Analysis

Why Superpower Crises Are a Good Thing

A new era of tensions will focus minds and break logjams, as Cold War history shows.

German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.
German children stand atop building rubble in Berlin in 1948.
German children stand atop building rubble to cheer a U.S. cargo plane flying over western Berlin in 1948 as U.S. and British forces airlift food and supplies after Soviet forces surrounded and closed off the besieged city. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
By , a professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Welcome to an era of grave and persistent tension, one in which great-power crises will be frequent and intense. In Europe, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has destabilized the continent’s eastern half, triggered a proxy war with NATO, and created an ever-present risk of escalation. In Asia, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan could touch off a serious crisis between the United States and China. Indeed, given the way the two countries’ interests are now colliding in hot spots throughout the Western Pacific, the question is not whether they will find themselves in some sort of perilous showdown but when, where, and under what circumstances.

These aren’t the only global flash points: Washington is currently laboring under the threat of renewed nuclear crises with Iran and North Korea. But showdowns with even the most roguish of rogue states aren’t as consequential as great-power military crises—incidents that have a meaningful prospect of war. So buckle up for a period when the world’s mightiest actors engage in high-stakes tests of strength.

Crises are terrifying, but they can also be clarifying. Diplomatic or military confrontations illuminate the intentions of an adversary. They vividly illustrate the stakes of geopolitical competition. Crises are also opportunities for constructive action: They can catalyze initiatives and investments that will help the United States triumph in the protracted rivalries ahead.

Welcome to an era of grave and persistent tension, one in which great-power crises will be frequent and intense. In Europe, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has destabilized the continent’s eastern half, triggered a proxy war with NATO, and created an ever-present risk of escalation. In Asia, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan could touch off a serious crisis between the United States and China. Indeed, given the way the two countries’ interests are now colliding in hot spots throughout the Western Pacific, the question is not whether they will find themselves in some sort of perilous showdown but when, where, and under what circumstances.

These aren’t the only global flash points: Washington is currently laboring under the threat of renewed nuclear crises with Iran and North Korea. But showdowns with even the most roguish of rogue states aren’t as consequential as great-power military crises—incidents that have a meaningful prospect of war. So buckle up for a period when the world’s mightiest actors engage in high-stakes tests of strength.

Crises are terrifying, but they can also be clarifying. Diplomatic or military confrontations illuminate the intentions of an adversary. They vividly illustrate the stakes of geopolitical competition. Crises are also opportunities for constructive action: They can catalyze initiatives and investments that will help the United States triumph in the protracted rivalries ahead.

For proof, look backward to the early Cold War. The late 1940s saw near-incessant crises from Western Europe to East Asia. Fears of war were omnipresent amid repeated superpower disputes. Yet Washington and the nascent Western world ultimately came through these crises with a mix of firmness and flexibility and used them as stimulus for many of the historic measures that ultimately won the Cold War. The great policies that positioned the United States for success in this twilight struggle—the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO, and others—were not products of calm, deliberate planning. They were born of the urgency and creativity that flourish in a crisis.

To be sure, no one should welcome the perils that are now coming into view. Yet the United States and its friends can use moments of high tension to address their military weaknesses, strengthen vital coalitions, and rally domestic support for sharper competitive measures. The key to thriving in this era of great-power rivalry will be seizing the opportunities that crises present.


U.S. President Harry Truman addresses a joint session of Congress in 1947 to ask for aid for Greece and Turkey to stave off Soviet influence.
U.S. President Harry Truman addresses a joint session of Congress in 1947 to ask for aid for Greece and Turkey to stave off Soviet influence.

Then-U.S. President Harry Truman addresses a joint session of Congress in Washington on March 12, 1947, to ask for funding and military advisors for Greece and Turkey. Bettmann Archive/Gettty Images

Crises are the norm in great-power rivalries: They occur as participants probe for weakness, gauge one another’s resolve, and measure their relative strengths. Indeed, crises are particularly common near the outset of great-power rivalries, when red lines are yet to be fully established, zones of influence remain fluid, and the key patterns of competition are still being set.

The early Cold War was no exception. Diplomatic collisions and war scares occurred when the Soviet Union exerted pressure on Iran and Turkey in 1946. The first half of 1947 saw one crisis precipitated by communist subversion and coercion against Greece and Turkey and another caused by the economic near-collapse of Western Europe. Early 1948 brought more trouble: a Moscow-backed coup in Czechoslovakia and the onset of then-Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s blockade of West Berlin. In Asia, the Chinese civil war was simultaneously roiling superpower relations. In 1950, the outbreak and escalation of the Korean War put the whole world on edge.

What made this period so geopolitically transformative was that Washington and its friends paired crisis management with crisis exploitation.

Amid these incidents, not even steely nerved statesmen were certain that the Cold War could be kept cold. In 1946, then-U.S. President Harry Truman chose to support Turkey against Soviet intimidation on grounds that “we might as well find out whether the Russians were bent on world conquest now as in five or 10 years.” During the Berlin blockade, Truman wrote of “a terrible feeling … that we are very close to war.” When China intervened in the Korean War in late 1950, many U.S. officials feared that global conflict was imminent.

Truman ultimately avoided such a cataclysm by blending prudence and strength. The United States refused to back down in areas it deemed crucial: Washington supported Turkey, Greece, and Iran against pressure from Moscow or its proxies. The United States stayed in West Berlin during the blockade and even fought a limited war to save South Korea from destruction. Yet Truman also gave ground in areas then thought to be of secondary importance, refusing to intervene in China’s civil war even though that abstention guaranteed a communist victory. And when it became clear that Truman had overreached in Korea—by turning a defensive war to preserve the South into an offensive war to liberate the North—Washington settled for a localized stalemate rather than precipitate a larger conflagration.

