Geopolitics

Is the West reuniting?

Matthias Matthijs on how the war in Ukraine is changing the global security, economic, and political terrain.
Germany’s historic remilitarization may be the clearest sign yet that Moscow’s war on Ukraine has reinvigorated the Western alliance. Meanwhile, the European Union imposed severe sanctions on Russia, and NATO member states approved the deployment of its rapid-response troops for the first time since the force was created in 2004. Finland and Sweden, neutral for decades, attended NATO’s emergency meeting after the invasion and now seem poised to join the organization. Even Turkey, which had bought weapons from Moscow, has banned Russian warships from sailing through its waters from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean. All this marks a drastic transformation: The unilateral U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was opposed by America’s major European allies, apart from the United Kingdom. Donald Trump brought transatlantic relations to a new low with his calls for isolationism and open discussion of a U.S. withdrawal from NATO. And within Europe, the U.K.’s exit from the EU broke its links with the continent. Yet since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Washington, London, and the capitals of Europe have begun to rebuild their old security bloc. Where is this headed?
Matthias Matthijs is a senior fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations and an associate professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. As Matthijs sees it, the revival of Western unity is real, significant, and apt to extend beyond defense, as America and the countries of Europe align their security and economic policies. After watching Putin’s authoritarian regime turn into a threat, Western governments are likely to reconsider their ongoing relationships with other authoritarian regimes, not least China. Still, Matthijs says, there are lingering divisions among Western states that will test their renewed partnership.
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Michael Bluhm: What effect is the war in Ukraine having on the West?
Matthias Matthijs: It’s changing the West in the short term and the long term. In the short term, for the last 10 years or so, we’ve heard about the “broken West”—fault lines between the U.K. and the continent, between Eastern and Western Europe over refugees, between Northern and Southern Europe over the Eurozone debt crisis, and, of course, between the United States and the rest during Donald Trump’s presidency.
The Russian invasion has suddenly brought all these countries closer together. It’s even managed to bring Greece and Turkey closer together; that’s quite an extraordinary achievement.
A longer-term change is Germany’s position as part of the West. Because of its historical guilt over the Holocaust, the war crimes it committed, and the way it treated the Soviet Union—and because Germany was split into East and West—since World War II, it’s always tried to keep a foot on both sides. Over the last 15 years, Germany has probably been the country closest to Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China. That was a deliberate choice.
Bluhm: How do you understand this change?
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Matthijs: The invasion of Ukraine has overturned the main postwar assumptions of German foreign policy: the idea of change through trade, and thus a close relationship with Russia; a similar approach to China; a relatively weak defense posture; and a commitment to humanitarian aid and never exporting lethal weapons to conflict zones.
That’s been shattered. Energy dependence on Russia has been shattered. Its weak commitment to defense has been a thorn in the side of every American president since Bill Clinton, but Germany overnight committed to the NATO goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, with an immediate commitment of 100 billion euros in defense funds off the budget, just to show how serious they are.
After 9/11, there was short-lived unity. We don’t know how long-lived this one will be, but for now, we’re seeing the kind of unity in the West—and with non-Western powers like Japan supporting these sanctions—that we haven’t seen since the brief period between September 11 and the Iraq invasion in March 2003.
Bluhm: You say that the war will cause long-term changes to the West. What about the relationship between the U.S. and Europe?
Matthijs: American military reengagement in Europe, which had been significantly downsized since Yugoslavia’s civil wars in the 1990s. In ‘91, when the Soviet Union disintegrated, there were hundreds of thousands of American troops in Germany alone. That’s been systematically decreased. Some troops have remained stationed with Eastern European allies, but it’s been a modest presence.
More from Matthias Matthijs at The Signal:
We’re going to see a dramatic reengagement of the United States with Europe and with Europe’s Eastern frontier. And that’s a longer-term shift, because it’s not something one president can undo. Donald Trump tried to downsize the U.S. troop presence in Germany significantly, but by the time it was going to happen, Joe Biden was president and put a stop to it, being much more committed to the transatlantic alliance. Putin’s unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country with NATO and Western aspirations makes it impossible for any American president now to say, This is not our problem. The Europeans need to take care of themselves. There’s meanwhile been a dramatic increase in Europe’s defensive capabilities, especially in Germany—and that’s probably the most consequential long-term change. At some point, a big German military won’t just be sitting in the barracks. It will be used in humanitarian conflicts and to strengthen the defenses of allies in Eastern Europe.”
There’s a leadership challenge for the United States. Multilateral institutions like the G20 are now truly dysfunctional. We’ve already seen this at the UN, too. The G7 still functions, but it represents a shrinking part of the world economy—and six Western countries plus Japan don’t have a lot of legitimacy among other countries. What the war’s disrupted in the U.S. is, above all, the idea that we can become more isolationist and turn away from the world. That’s not an option. Russian aggression is real, and the only country that’s able to stop it is America. Which is also the only country that’s able to show China that there would be repercussions if it were to annex Taiwan or start something in the South China Sea.”
I don’t think this is going to lead to a renewed enthusiasm for democracy-promotion abroad. But it will drive the West closer together—above all the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union, economically and politically. The idea in the U.K. when it left the EU was that it was a global trading power. Now that seems a little naive. You’re really going to sell your soul to trade with China and Russia? Now Britain realizes that all kinds of things matter in business today: environmental standards, safety standards, social and labor standards, and commitments to rule of law and democracy. Look at all those Western companies voluntarily leaving Russia. There’s a whole new generation of kids who are like, Who made this shoe? Where are these ingredients from? Was this made by people being paid a proper wage? I see the West cooperating not just on military and security terms, but on economic and political terms, as well.”

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