U.S. Grand Strategy After Ukraine

Seven thinkers weigh in on how the war will shift U.S. foreign policy.

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Illustration United States Ukraine
Illustration United States Ukraine
Sebastien Thibault for Foreign Policy

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Sebastien Thibault for Foreign Policy


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is nearly a month old, and to call it an epochal shift already feels like a cliche. It’s the first all-out war of aggression in Europe since 1945. China appears to be edging closer to a bruised Russia. The United States and its allies have not been as unified in decades, with even Germany waking up to the need to rearm.

Now, the shock of war has the Biden administration scrambling to rewrite its national security blueprint. The U.S. Defense Department’s National Defense Strategy, which lays out the United States’ approach to long-term security challenges, was originally scheduled to come out in February; it has now been delayed until further notice. When the revised version of Washington’s most important security document is released, it will have to reflect new realities: Russia’s aggression has fundamentally changed European security in ways that are still unclear as the war drags on, not least because of uncertainty over the extent to which the conflict draws Beijing closer to Moscow. What’s more, the West’s response—including an unprecedented economic war—has suddenly given foreign-policy strategists a bigger toolkit to draw from as they plan for future challenges.

How will the war change U.S. grand strategy, which until one month ago seemed almost entirely focused on China and the Indo-Pacific? We asked seven leading foreign-policy thinkers to weigh in.—Stefan Theil, deputy editor

Hand European Security Over to the Europeans

By Stephen M. Walt, a columnist at Foreign Policy and professor of international relations at Harvard University

Florence Parly and Vasile Dancu
Florence Parly and Vasile Dancu

French Defense Minister Florence Parly (center left) and Romanian Defense Minister Vasile Dancu walk in front of French army personnel as they arrive at the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania on March 6. DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP via Getty Images

For more than a century, U.S. grand strategy has focused on helping to maintain favorable balances of power in Europe, East Asia, and to a lesser extent the Persian Gulf. China’s rise is the greatest long-term challenge to the United States’ ability to maintain these favorable configurations of power, and Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine does not alter that fact. Looking ahead, the Biden administration should not allow the shocking events in Europe to divert it from the larger task of rebuilding strength at home and balancing Chinese power abroad.

Properly understood, the war in Ukraine shows that Europe taking greater responsibility for its security is not only desirable but feasible. The war has been a wake-up call for Europeans who believed that large-scale war on their continent had been made impossible by norms against conquest, international institutions, economic interdependence, and U.S. security guarantees. Russia’s actions are a brutal reminder that hard power is still vitally important and that Europe’s self-ascribed role as a “civilian power” is not enough. Governments from London to Helsinki have responded vigorously, belying predictions that “strategic cacophony” within Europe would prevent the continent from responding effectively to a common threat. Even pacifist, postmodern Germany appears to have gotten the memo.

The war has also exposed Russia’s persistent military deficiencies. Despite months of planning and preparation, the Russian invasion of far weaker Ukraine has been an embarrassing debacle for Russian President Vladimir Putin. No matter what he may hope, it is now obvious that Russia is simply not strong enough to restore its former empire—and will be even less so as Europe rearms.

Moreover, even if Russia’s brutal tactics and superior numbers eventually force Ukraine to capitulate, Moscow’s power will continue to decline. Neither Europe nor the United States will return to business as usual with Russia as long as Putin remains in power, and the sanctions now in place will hamstring the battered Russian economy for years to come. Propping up a puppet regime in Kyiv would force Russia to keep a lot of unhappy soldiers on Ukrainian soil, facing the same stubborn insurgency that occupying armies typically encounter. And every Russian soldier deployed to police a rebellious Ukraine cannot be used to attack anyone else.

The bottom line is that Europe can handle a future Russian threat on its own. NATO’s European members have always had far greater latent power potential than the threat to their east: Together, they have nearly four times Russia’s population and more than 10 times its GDP. Even before the war, NATO’s European members were spending three to four times as much on defense each year than Russia. With Russia’s true capabilities now revealed, confidence in Europe’s ability to defend itself should increase considerably.

For these reasons, the war in Ukraine is an ideal moment to move toward a new division of labor between the United States and its European allies—one where the United States devotes attention to Asia and its European partners take primary responsibility for their own defense. The United States should drop its long-standing opposition to European strategic autonomy and actively help its partners modernize their forces. NATO’s next supreme allied commander should be a European general, and U.S. leaders should view their role in NATO not as first responders but as defenders of last resort.

