreign and defense policy, politics tended to follow a reasonable path of consensus.”

The problem with all such arguments is that they rarely offer an explanation as to why the West lost its faith in itself and became so apparently dysfunctional. Bad leaders did not emerge from nowhere, nor did voters suddenly became stupid.

Since the turn of the century, the U.S. and its allies have lost one war, failed in at least one other, and seen the American-centered financial system implode, imposing huge costs on ordinary voters, many of whom have seen their industries hollow out and their wages stagnate. All the while, the West’s central foreign-policy calculation—that trade and engagement with China and Russia would see these two powers liberalize, democratize, and take their place in the (American-led) international order—has collapsed under the weight of its absurdly utopian assumptions. What’s more, the policies that led to these failures were supported by the apparently functioning political consensus that Blair, Clinton, and others now believe needs to be resurrected to protect Western strength.

The debate is eerily similar to that of the 1960s and ’70s as America stumbled ever further into the abyss in Vietnam, convinced it could correct whatever mistakes it had made if it only showed more commitment. The war in Vietnam had bipartisan support, just as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did decades later. The same is true of the policy to normalize trade with China. And yet all of these policies contributed to the world that exists today and to public antipathy toward free trade, globalization, and military interventions abroad. You cannot blame voters for their loss of faith in a system that has failed them and enriched a country that Western leaders now say is the main threat to global democracy.

Calls for the U.S. to simply rediscover its belief in itself are based on the fallacy that if it does so, the world can somehow return to the rules-based order that existed before Donald Trump and Brexit, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, when American power was unquestioned and Western democracies were sensible and functioning.

The truth is that this order gave us Trump and Brexit, and facilitated the rise of Putin and Xi. The world that confronts the West today exists not because the West had too little faith in itself, but because it had too much.

In May 1950, the French foreign minister Robert Schuman announced his intention to integrate France’s coal and steel production with Germany’s, outside either country’s national control. The proposal was the brainchild of Jean Monnet, now considered a founding father of the European Union. Schuman said that such a step was necessary because of the mounting threats to the democratic world. “World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it,” he declared.

The dangers were coming from the east. Soviet-backed Communists had seized power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and were making gains elsewhere. In the U.S., pressure was mounting for a collective European response to the continent’s crises. Monnet argued that the only way to stop the cycle of Franco-German antipathy from reasserting itself was to remove the source of tension—Germany’s industrial might. France could not simply requisition German coal and steel production, so Monnet suggested that it be Europeanized, managed by a new High Authority that looked out for the interests of Europe generally, not Germany or France specifically.

The proposal’s genius was that it created a policy out of a need, but did so in a way that smuggled a revolutionary idea into a living, breathing institution. The policy itself was small enough to be politically acceptable—Monnet was proposing not the creation of a United States of Europe, but cooperation between France and Germany in coal and steel. Yet it was based on a radical idea: supranationalism. Suddenly, under Monnet’s plan, national interests would become common interests, and so German power and wealth would not become an existential threat to France.

Once planted, this idea grew into what is the European Union today, in which German economic might is managed through a common market, with common rules and a common currency set by a common institution. Germany is the undisputed leader of the EU, the biggest, wealthiest, and most productive economy on the continent, yet France and Germany remain the closest of allies.

Today, the challenge might not be solely European, but the lesson of Europe’s 20th century revolution has much to teach the wider democratic world as it faces up to the new challenge of the 21st century. The lesson for Western leaders is to find a similar combination of pragmatism and idealism based on a reasonable analysis of the global balance of power. Once again, the West must extract a policy from a need—the need to protect U.S.-backed liberal democracy from the threat posed by authoritarian adversaries. But what is the idea that will give any such policy life?

So many of the ideas that are currently being discussed come with their own set of problems. The most obvious power play America can make to contain China’s rise, for example, is to seek to split up its emerging alliance with Russia. Many European diplomats have long expected that, to do so, the U.S. will attempt to reset relations with Moscow in a kind of “reverse Nixon,” mirroring the former president’s successful policy in the 1970s to split China from Russia. But such a policy, debatable only a few months ago, now seems almost impossible—destroyed by Putin’s bloody megalomania.

