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How U.S. Grand Strategy Is Changed by Ukraine




Sébastien Thibault for Foreign Policy

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Foreign Policy asked a group of prominent thinkers how Europe’s first major war since 1945 will shape U.S. grand strategy going forward. While their perspectives were different, most agreed on one thing: The war marks the end of the post-Cold War era and the return of heightened superpower competition in both Europe and the Pacific.

Now that the war has passed the half-year mark, we asked the question again—and found several surprises, along with themes already visible the first time around. The liberal West has held together astonishingly well, with NATO reinvigorated by the addition of two new members and the European Union discovering a new role waging economic war. The conflict’s lessons reach far beyond Europe, impacting strategic competition with China as well.

The war also points to some problems for Washington’s strategists. First and foremost: Most countries outside the West have refused to choose sides. The conflict has also accelerated a painful process of decoupling between the superpowers—especially in technology—which likely puts the final nails in the coffins of unfettered globalization and open markets, key planks of the post-Cold War order. That, too, will require new thinking on many policy fronts.

Below, seven experts weigh in on these and other lessons for future U.S. strategy. —Stefan Theil, deputy editor


It’s Back to the Future for U.S. Grand Strategy

By Angela Stent, the author of Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution


Javelin anti-tank missiles next to U.S. flags.

Javelin anti-tank missiles next to U.S. flags.

Javelin anti-tank missiles serve as a backdrop for U.S. President Joe Biden’s speech at a Lockheed Martin manufacturing facility in Troy, Alabama, on May 3. Julie Bennett/Getty Images

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine ended the first phase of the post-Cold War era. It now appears that the United States’ grand strategy is headed back to the future. The war has underlined Washington’s indispensable leadership role as Europe’s security guarantor and brought home the reality for its NATO allies that they can only protect themselves under the U.S. umbrella. The European Union has, for all its plans and ambitions, failed to achieve its own strategic autonomy. Other institutions—the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—have also failed to respond adequately to Russia’s invasion and the security threat Moscow poses for Europe. While the United States has provided the lion’s share of weapons for Ukraine and enabled it to push back the Russian advance, other NATO members are also supporting Ukraine with arms, training, and intelligence.

After NATO’s difficult exit from Afghanistan, the bloc has rediscovered its original mission: containing an expansionist Russia. One key difference this time is that NATO will coordinate more closely with Asian partners following the bloc’s designation of China as an adversary. The United States, through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the AUKUS partnership, and bilateral alliances in Asia, will lead a collective West—North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore—in seeking to contain both Russia and China simultaneously.

It will, however, become increasingly difficult to maintain Western unity in the face of growing hardship caused by the war’s economic fallout, including Western sanctions and Russia’s weaponization of energy and food supplies. Washington will have to lead in helping its allies find alternatives to Russian oil and gas at the same time as it pursues a domestic agenda of phasing out fossil fuels.

But the United States will also confront a new reality. While the collective West has condemned and sanctioned Russia and backed Ukraine, almost the entire global south has refused to choose sides. India is a U.S. partner in the Quad but has neither criticized nor sanctioned Russia—and has increased its imports of Russian oil since the war began. China has neither backed nor condemned the Russian invasion but has supported Russia’s claims that its attack was provoked by threats to its security from NATO. Many other countries in the global south view Russia as a large authoritarian country with which they can do business and accuse the United States of hypocrisy, given Washington’s own past wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The United States will have to navigate this large nonaligned group of countries, much as it did during the Cold War: by seeking to persuade them that Russia’s invasion, by violating the U.N. Charter and international law, represents a threat to other nations’ sovereignty and territorial integrity as well.

Russia and China have both called for a new post-Western order in which the United States can no longer set the agenda. Beijing seeks a global order where China can set the rules with the United States, but where there will still be rules. Russia, judging by its actions in Ukraine and its nightly television propaganda barrages, is promoting something else entirely: world disorder with no rules. The United States’ grand strategic challenge is to ensure that a post-post-Cold War world will indeed maintain rules—including, most importantly, those designed to avoid large-scale armed conflict.

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Finally Wean Europe Off Washington

By Stephen M. Walt, a columnist at Foreign Policy and professor of international relations at Harvard University


Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin (left) and Finland's President Sauli Niinistö give a press conference to announce that Finland will apply for NATO membership at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland on May 15.

Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin (left) and Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö give a press conference to announce that Finland will apply for NATO membership at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland on May 15.

Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin and President Sauli Niinistö hold a press conference announcing their country’s application for NATO membership at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland on May 15. ALESSANDRO RAMPAZZO/AFP via Getty Images

When Foreign Policy first asked about the Ukraine war’s impact on U.S. strategy five months ago, I argued that Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine was an ideal opportunity to start the process of weaning the United States’ European allies off their excessive dependence on U.S. protection. If anything, the case for a new division of labor has grown stronger since then.

The war has shown that hard power still matters in the 21st century, exposed Europe’s military shortcomings, subtly underscored the limits of the U.S. commitment, and revealed Russia’s enduring military limitations. Rebuilding Europe’s defenses will take time and money, but having Europe take greater responsibility for its own defense will allow the United States to shift more effort and attention to Asia to meet the many challenges posed by a more powerful and assertive China.

Unfortunately, the Biden administration is ignoring these implications and reinforcing European dependence on Uncle Sam. If this course continues, the United States will remain overstretched, and its capacity to balance China effectively will suffer.

What has happened over the past five months to bolster the case for weaning Europe off Washington?

First, Russia’s military performance has not improved significantly, and its armed forces continue to suffer substantial losses. Even if Moscow’s greater latent power allows it to eke out some sort of Pyrrhic victory in Ukraine, its ability to threaten the rest of Europe in the future will be minimal. Russia has lost a sizable portion of its most sophisticated weaponry and best-trained military manpower. Western sanctions have damaged its economy significantly. Export restrictions will make it much harder for Russia’s defense industry to acquire the advanced semiconductors and other technologies that cutting-edge weaponry requires. Over time, European efforts to reduce dependence on Russian oil and gas will deprive Moscow of revenues and further hamper its ability to rebuild its military forces once the fighting in Ukraine is over.

Second, Sweden and Finland have been welcomed into NATO. Unlike some of the bloc’s other new members, both countries have potent military forces, and their entry greatly complicates Russian defense planning by turning the Baltic Sea into a virtual NATO lake. This tilts the balance of power in Europe even more decisively in NATO’s favor.

Third, events in Asia—such as the extensive Chinese military exercises that followed U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan—have underscored the central role of U.S. power in preserving a favorable balance of power in Asia. If preventing the emergence of a rival hegemon in a vital strategic region remains a cardinal principle of U.S. grand strategy, then pivoting to Asia is essential, regardless of what happens in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, the Biden administration may now be repeating the same errors that encouraged Washington’s European partners to neglect their own defense capabilities in the past. The United States has assumed primary responsibility for arming, training, subsidizing, and advising Ukraine. In February, the administration announced the open-ended deployment of 20,000 additional U.S. troops to Europe, with other new forces added in June. Unsurprisingly, European resolve to do more is waning, and long-engrained habits of free-riding are reemerging. The impending European recession will only exacerbate these tendencies, casting doubt on the bold pledges that Germany and other European states made a few months ago.

If this trend is not reversed, Washington will find itself doing more than is needed in Europe but not enough in Asia. For U.S. grand strategy, that would be a fundamental error.

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Biden’s Pivot to Asia Was Right

By C. Raja Mohan, a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute


People visit the harbor where Taiwanese navy warships are anchored in Keelung, Taiwan, on Aug. 7. Taiwan remained tense after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited as part of a tour of Asia aimed at reassuring allies in the region. In response, China began conducting live-fire drills in waters close to those claimed by Taiwan.

People visit the harbor where Taiwanese navy warships are anchored in Keelung, Taiwan, on Aug. 7. Taiwan remained tense after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited as part of a tour of Asia aimed at reassuring allies in the region. In response, China began conducting live-fire drills in waters close to those claimed by Taiwan.

Taiwanese Navy warships are anchored in Keelung, Taiwan, on Aug. 7. nnabelle Chih/Getty Images

Six months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden’s prewar focus on the China challenge has turned out to be the right bet. Despite the unprecedented military crisis in Europe, the Biden administration has refused to take its eyes off Asia. Although the Russian invasion of Ukraine highlighted the dangers of Russian ambitions in Europe, Biden never discarded his conviction that Chinese expansionism in Asia poses the greater threat to the United States.

The poor performance of Moscow’s armed forces in Ukraine has demonstrated the limitations of Russian military power. Moscow’s inability to break Ukraine’s internal coherence, European unity, or trans-Atlantic solidarity underlines the Kremlin’s major strategic weaknesses in its confrontation with the West.