Turning European security over to Europeans should be done gradually. The situation in Ukraine is still unresolved, and European defense capabilities cannot be restored overnight. Over the longer term, the United States, NATO, and the European Union should also strive to construct a European security order that does not exclude Russia—both to enhance stability in Europe and to wean Moscow away from its growing dependence on China. This development must await new leadership in Moscow but should be a long-term objective.

After 9/11, the United States got sidetracked into a costly so-called war on terrorism and a misguided effort to transform the greater Middle East. The Biden administration must not make a similar error today. Ukraine cannot be ignored, but it does not justify a deeper U.S. commitment to Europe once the present crisis is resolved. China remains the only peer competitor, and waging that competition successfully should remain the United States’ top strategic priority.

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Economic War Has Changed the Strategic Toolkit Forever

By Shannon O’Neil, a vice president, deputy director of studies, and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

U.S. President Joe Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden

U.S. President Joe Biden addresses the Russian invasion of Ukraine and announces Western sanctions against Russia from the East Room of the White House in Washington on Feb. 24. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s war of conquest and destruction in Ukraine might hark back to Europe’s brutal 20th-century past, but the United States and its allies answered with a distinctly 21st-century response when they imposed unprecedented economic and financial sanctions, while also providing some amount of traditional military aid. It was not just a calibrated response to avoid escalation with a nuclear power but also a bold experiment in breaking from centuries of how wars have been fought and great-power status defined. Rather than physical occupation, the U.S. approach is financial subjugation and economic destruction. It’s a virtual rather than an actual siege, but the goal is the same: to squeeze Russia into submission.

This could change the United States’ foreign-policy toolkit forever, with profound consequences for Washington’s strategic outlook.

The outcome, of course, is uncertain. Past use of sanctions rarely—if ever—brought regime change or ended wars. As we can all see in Ukraine, even massive sanctions have yet to deliver recognizable victories. The West will find that sanctions are not without fallout and even casualties. Shortfalls and price spikes induced by sanctions will wrack the U.S. and European economies. Civilians, especially in poorer countries around the world, could die as food prices skyrocket and houses get unbearably hot or cold when electricity fails.

But if the United States prevails—and the economic battle forces Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull back his military or even lose power—it will fundamentally reframe grand strategy, the nature of alliances, and the great-power hierarchy far into the 21st century. It will reassert U.S. dominance with a new means of hegemony. It will deter other aggressors as they realize they have little way to shield themselves from the devastating fallout of economic and financial war. It will presage a new kind of nonmilitary arms race, where nations compete to set up their own systems and regional commercial blocks, reconfiguring the balance of economic power. Ultimately, Russia’s war in Ukraine will redefine what it means to be a great power and the nature of conflicts to come.

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Maintain the Strategic Focus on China

By Toshihiro Nakayama, a professor of U.S. politics and foreign policy at Keio University

U.S. President Biden and China’s President Xi
U.S. President Biden and China’s President Xi

The evening CCTV news broadcast airs coverage of a virtual summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping outside a shopping mall in Beijing on Nov. 16, 2021. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Russia’s war in Ukraine will change geopolitical perceptions much more than geopolitical reality. While Russia under President Vladimir Putin looms large as a short-term challenge, China will remain the overriding threat in the medium to long term. How to balance the two will be critically important. Although attention tends to be drawn to the here and now, strategic focus must be maintained. We can expect major changes in Russia after Putin—if he does not take the world to hell before his demise. But the threat from China is structural, where a change in leadership will not bring major changes. The overwhelming reality is that China is narrowing the power gap with the United States.

Nevertheless, Washington’s attention will have to be drawn toward the European front. In the face of Russia’s attempt to reestablish a sphere of influence through the use of force, the United States has no choice but to confront it with power. Even Europe, after it had noticeably distanced itself from the United States, has rediscovered that U.S. power is indispensable. Germany’s review of its defense posture, for example, is based on this premise.

