The events of 1989 are chiefly remembered as a political and economic revolution. The demise of communism marked the triumph of Western democracy over the second of two 20th-century ideological challengers (the first being National Socialism). But 1989 was also a geopolitical coda: the culminating victory in a nearly century-long struggle between Atlantic sea power and Eurasian land power. By extending U.S. power deep into the European rimlands, the events of 1989 created the conditions for a unified Germany to coexist alongside independent Central European nations within a stable balance of power. With Russia confined to frontiers it had last occupied in the 17th century, the West found itself in a position of unprecedented strength, forming a common strategic space from the Carpathians to California without a competitor in sight to challenge its dominance.
To appreciate what changed geopolitically as a result of 1989, it is useful to compare it to the other two postwar orders of the Twentieth Century: 1919 and 1945. The first, created at Versailles, tried to simultaneously contain German and Soviet power by forming a belt of independent nation-states across the length of Europe’s eastern frontier out of the remains of the ancient empires that for centuries had ruled this region. The experiment failed when America refused to underwrite the security of these new states and precipitously withdrew from European affairs. French efforts to create a kind of first NATO through sponsorship of the Little Entente were insufficient; the mostly small Saisonstaaten of Versailles presented targets too tempting, and too distant from the Maginot Line, to resist Germany and Russia. The result was World War Two.
By contrast, the post-1945 settlement, formed at Yalta and Potsdam, attempted to create order not through buffer states but partition. By dividing Europe into armed camps, it provided the first durable solution to the German Question since that state’s unification in 1871 had rendered the old European balance of power insolvent. Measured in both stability and durability, the post-1945 order succeeded where 1919 failed primarily because America embraced the role of a European power, committed to rebuilding Europe institutionally and economically, and built permanent military bases on the continent. The resulting stability, however, was fragile, involving frequent standoffs and proxy wars, many of which could have escalated into a nuclear confrontation. It came at a steep price in vigilance and defence dollars for America and, for Europe’s captive nations, subjugation to a collectivist regime whose evils far surpassed anything known under the empires of the old order.
It is against the backdrop of these two previous attempts at European order that the geopolitical results of 1989 should be assessed. Compared to the post-1919 order, the post-Cold War framework has lasted a decade longer and provided a greater measure of freedom for the nations of Central Europe, within a federative European political and security architecture that includes Germany alongside both its western and eastern neighbors. Compared to the post-1945 order, it has not yet lasted as long (30 years versus 44) while providing a greater measure of stability, without partition or the perennial threat of war, and with a greater measure of liberty and prosperity for a larger number of people. Where 1919 brought a novel, but ephemeral, independence at the expense of stability and 1945 brought a brittle stability at the expense of freedom, the post-1989 order is the first order to provide both stability and freedom for Europe in its entirety.
The Return of Big-Power Competition
The post-1989 order has rested on a reality and an assumption, neither of which were present in 1919 or 1945, and both of which are now in question. The reality was uncontested American primacy, which allowed Europe and much of Asia to develop largely free of the traditional pressures of geopolitics. The assumption was that, in this greenhouse setting, globalization would pave the way for a new borderless world in which the factors of geography and state-on-state competition that had dominated the 20th Century would be largely obviated if not removed altogether.
Within the space of the past few years, the power realities upon which the post-1989 order was based have shifted dramatically. As outlined by the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) and 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), great power competition has reemerged as the defining dynamic of international politics. China is a classic rising power with the economic wherewithal to contest Western military and technological strength on a sustained basis; after decades of strategic somnolence, it is advancing its commercial and political influence on a global scale. Russia, while not a full-spectrum peer, has re-emerged with a modernised military capable of forcibly reshaping neighbouring regions and projecting power far beyond the Russian home area. Both are authoritarian states that have developed hybrid politico-economic models aimed at harnessing many of the attributes of market growth to centralized repression and control.