If the Ukraine conflict turns protracted, it is certainly possible that some or all of these factors could change and produce some gains for Russia. But a prolonged stalemate in Ukraine would also create new internal challenges for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Whatever the outcome, Russia can only come out a diminished power. If the task of simultaneously confronting both Russia and China was seen as an impossible one, Russian vulnerabilities should make it a less daunting one.

That brings us to the connection between the European and Asian theaters and the “partnership without limits” between Moscow and Beijing, which the two revisionist powers announced in early February. China has not been of much help to Russia in countering the West. But a Russia that inevitably comes out weaker from the Ukraine war could be even more dependent on China. Russia will also be under greater compulsion to support Chinese adventurism in Asia. This, in turn, will make it harder to counter China’s power in Asia.

The escalating tensions over Taiwan in the wake of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in early August are merely a reminder that the prospects for a U.S.-Chinese confrontation are growing in Asia. Unlike in Ukraine, where the West has refrained from any direct intervention, the United States will likely be drawn into a direct conflict with China over Taiwan. Any Asian sense of U.S. reluctance to resist Chinese hegemony will push more countries in the region to bandwagon with Beijing. Fortunately, the Biden administration continues to raise its game in Asia.

Empowering friends and allies in Europe and Asia to take greater responsibility for securing their own regions has been a major theme of Biden’s policy. In Europe, it remains to be seen if all of the United States’ allies—especially Germany and France—are really committed to translating their commitments into actions. In Asia, America’s allies and partners such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India appear far more willing to take on a larger role in their own security and the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. The Biden administration has devoted considerable diplomatic energies to preventing the growth of neutralism in the rest of Asia. But it is a work in progress.

It is no surprise that there are deep divisions in both Europe and Asia on how to deal with Russia and China. Preventing Moscow and Beijing from exploiting these divisions will remain a major political challenge for the United States as it tries to stabilize the two regions. The United States remains indispensable in balancing Russia in Europe and China in Asia. But long-term stability in Europe and Asia will depend on Washington’s ability to build local balances of power and promote regional orders.

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A New Grand Bargain With Europe

By Liana Fix, the director of the international affairs program at the Körber Foundation


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (right) and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen make statements following their talks in Kyiv on June 11.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (right) and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen make statements following their talks in Kyiv on June 11.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky make statements following their talks in Kyiv on June 11. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Six months after Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, two preliminary lessons can be drawn on how the war will affect the U.S. strategic outlook on Europe.

The first and obvious one is NATO’s comeback from what French President Emmanuel Macron called “brain death” to the most important organization on the European continent. The war has reaffirmed the bloc’s centrality—as well as the United States’ primacy—for European security.

This is unsurprising: A war launched by an adversary in its neighborhood gives a defense alliance every reason to reaffirm its raison d’être. What was surprising was the scale of NATO’s revival, including two new members invited within a few months of the start of Russia’s war. Support for NATO has shot up among European publics, as have positive attitudes toward the U.S. role in Europe.

More remarkable than NATO’s resurgence, however, is that the European Union has risen to the occasion. Instead of becoming marginalized at a time of war, the EU has become NATO’s powerful cousin in the economic realm. Within days of the invasion, the EU transformed itself from an organization dedicated to peacetime economic cooperation to one willing and able to conduct economic warfare.

In part, this reflects the nature of this particular war: Because NATO and its partners are not fighting directly, their instruments are limited to military support for Ukraine and economic measures. The West’s economic warfare is therefore almost as important as its weapons deliveries and intelligence support. And economic measures are firmly the EU’s terrain.

That said, economic warfare is a new business for the EU, which has more experience negotiating free trade agreements than organizing the entire bloc’s decoupling from a major trading partner. Instead of bringing economies closer together—its usual role—Brussels has had to reverse the process and cut ties between Russia and the EU in many areas.

Europe should, of course, do more. Its embargo on Russian oil—much easier to do than replacing the Kremlin’s gas—will come into effect only in December. Meanwhile, EU countries continue to transfer huge amounts of money for Russian energy. But in the medium term, the Western sanctions regime will make it impossible for Russia to sustain a modern economy and will probably constrain its ability to conduct war.

What does this mean for U.S. grand strategy? The United States should look beyond NATO when assessing Europe’s strategic importance.

Until Europeans can assume more responsibility for their own security—which is still a while off, if it ever happens at all—the economic realm is where they can be very powerful. Washington will need partners in the looming conflicts of the future, where China will be an economic as much as a security challenge. Since February, the EU has proved that it can be a reliable partner even at great cost to its own economy. This points to a grand strategic bargain that joins the EU’s economic power with the United States’ military might—and will require Washington to stay more engaged in Europe than it had planned.