China will try to behave as a more responsible country even as it cozies up to Russia. Seeing the unity of the West and its partners in response to Russia’s war, Beijing may just now be learning how dangerous a game it is to attempt to change the status quo by force. It will become increasingly difficult for China to justify a Sino-Russian partnership with “no limits,” as Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping jointly described it shortly before the invasion. China may emphasize that it is not an outlaw state like Russia while doubling down on establishing a sphere of influence through nonmilitary coercion, as it is already doing. In Washington, it appears as if the battle between advocates of strategic competition and those of engagement has been settled in favor of the former, but we may see pushback by those who favor engagement based on the argument that China is behaving more responsibly than Russia.

The United States does not have the operational capability or sustained attention for a full long-term commitment to two spheres. But geopolitical reality demands that Washington commit to both. If this is the case, then U.S. allies and partners on both the European and Indo-Pacific fronts will have no choice but to commit themselves more actively. The good news is that there are signs this is already happening.

The message is certainly coming through that the United States will not intervene in Ukraine directly. This is understandable, as there is a clear line between NATO and non-NATO members. While this logic cannot be applied directly to Asia, there is no doubt that how we perceive U.S. credibility will be greatly affected by how the United States acts in Ukraine.

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Build Out the Trans-Atlantic World

By Anne-Marie Slaughter, the CEO of New America

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock attends the opening of a forum for the creation of Germany’s new security strategy in Berlin on March 18. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted a rethinking in Germany of its security paradigm. Pool/Getty Images

The consensus opinion about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is that we are at an inflection point in global affairs, that the post-Cold War era is now over, and that if Putin wins, he will have rewritten the rules of the liberal international order. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is horrific, brutal, and a flagrant violation of international law, and the West should do everything—short of engaging Russia directly—to help the Ukrainians fight Russian forces to a standstill. But is this invasion a difference of degree so great that it is a difference of kind?

Putin already broke international law in precisely the same way in 2014, when he invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. The United States violated the same pillar of the international order when it invaded Iraq without formal approval from the U.N. Security Council. Both the Soviet Union and the United States invaded countries they considered to be within their spheres of influence during the Cold War.

The fundamental change today is not Putin’s war but China’s refusal to condemn it. As CNN’s Fareed Zakaria has written, pushing Moscow and Beijing closer together is a costly strategic byproduct of the Biden administration’s policy of challenging and containing China. A world in which China and Russia support each other in redrawing territorial maps and rewriting the rules of the international system—rather than working to gain influence within existing institutions—is a much more dangerous world.

In this context, the folly of the Biden administration’s elevation of the U.S.-China rivalry as the focal point of its security policy is all the more evident. Washington should have focused on Europe first by building out a trans-Atlantic economic, political, security, and social agenda and expanding it as far as possible across the entire Atlantic hemisphere, both North and South. The best way to compete with China is to recognize that the continents that both Europe and the United States have treated as their backyards deserve front-yard treatment.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine underlines just how indispensable Europe is as a military ally but even more as an economic, moral, and legal partner. Europe, however, has a different perspective: Although the invasion appears to be convincing key European countries—above all, Germany—to increase their defense spending, they are not doing this to draw closer to the United States. Rather, they are preparing for a future in which Europe may no longer be able to count on U.S. support. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke of purchasing a new generation of fighter jets and tanks but insisted they would have to be built in Europe with European partners. Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s hostility to NATO and the continuing dysfunction of the U.S. political system have rattled European leaders even as they appreciate the Biden administration’s assiduous diplomacy and staunch support.

The United States should encourage all European efforts to develop a stronger and more coherent pan-European defense—not least because European military power will make Washington less likely to take Europe for granted. At the same time, the Biden administration should press ahead with a new trans-Atlantic trade and investment treaty and digital common market. The United States should also encourage European relationships with countries in the global south while acknowledging they are often freighted with postcolonial baggage. And after Putin’s demise, Washington should support Europe in building a new security architecture from the Atlantic to the Urals, perhaps with intersecting and overlapping circles of defense cooperation among groups of countries. NATO will never be able to stretch to the Pacific, so other frameworks should be pursued.

This reengineered U.S. grand strategy will, in fact, put democracies at its center—but not by framing it as an epic struggle between democracies and autocracies. Instead, the West should be focusing on the many good things that democracy and the rule of law can bring: individual agency, self-government, transparency, accountability, a fairer distribution of wealth, and avenues of recourse when human rights are violated. Putting these values at the center of U.S. foreign policy would, of course, make it all the more imperative to deliver on them at home.

