Biden and the crucible of European peace
President Biden is on his America-is-back tour of Europe, in Britain to meet the queen and Prime Minister Boris Johnson and for a Group of 7 (G7) conference over the weekend, then to Brussels for NATO and EU summits early next week and culminating with a showdown with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday. The president’s agenda is full but almost certainly bereft of the kind of practical and traditional diplomatic initiatives needed for a coherent foreign policy. In particular, the administration is likely to downplay the most critical issue for sustaining peace and reviving prospects for liberty in Europe: the security of southeastern Europe and the Black Sea region.
Since the end of the Cold War, this has been a no-man’s-land. Some states have become NATO members, but unfortunately, some have not. These have become the principal focus of Russian revanche and predation, beginning with Georgia in 2008 but most critically the continuing campaign to reannex Ukraine both by conquest and by the subversive methods employed elsewhere in Eastern Europe into Moscow’s sphere of influence.
Here is where Putin’s efforts to halt and begin to reverse the tide of westernization and liberal governance have been most rewarded: the east and west ends of Georgia and Crimea are his, and the Sea of Azov is becoming so, along with Kerch Strait that connects to the larger Black Sea. This Black Sea expansionism also is connected to another of Putin’s pet projects — reestablishing a Russian presence in the eastern Mediterranean, with bases in Syria.
Putin has also been able to exploit American and European lassitude and post-Cold-War triumphalism; the Soviet Union is no more, but the imperialist impulse remains. Ironically, it has been western “realists” who have most missed this continuity; they have forgotten the precepts of their patron saint, George Kennan, about the “vigilant application of counterforce” for containing deep-seated Russian strategic habits. Thus, after liberating the “captive nations” of the Warsaw Pact, NATO failed to “consolidate on the objective,” as every infantry lieutenant is taught to do.
Nor should the United States and its allies be overly assured by the fact that Putin’s gambits are backed by a relatively weak military, economic and demographic hand. China – now belatedly recognized as the superpower challenger of the 21st century – looks increasingly intent upon stepping through the gates that Russia is holding open. And there seems to be little Putin – as ever worried about Chinese immigration in the Russian far east – can do to control that. The “reverse Kissinger” dream of balancing Moscow against Beijing is fantasy. Like Putin, Xi Jinping is targeting the fragile states of Eastern Europe through his “Belt and Road” and “16-plus-One” initiatives. Americans tend to obsess about China’s aggressive posture in the western Pacific while all but ignoring Beijing’s thrusts across central Eurasia — through Xinjiang to Central Asia to Eastern Europe. Indeed, China’s traditional strategic construct puts continental concerns above maritime ones.
In its framing of the trip, the White House has offered many other themes. The first is to remind everyone that post-Trump “normalcy” has returned. Biden’s G7 agenda featured plans to distribute COVID-19 vaccines more widely and to talk about climate change.
The face-off with Putin promises to be good (as well as excessively hyped) theater, with Biden promising to tell Putin “what I want him to know.” Finally, the pre-trip spin on the NATO and EU meetings is that Biden will try to enlist Europeans in constructing a China containment regime. Indeed, the British Royal Navy has sent its new – and currently its only – small-deck carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and another seven ships – “the most powerful UK fleet assembled in decades” – to the Indo-Pacific region to demonstrate its anti-China bona fides.
This is a wonderful demonstration of allied solidarity and a serious manifestation of British interest in remaining a global, if smaller, military power. But Europeans – and the United Kingdom, whose naval might could go a long way in shifting the military balance in the Black Sea – have more pressing and unfinished business closer to home. The vulnerability of Eastern European front-line states puts the entire post-Cold-War European liberal peace in danger.
Nor should Americans forget, even as the China challenge looms ever larger, that the first principle of American strategy has been to create and sustain a favorable balance of power among generally liberal political regimes in Europe. While the United States must continue to project power across the Pacific and into the Indian Ocean, it is necessary to keep the Atlantic and the larger Mediterranean as the “home waters” of the West, ringed by safe shores. As Franklin Roosevelt argued, “Europe first.”
Southeastern Europe and the Black Sea region comprise the crucible of the current European peace — a peace won by a century of American effort, expense and expense of blood. As President Biden lays out his strategic priorities, securing this “Eastern front” should be foremost on the European agenda.
Giselle Donnelly is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Iulia-Sabina Joja, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
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