The appearance of these challengers, the first big-power rivals that the West has faced since the Soviet Union and the most numerous since the 1930s, holds important implications for American power and the relationship with Europe. Fundamentally, it means the end of the tranquil external conditions on which Europe has depended for its steady political and economic development since 1989. The power that has protected Europe for 70 years now faces greater demands on its military and diplomatic resources than at any point in recent history, with two major rivals (one of which maintains a military budget set to match America’s within the decade) and a third regional opponent (Iran) threatening its interests and allies on frontiers as far-flung as the Baltic, South China Sea, and Persian Gulf. America must manage these pressures with about half the wealth, in relative terms, that it possessed in 1950, five times the debt that it possessed in 1989 ($22 trillion compared to $4 trillion), and European and Asian allies that, on average, maintain substantially smaller defense establishments than they did during the Cold War.
These power shifts have revealed serious flaws in the assumption undergirding the post-1989 order, that globalization would arrest if not altogether suspend the effects of geopolitics. This thesis was grounded in the view that international institutions would increase Western security by enmeshing and domesticating the West’s rivals, which in turn was rooted in the belief that the liberalization of post-war Germany and Japan would to some extent be replicated in Russia and China. These expectations have not, however, been borne out. Post-Soviet Russia rejected absorption into the Western order and focused its energies on military expansion. China used integration into the international trade system to extract Western technology with which to propel its military rise while successfully walling off the regime from any concomitant pressures for political liberalization.
The second part to the globalization thesis was that it would increase European security by pooling sovereignty within Europe. While this impulse existed during the Cold War, the ceding of sovereignty was always kept within certain bounds by geopolitics—namely, the divergent interests of Europeans themselves (think Charles De Gaulle) and the fact that states were the most natural and reliable unit for organizing resistance to the Soviet Union, through the medium of alliances (NATO). Only after 1989 did the drive for more ambitious integration gain traction, beginning with the 1992 Maastricht Treaty’s creation of the European Union (EU) and foundation for the Euro currency. The premise was that a supranational construction would provide certain goods (trade heft, economic growth, border management) more effectively in a globalising world than could be achieved by individual states or through intergovernmental cooperation alone.
This hypothesis has now been severely tested in a string of crises. The 2009 eurozone crisis showed that the EU’s economic institutions, with their tilting of monetary policy to favour the continent’s largest exporting countries and lack of pressure valves to prevent overheating in the periphery, may be inherently crisis-prone. The 2014 migrant crisis raised doubts among Europeans about the EU’s willingness or ability, given the inherent tension between the provisions of Schengen and the Dublin Treaty, to secure Europe’s borders. The strains on individual EU members created by the influx of millions of mostly young male migrants from the Middle East and North Africa led many capitals to bypass the EU and resurrect national borders.
It is noteworthy that the increase in demands by European publics for heightened accountability at the national level has occurred in the aftermath of these crises, both of which called into question the EU’s main post-1989 value proposition. These demands have tended to emerge first, and most emphatically (though not uniquely) in the regions most exposed to the crises, on Europe’s eastern and southern frontiers. The result is a desire to repatriate sovereignty over policy areas most impacting the security of citizens to that level of government where citizens exercise the greatest democratic say. To this must be added the cultural element, of a desire by a large portion of Western publics to preserve elements of national identity which are under heightened pressure from demographic change and mass migration yet which have been neglected by mainstream political parties. This environment has provided abundant openings for China and Russia to increase their political and economic influence, and temptations for national political parties to emulate the Sino-Russian model. The result is a sustained challenge from within the West to the post-1989 order in its political (integration) and geopolitical (alliances) forms.