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Empower Alliances and Share Burdens

By C. Raja Mohan, a columnist at Foreign Policy and senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinpin
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinpin

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet in Beijing on Feb. 4. ALEXEI DRUZHININ/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Unlike the Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy, which viewed both Russia and China equally as threats, the Biden administration focused mainly on China in its 2021 interim guidance. U.S. President Joe Biden even reached out to Russian President Vladimir Putin in pursuit of a stable and predictable relationship that could let Washington focus on its priorities in the Indo-Pacific.

Unsurprisingly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised questions about the sustainability of Biden’s tilt toward the Indo-Pacific. Does the United States have enough political bandwidth and military resources to cope with simultaneous challenges in both Europe and Asia? Some in Asia now worry that the threat posed by Russia in Europe could compel Biden to ease the confrontation with China and return to a China-first strategy in the region.

Notwithstanding Washington’s diplomatic attempts to enlist Beijing’s help in stopping Putin’s war, the Feb. 4 joint proclamation of a Sino-Russian partnership with “no limits” by Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping precludes Biden from choosing between the European and Asian theaters. Further, the geopolitical trajectories of Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China are founded in a shared deep distrust of the United States. The room for either leader to negotiate a separate peace with Washington seems quite small; if anything, the prospect of a weakened Russia could bring them closer together.

If Washington now faces both Chinese and Russian challenges, it must necessarily empower its allies and modernize burden-sharing arrangements in Asia and Europe. Fortunately, the Biden administration’s grand strategy has the space to do both. Its special emphasis on building what U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan calls a “latticework of flexible partnerships, institutions, alliances, [and] groups of countries” has already gained considerable traction in Asia.

As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi put it recently, the United States has developed a “five-four-three-two” formation in Asia—“from strengthening the Five Eyes to peddling the Quad, from piecing together AUKUS to tightening bilateral military alliances.” There could be no better endorsement of the Biden administration’s latticework in Asia. Thanks to Putin’s war in Ukraine, Europe’s prolonged sabbatical from geopolitics has come to an end. It is finally ready to do more for its own defense, including a historic German decision to rearm.

If the United States’ European allies take greater responsibility for securing their homelands from the Russian threat, there is little reason for Washington to downgrade Asian concerns for the sake of European stability. Unlike the Europeans’ more recent epiphany, U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific—especially Australia, India, and Japan—have been ready to shoulder greater responsibilities for Asian security.

Neither Asia nor Europe can balance China and Russia on its own for the foreseeable future. But by doing more for their own security, they help boost U.S. domestic political support for sustained military commitment to the two regions. By promoting a larger role and increased political say for its allies, Washington can build durable regional balances of power in Asia and Europe—backed by U.S. military power. That, in turn, might compel Beijing and Moscow to adopt more reasonable approaches to their neighbors and discard the belief that they can cut superpower deals with Washington over the heads of Asia and Europe. Shared security burdens and empowered alliances with the United States will make it easier for Asia and Europe to explore the balance of near-term containment of and long-term reconciliation with China and Russia. That outcome reinforces the enduring goal of U.S. grand strategy—to prevent the domination of either region by a single great power.

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Washington’s Challenge Is to Keep Russia Isolated

By Robin Niblett, the director and chief executive of Chatham House

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a concert marking the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on March 18. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has revealed as much about the weak state of the European security order as it has changed it. Putin had long advertised his rejection of the eastward enlargement of NATO and the European Union—and the risks that he believed this liberal democratic wave posed to Russian interests. Twice he sought to hold back the tide: first in Georgia in 2008 and then again with his first attack on Ukraine in 2014, following the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russia president, Viktor Yanukovych.

Policymakers in Washington and European capitals became accustomed to the resultant strategic ambiguity. It seemed a sustainable—if unsatisfactory—status quo to keep Russia under persistent mild sanctions for its annexation of Crimea and proxy war in eastern Ukraine while slowly boosting European and U.S. investment in NATO and national defense, at least until Putin moved out of the Kremlin. Overall, Russia appeared to be a bit player in the global security architecture—interfering with elections, continuing with occasional cyberattacks and targeted assassinations, and reinserting itself into unstable countries around the world.

This created space for the Biden administration to undertake a serious geopolitical pivot toward the Indo-Pacific following stalled efforts during the Obama and Trump administrations. This pivot has strengthened the United States’ security relations with its major allies in the region, formalizing them in different layers of intensity, from the softer Quad partnership with Australia, India, and Japan to the harder Australia-United Kingdom-United States pact, known as AUKUS, with its overt security dimensions.

