On May 9, 1950, exactly 70 years ago, European leaders signed the “Schuman Declaration”, initiating a process to create a unified Europe with the principal objective, after two devastating World Wars, to make war between European nations “unthinkable”. In large part, they were successful, the European Union today brings together 27 European countries in a political and economic union. But just as the liberation of Europe during WWII from the conquering Nazi powers relied on US military and economic might, the leaders of Western Europe made a fundamental political choice to rely on the US for its security, with most countries participating in a defense organization, NATO, dominated by the US.
For nearly 80 years, Europe avoided war, during the long period of the Cold War the balanced rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union provided the stability for economic growth and prosperity in much of Europe, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the spread of NATO to many of the previously Soviet states of Eastern Europe. Russia has considered the risk of further spread of NATO an existential threat, and has attacked Ukraine, launching the first full-blown European war since WWII. Just as it was for WWII, the role of the US in the war in Ukraine is critical, but of course the world in 2023 is far different from that of 1939, and the role of the US in the current war is radically different.
There are a few similarities in the US role in the two conflicts: in both cases, the US did not want to send troops into the conflict, there is a deep strain in the US DNA to avoid involvement in foreign entanglements, a self-satisfied focus on only the North American continent. In WWII, just as in Ukraine, the US involvement began with small military aid to the UK in 1940, which grew during 1940-1941 into a national effort to create a huge armaments production industry to provide massive support, to the UK and then to Russia and other allies, but without planning to send any US soldiers (many economists have concluded that it was WWII that finally led the US out of the economic morass of the Depression). In spite of German submarines’ attacking US military and merchant shipping, the US did not enter the war against Germany, it was only with the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 that the US declared war on Japan, and on Germany and Italy on December 11.
The US has obviously changed fundamentally since WWII. It has become the sole superpower, leading it to flex its muscle over the last decades in a multiple series of disastrous foreign military entanglements, from Vietnam to Somalia to Afghanistan to George W Bush’s fiasco in Iraq, resulting in a legitimate reluctance to send any “boots on the ground” in another foreign conflict. The other more recent dominating change in US attitudes is that the US, and the world as a whole, is no longer Eurocentric. America’s principal focus today is no longer on Europe, it is on the rivalry for world leadership with China, and there are other important countries, such as India, that will increasingly assert their role in the world (Indian Foreign Minister recently spoke harshly about European attitudes: “Your concerns are not ours, and ours are not yours”).
But America will not want to relinquish its position as the dominant military power in Europe, on the contrary, the US will not let Russia win the war in Ukraine, consistent with the objective of retaining its position as the leader of the world and defender of a rules-based international order. Biden has successfully put together a coalition of allies standing together in defense of Ukraine, reminiscent of George H.W. Bush’s mobilization of a UN-backed coalition to beat back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 (it was so successful that no one talks about it anymore). Putin’s error in invading Ukraine has consolidated US power in Europe, and glaringly shown Europe’s security dependence on America.