In sum, we can say that the international order constructed after 1945 and expanded after 1989 is imperilled both externally, by rivals who are growing materially stronger (China) and are largely unconstrained by international institutional strictures (China and Russia); and internally, by schisms inside the Western order in reaction to failures of globalization. In both cases, structures devised in an earlier era no longer match reality: internationally, the gap is between post-1945 institutions and actual power realities; domestically, the gap is between a major portion of the Western governing elite and their electorates. An analogous mismatch marked the latter stages of the post-1815 order (the rise of Prussia, emergence of national movements and collapse of the Metternich system) and the post-1919 order (the rise of Germany, emergence of radical movements on both Left and Right, and collapse of the League system).
A similar shift is now underway. The danger is that the emerging contest between China and the United States goes the way of most past great-power rivalries and deteriorates into confrontation—the so-called “Thucydides’ trap.” Or, perhaps more likely, that China gradually gains the means to reshape the rules of the international system to its advantage. Russia’s presence as a risk-acceptant revisionist heightens both dangers, in that it seeks to probe and harass the U.S. and its allies (including by stoking internal schisms) until China’s rise makes possible a new moment of creativity to achieve a new settlement to Russia’s advantage. In this setting, disarray within the West is not only disadvantageous, it is dangerous because it inevitably means a weaker degree of influence—and deterrence—with which to shape Chinese and Russian behaviour at precisely the moment, early moment in this century, when the West’s relative strength remains high and when decades of post-war investment in Western cohesion and strength should be bearing fruit.
Rethinking Atlantic Strategy
Successful foreign policies begin with a prioritization of the external factor that most affects a state’s security and livelihood and, reasoning backward, allocate diplomatic and military resources accordingly. For the U.S. in the 20th Century, that factor was Germany and later Russia; today, it is China. Unlike earlier rivals, however, we cannot outspend or beggar China, which seems to be on track to becoming economically stronger and technologically more advanced than the entire West combined. We therefore have to pursue a parallel course of: (1) presenting China with incentives to keep its rise peaceful (that is, to prioritize economic over military growth), without weakening our deterrence of Russia and (2) putting our economy and alliances on a better footing for long-term competition with these two large states.
Both goals require a greater degree of Western cohesion than currently exists. Cohesion in any alliance is rooted in an implicit bargain: security in exchange for suasion. This is as true today as it was in the time of the Delian League. For America’s part, as the strongest member of the alliance, there must be clarity at all times about the willingness and ability to defend Europe under Article 5. American allies and rivals in other regions watch our handling of Europe as a barometer for assessing U.S. strategic intentionality worldwide. For Europe’s part, the cohesion of the alliance requires clarity that strategic and economic alignment with China and Russia, actively or passively, is not a viable option.
Cohesion is not just about messaging; its also requires the material ability to resist the thrall of aggressive rivals. The West as a whole must have the strength to preserve its security and independence in the years ahead. This begins, as it did in earlier 20th Century contests, with economics. To the extent that a constructive accommodation can be made with China to avoid the Thucydides trap, it will be because of a sufficiently large alignment of wealth on the part of the West. The ultimate aim should be for America, Europe and allied Asia to employ their combined weight more effectively for geopolitical effect than they have to date, to convince China to alter its more egregious trade practices. Because any unified Western front will be built around an expanded Atlantic free trade area it will require America and the EU to resolve their own trade differences. For the U.S., that will mean sequencing trade agreements with partners in order to prioritize joint action vis-à-vis China. For the EU, it will require a greater willingness to lower remaining tariff, non-tariff and regulatory barriers. Both will be politically difficult but are necessary in an era of great power competition for ensuring a sufficiently large base to support sustained Western growth as China’s rise accelerates.
Relatedly, the West must take strategic competition seriously in the field of emerging technology. In all three of the 20th century’s contests, the West prevailed because it maintained a decisive technical lead over rivals. This remains as important in the era of Artificial Intelligence as it was in the era of the dreadnought. Demographic trends give the West a pressing need to ensure steady productivity growth, which requires sustained innovation. The challenge for America is that it sits between a mercantilist China that steals U.S. innovation and a Europe that often seems primarily interested in taxing and regulating it. As in trade, European leaders should consider the long-term geopolitical consequences of these actions. For its part, Europe has struggled to create an environment conducive to innovation in these areas, largely because of a regulatory approach that discourages risk-taking and impedes access to the very data pools needed to propel machine learning. As a result, as a recent AI commission report found, the West is falling behind in areas like 5G, quantum computing, robotics, and nanotechnology. The U.S. and EU urgently need to form a common strategy for reversing these trends, on par with the scale of cooperation that the West to maintain its edge in atomic energy during the Cold War.