The United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy has also entailed taking an ever harder line toward China. Washington has put restrictions on technology transfer and imposed sanctions on Beijing for its abuse of human rights in Xinjiang and anti-democracy crackdown in Hong Kong. For the Biden administration, this is the moment to recognize that the world has not moved into a bipolar Sino-U.S. confrontation but a global contest between the democratic world and the two anchor autocracies, Russia and China.

Tying China into the Western sanctions orbit alongside Russia—even if for unrelated reasons—has brought these two great powers closer together, as demonstrated by Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s joint declaration in February that their countries’ support for each other would have “no limits.” With its rhetorical support for Russia’s war, China appears to be standing by this agreement.

To try to detach China from Russia amid this crisis will be very difficult. Threats of secondary sanctions against China if it provides overt economic support to Russia will carry significant risks to the broader U.S. strategy. The Chinese market will continue to be important to European and Asian countries in ways the Russian economy is not. Holding both trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific alliances together will be far more difficult if the conflict is not just between the West and Putin but between the West and an allied Russia and China.

Few countries will want to follow the United States back into such a starkly divided world. The challenge remains to keep Russia isolated and exposed for its flagrant and brutal invasion of a sovereign neighbor. And to avoid, if possible, the burden for U.S. strategy of having to manage the risks of a two-theater conflict with allies that would be much more ambivalent about that scenario than the threat posed by Russia alone in Europe.

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Washington’s Russia Policy Won’t Work in Asia

By Kishore Mahbubani, a distinguished fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute

Mike Pompeo and Mark Chen
Mike Pompeo and Mark Chen

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) bumps fists with former Taiwanese Foreign Minister Mark Chen before delivering a speech at a hotel during his visit to Taipei on March 4. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

The lesson for U.S. strategy from Russia’s war in Ukraine is simple: Geopolitical pragmatism is better at keeping the peace than the morally absolutist view that every country should be free to choose its own destiny, regardless of the geopolitical consequences.

Of course, the Russian invasion must be condemned. Yet those who recklessly advocated NATO membership for Ukraine and accelerated Western arms shipments to the country must also bear some moral responsibility for leading the Ukrainian geopolitical lamb to the slaughter and for creating massive global instability. All this pain and suffering could have been avoided had those who counseled geopolitical pragmatism—including great strategic thinkers such as George F. Kennan and Henry Kissinger, who warned about this precise issue—been listened to.

In Asia, it is equally dangerous to take the morally absolutist view that the people of Taiwan should be free to choose their own destiny. Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo advocated this on a recent visit to Taiwan when he said “the U.S. government should immediately take necessary, and long-overdue, steps” and offer Taiwan “diplomatic recognition as a free and sovereign country.”

There are few geopolitical certainties in the world. One of them is that if Taiwan unilaterally declares independence, China will declare war on it. This is why few people in Asia advocate independence for Taiwan.

Equally importantly, unlike the strong Western response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there would be no similarly united Asian response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The lack of a forceful response wouldn’t prove that Asian countries are immoral—only that they don’t approve of geopolitical recklessness.

The biggest change in mindset required of U.S. policymakers engaged in Indo-Pacific policy is to drop the black-and-white political lens that leads them to work only with allies and partners—for example, those in the AUKUS pact, including Australia and the United Kingdom, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, including Australia, India, and Japan. Instead, the United States needs to learn to be geopolitically pragmatic and work with groups in Asia that include China.

There’s one fundamental difference between Europe and Asia that U.S. policymakers might consider as they shape their future strategy. Whereas the Russian economy, notwithstanding its role as an energy supplier, is only lightly integrated into the European geoeconomic space, China’s is fully integrated in Asia. For example, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ trade with China was nearly double its trade with the United States in 2020.

Critics of Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy are right to point at the big hole in this strategy where a long-term economic policy should be. But the hole is even bigger than that: The United States lacks the capacity to fashion geopolitically pragmatic strategies that align with those of most Asian states, which have no issue including China in their regional groupings. In fact, they recognize that binding China within multilateral groupings is the best approach. If this kind of geopolitical pragmatism prevents the outbreak of war in Asia—whether over Taiwan or another issue—it will be far superior to the West’s moral absolutism over Ukraine.

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