What is America’s goal in Ukraine, and what is its bigger vision for Europe? It’s a question I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about the last week while, paradoxically, taking meetings in Berlin with government officials and think tankers to discuss Germany’s own situation ahead of what may end up a very difficult winter. The answers I’ve tentatively reached will disquiet those that see Ukraine as a moral cause, and will, I suspect, confirm their worst suspicions about the Biden Administration’s approach to the war. It’s all speculative, but I think it is plausible. Hear me out.
With winter approaching, Germany appears to be in much better shape than you might think observing events from across the Atlantic. Jeremy Stern’s recent piece in Tablet paints a grim tableau, with many of Germany’s assumptions about its economic model, geopolitics, and its place in the world coming undone by Russia’s war in Ukraine. While Jeremy is right in identifying all the problems the Germans are facing, he’s not right about the climate in the country. There is little panic in the air.
Walter Russell Mead, who was in Germany at the same time as me (but meeting different people than I was), captures the mood well. The Germans feel like they’ve got this, he wrote in a recent column. The challenges are severe, and many of the bets Germans made on the future have proven to be disastrously wrong. But they feel confident in themselves, with the last 70 years of history giving them license to be optimistic. They rebuilt spectacularly after their country was leveled in World War II, they helped engineer the EU as a peace project (to their great economic benefit, it must be said), and they managed a costly and difficult reunification when the Berlin Wall came down—all long shots at the time that have worked out much better than might have been expected. These new challenges are no smaller than those that came before but Germany feels up to the task, whether it be navigating looming economic crises or reinventing its economy,. Even Germany’s pervasive optimism about lasting world peace in the liberal world order seems up for some re-examination, though most Germans I spoke to have not really yet grappled with this topic substantively.
It’s this relative relaxation about European security that was, for me, most striking. What comes through loud and true in Berlin is that policymakers feel like they are closely coordinated and aligned with their partners in Washington on most issues, very much including security. On the surface, one understands this to mean that there is a division of labor in place: the United States will continue to provide the bulk of security assistance to Ukraine during wartime, and will expect the Europeans to do the heavy lifting when it comes to rebuilding the country.
But scratch a little deeper and you hear other things. Opposition politicians wring their hands about whether Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s prolonged foot-dragging on delivering Leopard tanks to Ukraine is perceived by allies within Europe as a sign of German perfidy. But there is little sense that there is much pressure on them to deliver, especially from Washington. Officials assure you that Zeitenwende—the Scholz government’s commitment to a “historic shift” on security matters, which is to include a sizable hike in defense spending—is real and that it is happening. But in the next breath they admit that measurable increases in spending may not come before 2024 at the very earliest, and even then will take some time to ramp up.
In other words, alongside the calm approach to handling the structural challenges, there is a sense of complacency among policymakers on security issues. The war in Ukraine dominates all discussions, but it nevertheless feels somehow distant and abstract. Most pointedly, when questions about nuclear escalation come up—on what an appropriate response might be from the West should Russia’s Vladimir Putin detonate a nuke somewhere in Ukraine—policymakers fret about German public opinion but seem to assign little actual probability to things spiraling out of control in a way that would directly involve Germany itself. And it’s not a lack of imagination, either. Several people I spoke to felt that the United States would not let things get out of hand like that.
It’s possible that my interlocutors were being insufficiently pessimistic about how the logic of war does its thing—how nuclear escalation by Russia would reshuffle the deck in ways that would almost certainly make the West a more direct participant in the Ukraine war. But at the same time, I suspect that their answers were a faithful rendering of what they understood America’s approach to be.
Reading the Biden Administration’s recently published National Security Strategy (NSS) provides some clues to its thinking about the war in Europe. And, to be fair to the Germans, it gives them plenty of reasons to be complacent.
Most readers of the document, critics and fans alike, have zeroed in on the “autocracy versus democracy” framing, or on the focus on transnational challenges such as climate change. But the document itself is fairly precise in how it describes the administration’s approach to tackling America’s geopolitical rivals, Russia and China. Russia is the immediate threat, but is seen by the authors as already diminished. China was always going to take pride of place in any emerging geopolitical contest, but Russia’s less than stellar performance in Ukraine has already relegated it to a second-rank rival.
Nevertheless, the task at hand is explicitly defined as “constraining” Russia, not necessarily handing it a defeat. Support to Ukraine is couched as support for self-defense against unwarranted aggression, and, as such, as a defense of principles enshrined in the UN charter. The “democracy versus autocracy” framework seemingly does not make Ukraine an automatic ally in the fight. Ukraine is identified as having a legitimately elected government at its helm, but is never mentioned explicitly as a partner.
The document is very explicit about what the most important partnerships for the United States are: the EU and the G7 form the core of what Gideon Rachman recently called the “Global West”. NATO is the mechanism for defending America’s European interests and allies. And while the NSS gestures that NATO could eventually play some role in the Pacific, it spends a lot of time underlining America’s unshakeable commitment to the security of its core partners. Ukraine and Moldova and Georgia are to be “supported” in their aspiration to become full members in these institutions of the Global West—most explicitly the EU—but no promise is made that they’ll ever make it. And no iron-clad guarantees are offered to Ukraine in the current struggle beyond vague assurances of ongoing military support for self-defense.
All of this jibe perfectly with the German understanding of the state of play in Europe. In the hierarchy of American priorities, a stable and successful Europe is more important to America than a victorious Ukraine. And a stable and successful Europe needs a stable and successful Germany at its core. This, I suspect Germans understand, is why most of the engagement they get from their American partners is delivered with the utmost understanding and with less urgency that you might expect. They are being given the space to recalibrate and to regain their economic footing amid unprecedented turmoil. German economic prosperity is the key to ensuring Europe remains a valuable partner long-term. Ukraine is over there, on the outside. A pressing issue, to be sure, but not the core interest. Europe is the core interest and partner.
Should Ukraine succeed in completely expelling Russia from all of its occupied territories, of course that could be desirable. But that is not the goal. The war in Ukraine is not about expanding “the West” to the east, but about diminishing Russia and teaching lessons to other revisionists about not messing with the rules-based international order.
I suspect that many Biden Administration officials would bristle at my stark characterization of their National Security Strategy. And indeed, there are more lyrical, idealistic passages in the document to give some cover for their protestations. But I don’t think I’m giving an unfair reading to the document. And perhaps more importantly, given my recent trip to Germany, I don’t think my interpretation is all that different from Berlin’s.