Opinion | It’s Official: The Post-Cold War Era Is Over

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The world has witnessed several potential turning points signaling the end of the post-Cold War period: the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, with competition between the great powers triggering a major war on the European continent, we have it.

The West is now far from the rosy outlook of the 1990s, when America forged a global coalition to wage the short and victorious Persian Gulf war, when it seemed that U.S. power and influence would help liberalism and democracy flourish around the world. Today, America is faced with the harsh reality of power politics: a conflict we could not prevent, and the very real risk of military escalation.

Russian troops are mounting a full-scale attack on Ukraine from multiple directions. For so long, American policymakers have grappled with how to prevent such a moment. Now, they must answer a different question: How should the United States adapt to this new reality?

The challenge is both immediate — preventing the war in Ukraine from spiraling into a broader European war — and longer term — responding to a new security environment.

The attack on Ukraine was as sudden as it was expected. After weeks of ratcheting up tensions, Vladimir Putin announced he was launching “a special military operation” to “demilitarize” Ukraine. Explosions heard in the capital, Kyiv, and Russian troops advancing on Ukraine’s second-largest city suggest this is no idle boast.

We have a good sense of what’s coming: continued airstrikes on military infrastructure, a ground invasion, potential decapitation strikes on Ukraine’s leadership. This fight is unlikely to end well for Ukraine: It’s simply outgunned and outmanned.

The Western response is also predictable. The threat of massive sanctions — including on major financial institutions, Russian trade and even Mr. Putin’s cronies — failed to deter aggression. They are now being imposed, but we should be under no illusions that they will alter Mr. Putin’s calculus.

To be fair, there are no other good policy options. Diplomacy has been exhausted. And the Biden administration has wisely ruled out sending U.S. troops into Ukraine. Yet the stakes are high, requiring a coordinated, coherent and robust response from the United States.

The Biden administration must first try to mitigate the spillover effects of conflict from Ukraine into its neighbors. There will undoubtedly be refugee flows into Western Europe; intelligence estimates say up to five million Ukrainians could flee. Washington should offer humanitarian aid, financial support to European states and temporary protective status to Ukrainians wishing to travel to the United States. While migration has been a core area of disagreement among European Union nations, inaction now would not only trap millions of Ukrainian refugees in legal purgatory but also drive a wedge between European states at the time they most need to be united.

There’s also the serious risk of economic contagion. Russia is a major commodities supplier; market watchers expect higher inflation and lower growth globally (with perhaps more severe disruptions in Europe).

To meet these challenges, the United States needs European unity. Otherwise it will be far more difficult to sustain sanctions on Russia and to achieve a coordinated NATO response against further Russian aggression.

More important from a security standpoint is preventing the fighting from expanding beyond Ukraine’s borders. A spillover would potentially call into question America’s Article 5 commitment to NATO — an attack on one is an attack on all — and likely result in a long, bloody conflict the likes of which we haven’t seen since World War II. Anything from a spiral of tit-for-tat cyberattacks to an accidental contact between Russian and NATO forces could trigger such a dangerous escalation.

A scenario like intensifying cyberattacks would require restraint and prudence in the use of U.S. economic statecraft to respond, threading the needle between punitive sanctions while not accidentally collapsing the entire Russian economy. The alternative — a potentially vicious and prolonged cycle of economic warfare — could send the global economy into a tailspin.

And averting a catastrophe arising from anything like an accidental skirmish will require close coordination with allies in Europe on the question of next steps in Ukraine itself. U.S. allies in the Baltics and Eastern Europe have been more keen on defense cooperation and providing weapons to Ukraine. They might be inclined to consider arming or training a Ukrainian guerrilla force to resist occupation, which could expand the fighting beyond its current borders and pull in NATO. The Biden administration should strenuously resist such moves and make clear that NATO’s Article 5 provisions would not necessarily apply in such cases.

Second, the administration must consider the broader implications of this conflict for European security. This war likely will end with a new militarized line that bisects Europe, separating Russia and its vassal states from NATO nations. It would be a visible reminder of the ever-present threat of military or nuclear conflict, increasing the likelihood of clashes or skirmishes that could descend into all-out war.

Indeed, with Russia now effectively in control of Belarus and likely to control some portion of Ukraine, NATO must bolster its own permanent eastern military defenses. Much of this buildup will need to come from European states themselves, since America’s strategic position and growing focus on China will limit what Washington can and should commit. Now is the time for European leaders such as Emmanuel Macron, who have long spoken of Europe’s capacity for strategic autonomy, to show they are serious.

It’s also vital, given the dangers of escalation and nuclear brinkmanship, that the administration maintains diplomatic ties with Moscow while seeking ways to mitigate the worst-case scenarios through, for example, arms control measures.

Mr. Putin’s attack on Ukraine represents, in many ways, a failure of the Western approach to European security of the past 30 years, which prioritized NATO expansion and the promotion of democracy over collective defense considerations. Now, the United States and its European partners must navigate this new reality without accidentally stumbling into a hot war with Russia.

Perhaps no one better summed up the zeitgeist of the heady, post-Cold War moment in Washington better than Madeleine Albright, who described America as the “indispensable nation.” That was shorthand for an expansionist, transformative U.S. foreign policy that aimed to solve every global problem.

The war now unfolding in Europe marks an end to that era, showing Americans — and the world — that U.S. power is not absolute. It must also mark a turning point for the United States, reflecting the understanding that we’re once again in a world where other great powers can thwart American ambitions and the threat of nuclear escalation is unrelenting.

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