An alternative would be to accept the reality of this new authoritarian axis and endeavor to protect Western democracies from it. The problem is, the more the West builds a democratic alliance against China and Russia, as U.S. President Joe Biden has suggested, the more the West strengthens the very alliance that it fears. And if the world descends into a new cold war, the West will be forced to buddy up to decidedly undemocratic regimes, just as it did last time. India, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia—two flawed democratic allies and a problematic autocratic friend—show the impossibility of constructing a Manichaean good-versus-evil world of democracy against authoritarianism.

Other policies put forward include an American withdrawal from Europe to allow the U.S. to concentrate on its confrontation with China, leaving the EU to deal with Russia. Critics of this vision told me that any such withdrawal would not necessarily push Europe to fill the void, but instead might see the EU pull itself apart, as it so often did before America extended its security blanket.

A less radical suggestion is for the U.S. to become the center of the Venn diagram where the two circles of Europe and Asia overlap—an offshore balancing power that has a foot on each side of the world, guaranteeing stability but allowing Europe to take the lead in the West while it corrals a new, more cohesive alliance in the East. Some analysts have even spoken of a NATO of the East. The problem here, though, is that there appears to be little appetite in Asia for its own NATO, little appetite in the U.S. to become even more committed to other countries’ defense, and little appetite in Europe to seriously step forward and allow such a notion to be viable.

There are endless reasons that every new policy idea put forward over the years has amounted to nothing. And yet, what remains clear is that not building anything new to meet the reality of the changing circumstances risks allowing Chinese power to grow even more.

Jean Monnet is perhaps little known in the U.S., but in European capitals, he is studied intently. His great insight was to ignore the temptation for grand reorderings in preference for small, manageable, and politically feasible steps. Why can’t the same happen now? Chinese power is based on economic might, supported by the country’s integration into the world economy. Yet little unites the wider Western world—America, Europe, Japan, Australia, as well as others—economically, certainly compared with the kind of military cooperation that has been established by NATO.

This economic hole has to be filled if the West is to mean anything. Greater economic tools need to be available with which the free-world can defend itself. One idea put forward to me by Stephen Wertheim, a U.S. foreign policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was for a new grouping that could marshal Western resources to protect smaller allies susceptible to Chinese economic pressure. Such an organization could manage a fund, for example, to protect against sudden threats from Beijing. In time, this bloc could grow to make it less attractive for countries to do deals with Chinese companies in areas sensitive to core Western interests, such as defense, natural resources, and emerging technologies.

Any such proposal, whether this or something else entirely, relies on what Monnet deemed the greatest attribute in a political leader: generosity. It requires that the U.S., the EU, Japan, Britain, and others put aside their economic competition, as France and Germany did in 1950, to create an institution based on an idea—an idea that is, to a large extent, a fiction: that of “the West.”

To work, such an entity must be built on more than simple altruism of the big for the small, but on self interest. If the U.S. genuinely sees China as a threat to the democratic order, it is in its interests to build something that protects and empowers that very order. NATO doesn’t do that, AUKUS—the naval submarine pact between Australia, Britain, and the U.S.—doesn’t do that. Even the G7, which comes closest, doesn’t quite do that, excluding South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand for starters. Deepening the Western world’s economic cooperation does not mean stifling one country over another, either. After 1950, freed of the fear of each other’s industrial success and protected militarily by the U.S., Germany and France both saw economic booms.

Ultimately, whatever new organization or framework—if any—is created to empower the broader Western world in its rivalry with China must reflect the reality of power as it exists today. It must build on shared interests, not utopian idealism. To do otherwise would be to remake the mistakes of the past 20 years, when hubristic assumptions about the triumph of a universal liberal order wormed their way into policy making, with disastrous consequences.

Gazing wistfully at the past can have its benefits, so long as doing so does not descend into nostalgic longing for a lost golden era that did not exist. In 1948, George Marshall, the statesman behind the Marshall Plan, warned that unless the U.S. intervened in Europe, the struggle for democracy would be lost by default. The challenge is much the same today, but the solution will have to be very different.