Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Russia and a New World Order

Putin understands what many in Washington, D.C., refuse to—the future is multipolar.

The world continues to hold its breath as Russia plays diplomatic chicken with the West over the fate of Ukraine. Russia has threatened “military-technical” action should the U.S. fail to keep Ukraine out of NATO, and any remaining doubts about the possibility of an invasion are vanishing. But why Russia may have chosen this moment to invade is not entirely clear. Some believe Russia is responding to America’s unstable politics; others look to the Cold War for answers. Some even look back centuries: After Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, then-Secretary of State John Kerry said it was “behaving in a 19th century fashion.”

Instead of looking backward, America should, ironically, heed one of its Cold War icons, President John F. Kennedy, who said that “those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.” Russian President Vladimir Putin is not looking to the past. With an eye on the present, he is keeping the future in his peripherals. In doing so, he seems to have made a discovery: The world is in the midst of a 30-year transition from the bipolar world order of the 20th century to a new multipolar world order in the 21st. And he is maneuvering Russia to be well-positioned for it.

The 20th century’s bipolar Cold War is long gone, as is the brief aftermath of unipolarity when America stood unopposed. China has become America’s main adversary and Russia has recovered from its 1990s doldrums. Even the European Union has the makings of superpowerdom: nuclear weapons, a flourishing arms industry, a GDP approaching America’s, and nearly 450 million people.

The U.S. should be preparing for these rising powers. Instead, America has spent the last 30 years jamming Cold War-era institutions like NATO (created to reflect the bipolar early 1950s) into a period where they do not fit in an attempt to preserve as much 1990s unipolarity as possible. While such an impulse was understandable, in trying to hold back time the U.S has essentially become a nation of political Luddites.

Meanwhile, far from wishing to bring back the 1990s, Russia has been desperate to move on. Post-Cold War, Moscow could barely keep from descending into anarchy. In Russia’s telling, the West took advantage of this weakness and pressed into Russia’s sphere of influence by expanding NATO and the E.U. until American tanks were only hundreds of kilometers away. But America saw it differently: The more Russia was exposed to the West, the more it would democratize. As late as 2009, when it should have been apparent that this was not happening, the Obama administration still thought that relations could be reset by simply pushing a button. Which was why they were so shocked in 2014 when Russia “[behaved] in a 19th century fashion.” But Russia was not acting like a 19th century power. It was acting like a power.

The USSR would never have permitted the West to come so close, nor would have the Russian Empire. Crimea was a crucial deep-sea port, and in 2014 Russia was about to lose it to the E.U. and possibly NATO. Detecting that the world was in a transitional period, Russia realized that the disoriented West would be powerless to stop it from seizing the peninsula. Now, eight years later, Ukraine is determined to enter NATO and will soon be developed militarily to a point where an invasion would be prohibitively costly. Plus, the international transition is still ongoing, which may not be the case in a decade. To Russia, the moment to act is closing fast.

The U.S. failed to realize this, because once the Cold War was over it bought the idea that we had reached the “end of history” and that liberal democracy would forever be the norm. But 30 years later a pre-WW1-esque great power competition is back. Only this time the powers have nuclear weapons. So how should the U.S. react to this new era, and how should it approach Russia?

To prepare for the era, America must make clear who the main rival is: China. Until recently America’s managerial class has been afraid of this notion. But now American corporations must understand that bowing to China is not acceptable, as bowing to the USSR was not. Film studios accommodating China should receive no support from government institutions, and sportsmen who shill for China should be shamed as they would have been for shilling for the Soviets.

America must also accept that Europe is not the center of the world anymore. NATO, centralized around the northern Atlantic, is a nonsensical tool with which to contain China. NATO should be revamped into an organization based less on geography and more on type of government, as a geographically diverse alliance would be more capable of dealing with the threats which will arise in a multipolar world and would lessen America’s financial burden. It should be inclusive to all democracies, liberal or illiberal, willing to shoulder the load. If a country is not America’s preferred version of a democracy, the U.S. should not nitpick. We will never have the unity to take on China if we are busy thumbing the eyes of allies.

This new view toward Europe must also play a role in America’s Russia policy. The E.U. has no excuse to be as impotent as it currently is. Thus far it has been unwilling to take responsibility for itself, both by refusing to use its aforementioned tools and by refusing to find ways to detach from Russia’s gas. Should this unwillingness persist, the U.S. should not hesitate to let them fend for themselves. The E.U. is no angsty teenager; Europe is a civilization thousands of years old, and a foreign power is threatening it. It should start acting like it.

Secondly, the U.S. should cease treating every problem like a nail. America uses sanctions like a hammer when a scalpel would be more effective. Russian opposition activists have offered lists of individuals in Putin’s orbit whom the West could sanction. When we have sanctioned Russia, why have we failed to sanction these individuals? One reason might be because Russia’s rich and the West’s rich are friends (after all, their children oftentimes go to the same private schools). If reform requires us to do battle with our own elites, so be it. We cannot have a conflict where American elites are buddy-buddy with the other side.

Thirdly, the U.S. should adopt something akin to a 21st-century Reagan doctrine. The U.S. should pledge, borrowing from President Ronald Reagan’s original, “to defy autocrat-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth.” This would place no American lives at risk but ensures that weapons sales and other aid to endangered democracies such as Ukraine would be plenty. This would allow us to put Russia in our peripherals while keeping our eyes squarely on China.

Finally, if America sheds itself of its 20th-century mindset it may not even have to worry about Russia. A Russia unconcerned about its western flank will eventually worry about its eastern flank: China. While this could be decades away, America should start looking to the future.

Anthony J. Constantini is writing his Ph.D. on populism and early American democracy at the University of Vienna in Austria. Previously he received an MA in Arms Control and Strategic Studies from St. Petersburg State University. In 2016 he was the War Room Director for the NRSC.