Of course, China is in a whole other economic league from Russia, and Europeans will need convincing reasons to put their economic ties to China in jeopardy. Nonetheless, no one would have expected such a strong European response to Russia, and that response has very likely been noticed by the Chinese leadership. Moscow’s war has taught us that the same rules apply in economic warfare as in military warfare: No plan of operations can provide any certainty beyond the first encounter.

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An Emerging Atlantic-Pacific Partnership

By Robin Niblett, a distinguished fellow at Chatham House


Fighters take position off the South China Sea.

Fighters take position off the South China Sea.

Philippine fighters take position next to U.S. Marines during a joint military exercise with Japanese troops in San Antonio, Philippines, on Oct. 6, 2018.TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images

In the face of heroic Ukrainian resistance and essential international support for Kyiv, Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is running out of steam. In contrast, the Biden administration has taken this opportunity to regain the United States’ strategic position as the linchpin of the world’s liberal democracies.

Helped by Beijing’s decision to align itself with Moscow, Washington has stitched together a new Atlantic-Pacific partnership. This partnership links the United States’ commitments to European security against persistent Russian aggression with its commitments to its Asian allies against China’s growing military assertiveness.

The presence of Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea at the Madrid NATO summit in June showed that these countries understand that U.S. commitment to their security also requires their support for U.S. interests in Europe. And the first-ever reference to China as an explicit security challenge in the alliance’s summit communiqué—despite the ongoing war in Europe—was a signal that Europeans know they must take future threats from China seriously if they want the United States to remain a reliable ally in Europe.

The Biden team now needs to make this new trans-hemispheric partnership real and not a fleeting mirage. It should challenge European allies, some of which have issued ambitious Indo-Pacific strategies, to join regular freedom-of-navigation operations and military exercises in and around the South China Sea. The allies must also now work together to preserve freedom of navigation in the Taiwan Strait, following Beijing’s opportunistic use of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in early August to change the military status quo around the island.

In addition, the G-7 should invite its close Pacific partners beyond Japan to be regular participants in the group’s strategic dialogues, whether on sanctions policy, technology investment, or critical supply chains. Together, they would have the economic critical mass to agree on trade and investment standards that align with their values. If successful, other democracies could be invited to join this community.

However, the United States needs to ensure that this moment does not presage a return to the divided world of the 20th century. While nurturing a new Atlantic-Pacific partnership is the priority, the other element of U.S. grand strategy should be to draw countries in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere into a next tier of economic and strategic relationships that counterbalance Chinese and Russian efforts to do the same.

In the competition between Russia and China on the one hand and the Atlantic-Pacific partnership on the other, the 140 or so countries now composing a reprise of the Cold War era’s nonaligned community have an agency they never possessed during the Cold War. This time, a “with us or against us” approach by the United States and its allies would be counterproductive. Instead, the material benefits that other countries gain from interaction with members of the new Atlantic-Pacific partnership should be calibrated to their commitment to pursuing shared interests and the efforts they undertake to improve domestic governance and protection of their citizens’ rights.

This strategy will require the Biden administration to develop a more inclusive approach to global leadership that its predecessors ever did. For their part, the United States’ allies must cross their fingers and hope that the next U.S. presidential election does not undo the achievements of the past six months.

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Future U.S. Success Requires a Ukrainian Victory

By Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the chairman of Rasmussen Global, a former NATO secretary general, and a former Danish prime minister


Ukrainian military vehicles move past Independence square in central Kyiv, Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Ukrainian military vehicles move past Independence square in central Kyiv, Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Ukrainian military vehicles move past Independence Square in Kyiv on Feb. 24. DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s war in Ukraine has put territorial defense in Europe back at the top of the agenda. Watching a nuclear-armed state launch a full-scale invasion of a neighboring country finally seems to have concentrated minds in European capitals. Military budgets are being raised, Finland and Sweden are about to join NATO, and nations across the free world are coming to Ukraine’s aid. This has important ramifications for the United States’ strategic ambitions. As the divide between the world’s democracies and autocracies hardens, the world is entering a renewed period of competition and confrontation. The war has shown that Washington remains the ultimate guarantor of security in Europe. It has also demonstrated the need for the democratic world to unite in the face of increasingly aggressive autocracies.