It could include joint regulatory standards in emerging tech, shared R&D investments in key fields and a joint approach to managing data to ensure larger aggregate, intra-Western data sets.
While formulating this wider agenda with China in mind, the U.S. and Europe should sustain the successful structures they have built vis-à-vis Russia. Meeting the Wales 2 percent pledge is by now a de minimis requirement; Europe needs infrastructure investments and evolutions in both NATO and local military force posture along the eastern frontier to achieve the blunt layer envisioned in the National Defense Strategy. This is necessary to shift the escalatory burden to Russia in the event of a military confrontation and thus counter limited war faits accompli but also, in a global context, to ensure that Europe has the capacity to accept a larger deterrence burden vis-à-vis Russia should the U.S. need to be able to shift attention to Asia. In all of the 20th century’s contests, the West’s success lay in its ability to isolate the chief danger (in 1914 and 1941, Germany rather than Russia; in the Cold War, Russia rather than China). Recruiting Russia away from China at this stage is unlikely, though the West should continue to explore openings where they are consistent with our interests—most obviously, in the area of strategic stability and arms control. Learning from the past, it is important to demonstrate the impossibility of successful aggressive revision by the weaker of two rivals in order to deter the stronger. The failure to deal convincingly with Italy in the early 1930s made Germany and Japan of the late 1930s possible. To this end, the West should seek a stronger conventional deterrent to Russia at the same time that the U.S. regains advantages in areas of nuclear capability that were neglected in the recent past while Russia and China modernized, as outlined in the Nuclear Posture Review.
In parallel, we should invest greater diplomatic energy in contesting Chinese penetration of Europe’s backyard. The deep inroads that China and Russia have made in Central Europe, the Balkans, and Eastern Mediterranean, not to mention in many larger Western countries, are in some ways more formidable than Soviet challenge because they involve entanglements of economic interests, yet also ideological because they involve emulation of the authoritarian Eurasian model. These inroads have been enabled partly by our rivals’ willingness to devote greater diplomatic resources to cultivating vulnerable countries and partly by weak political institutions and pathways of corruption that lend themselves to foreign penetration, but also by the sustained neglect of Western diplomacy, which inadvertently helped to create the vacuums that our rivals have filled. To counter this trend, the West will have to compete more vigorously for positive influence. We would do well to learn from U.S. statecraft in the Cold War, which combined unstinting support for democracy with a willingness to engage diplomatically with contested states like Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Turkey to deny Soviet toeholds and ensure their eventual consolidation into the Western orbit. An energetic Western diplomacy is needed encompassing commercial, public and energy diplomacy; support for anti-corruption efforts; and coordinated programs to offer viable alternatives to Chinese financing.
The common theme in all of these areas—economic, technological, military, and diplomatic—is that the West must take competition seriously. For nearly three decades, we viewed the world as an ever-expanding zone of peace in which the permanent things—geography, history, and the competition for resources—had ceased to matter. The return of big-power competition should prompt an overdue reassessment of Western foreign policy priorities, centred on the recognition that we are entering what is likely to be a protracted competition in which our combined energies will be required to preserve Western security, independence, and ideals. This task will inevitably involve some combination of preserving the most serviceable aspects of the order constructed after 1945 and proactively renovating those aspects of that order that no longer match political and power realities. The unfolding era will be less forgiving of hubris and material unreadiness than were the circumstances of the recent past. We would do well to learn from the West’s success in earlier contests whose ultimate outcom