The United States’ main strategic focus remains the pivot to Asia and increased competition with China. However, that will be far more difficult if Washington is tied up with a long-running conflict in Europe. The best way to avoid this trap is by giving the Ukrainians everything they need to win this war. The West must then ensure that Russia never attacks it again. That is the aim of the working group I was asked to co-chair by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky alongside his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, on security guarantees for Ukraine. The group’s work is still ongoing, but one point is already clear: The best deterrence against further Russian aggression is a militarily strong Ukraine. The United States and its allies therefore need to provide Ukraine with all it needs to defend its independence for the long term. If the West fails to do this, Russian leader Vladimir Putin will not stop in Ukraine.

Dictators everywhere are watching the conflict closely. So far, the United States has responded forcefully and led a powerful and unified response by the Western world. With a painful winter approaching, this unity will be tested. The West must redouble its efforts to ensure Ukraine wins both the war and the subsequent peace. If it fails in this, autocrats everywhere will be the ones cheering.

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Economic Warfare Must Be Tempered to Win Allies

By Edward Alden, a columnist at Foreign Policy, a visiting professor at Western Washington University, and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations


Protesters demonstrate against rising energy prices outside Ofgem's headquarters in Canary Wharf on Aug. 26 in London, England.

Protesters demonstrate against rising energy prices outside Ofgem’s headquarters in Canary Wharf on Aug. 26 in London, England.

Protesters demonstrate against rising energy prices in London on Aug. 26. Rob Pinney/Getty Images

For many decades, economic influence was central to the United States’ grand strategy—but only as the soft edge of U.S. power. Successive administrations largely followed the economic orthodoxy of free trade, foreign investment, and open markets, believing a global system governed by such rules would serve U.S. national interests while enriching much of the world.

But with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States has thrown this rulebook out the window. Led by the Biden administration, the West has imposed harsh economic sanctions against Russia that are likely to remain in place for years. With an eye toward national security, Congress has embraced a full-blown industrial policy, passing the CHIPS and Science Act to bolster the country’s manufacturing capabilities in semiconductors and other critical sectors. The policy’s explicit goal is to reduce dependence on imports from China and other potentially hostile powers. Beijing, in turn, has doubled down on its own efforts to achieve greater self-sufficiency, not least to ward off any future sanctions in the event of, say, a war over Taiwan. Russia, too, has joined the economic struggle: It hopes to weaken Europe’s support for Ukraine by choking off gas supplies, even at huge cost to Russia’s own economic growth.

These actions would suggest a future of economic conflict among the great powers, with the United States and its allies hoping their technological leadership will provide the decisive edge. But there is one problem with this strategy: The rest of the world wants no part of economic warfare. Already, most countries outside the Western bloc have refused to choose sides over Ukraine or join the sanctions regime. India might be inching toward alignment with the West in the Indo-Pacific, but it has gorged on discounted Russian oil. Saudi Arabia has continued to embrace Russia as part of the OPEC+ oil producers’ cartel, rejecting U.S. calls to expel Moscow from the club. Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America are largely focused on their own economic aspirations—and managing food shortages and inflation exacerbated by the war. Indonesia has refused Western calls to expel Russia from the G-20 summit it is hosting in November, and both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping say they will attend. “The rivalry of the big countries is indeed worrying,” Indonesian President Joko Widodo told Bloomberg News. “What we want … for this region is to be stable, peaceful, so that we can build economic growth.”

For U.S. strategy to succeed, then, Washington will have to temper its economic actions against great-power rivals in order to curry favor among the less committed. U.S. President Joe Biden’s cap-in-hand visit to Saudi Arabia in July to plead for greater oil production and his administration’s reluctance to criticize India over its Russian oil purchases are just two examples of this delicate balance. Biden has also shown no signs he will boycott the G-20 summit to protest Putin’s presence, even though U.S. Treasury officials walked out of a preparatory meeting earlier this year.

Unlike during the Cold War, when only the West had the wealth and institutions to offer significant economic carrots, the United States now faces fierce competition. China and even Russia have much to offer. China has the full suite of a large market hungry for commodities and other inputs, ample cash for foreign investments and loans, and low-cost manufactured exports. Russia mostly has cheap resources but some, such as oil and fertilizer, are vital for many developing countries. The United States and its allies will need to show they can apply their new focus on economic statecraft to the immediate challenges these countries face—for example, by offering food aid and debt forgiveness as needed and keeping Western markets open to trade. The economic pillar of a new U.S. grand strategy will only succeed if it offers tangible gains for the not-so-great powers.

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