Through these measures, the United States avoided potentially disastrous retreats in the Cold War while also limiting the danger of a global hot war. What made this period so geopolitically transformative, though, was that Washington and its friends paired crisis management with crisis exploitation.


Marshall Plan stamps and posters to signal America's aid to Europe's post-war recovery.
Marshall Plan stamps and posters to signal America's aid to Europe's post-war recovery.

Left: A European Recovery Plan emblem is stamped on relief packages sent abroad in 1948. Right: Two men stand in front of a poster supporting the Marshall Plan in 1947. Bettmann Archive/MPI/Getty Images

Consider the emergence of the Truman Doctrine in March 1947. That initiative entailed around $400 million in aid for Greece and Turkey, paired with Truman’s statement that the world was now split between “alternative ways of life” and that the United States must support “free peoples” in their struggle against totalitarian encroachment. At stake was more than the security of the Mediterranean rim, Truman explained. If Washington failed to prevent Moscow and its proxies from imposing their will on independent nations, it risked seeing a global resurgence of the sort of aggression and coercion that had brought on World War II.

The Truman Doctrine helped preserve critical noncommunist outposts at the intersection of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. It made clear that Washington would invest heavily in international stability now rather than paying a great deal more once that stability had crumbled. It also began the process of winning congressional and public support for an open-ended competition with Moscow by compelling Truman to explain what was fundamentally at issue in that competition and ask for new investments to wage it effectively.

Yet the Truman Doctrine was not some carefully crafted, long-gestating initiative: It emerged from an unanticipated crisis caused by an intensifying communist insurgency in Greece, Soviet diplomatic intimidation of Turkey, and the collapse of a bankrupt Britain’s influence in the region. For Washington, the crisis clarified that fading British power would place new and sustained demands on the United States. It forced U.S. officials to devise, in just two weeks, an unprecedented package of peacetime economic and security assistance for Europe—and to marshal the arguments to push that package through a skeptical U.S. Congress. In other words, a fast-breaking emergency stimulated a historic burst of diplomatic creativity and political persuasion.

The Truman Doctrine was not some carefully crafted, long-gestating initiative: It emerged from an unanticipated crisis.

Even more innovative was the Marshall Plan, a record-breaking $12 billion injection of economic assistance meant to revive Western Europe and weld it into a community that could resist Soviet depredations. That policy, too, came together in a comparative snap of the fingers—just three weeks—after worsening economic distress in Europe and growing U.S.-Soviet tensions over how to manage occupied Germany made it clear that there was no time to waste. “The patient is sinking,” then-U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall declared, “while the doctors deliberate.” So the United States threw out its prior hesitance about long-term support for Europe and threw together the program that would spur the continent’s economic and political revitalization.

Yet the Marshall Plan also occasioned new tumults, including sometimes-violent upheavals by communist parties in Western Europe and the Soviet-backed takeover of Czechoslovakia in February 1948. In response, terrified Western European governments created a military alliance and urgently sought to tie the United States to that pact. This was the genesis of the North Atlantic Treaty, a revolutionary project that broke with 150 years of U.S. diplomatic non-entanglement—and never would have been possible without the psychological shock of the Czechoslovak coup and the Berlin blockade that quickly followed.

NATO existed mostly on paper in 1949 though, and it took one final crisis to produce the U.S. alliance structure we know today. The outbreak and intensification of the Korean War led the United States to dispatch additional troops to Europe, seek West Germany’s rearmament, create a unified NATO command structure, and conclude security pacts with Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand. It unleashed a free-world rearmament program meant to provide conventional strength and lasting nuclear superiority vis-à-vis the Soviet bloc.

The crises of the early Cold War forced and allowed Washington to craft the policies, muster the coalitions, rally the domestic support, and build the strong positions that eventually helped it prevail over the Soviet Union.


A destroyed tank in Ukraine amid the ongoing Russian military assault on the country.
A destroyed tank in Ukraine amid the ongoing Russian military assault on the country.

A destroyed tank is seen in Mariupol, Ukraine, on May 30, amid the ongoing Russian military assault on the country. AFP via Getty Images

No one knows precisely how the next few years will unfold. But a new era of rivalry is certainly here, and we should expect a new spate of crises as Washington’s competitions with Moscow and Beijing intensify.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is itching to challenge the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and elsewhere in East Asia, where China’s aspirations collide with the United States’ interests and security commitments. Washington has been signaling its determination to prevent Beijing from coercing its neighbors or asserting control over Taiwan; China has been issuing ever-starker threats toward Taiwan, Japan, and the superpower that supports them. Even if Pelosi’s visit doesn’t lead to a grave security crisis in the Western Pacific, something will.

Meanwhile, don’t think that Russian President Vladimir Putin is about to quietly fade away. A Russia that somehow ekes out a victory in Ukraine may further assert itself in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. A Russia that is clearly losing in Ukraine may be prone to desperate gambles. In Europe and Asia alike, great-power thrusts and probes will be common; competitions in risk-taking will ratchet tensions higher.

Washington can certainly avoid provoking crises gratuitously, but it probably can’t avoid them altogether. The better news is that the United States can put crises to good strategic use.

The free world can make the most of the Ukraine crisis by ensuring that they aren’t caught short when the next crisis—or war—breaks out.

First, crises can reveal an adversary’s intentions. The crises of 1946 and 1947 showed that the Soviet Union was not content with the gains it had made during World War II but was seeking further expansion at the expense of the noncommunist world. We’re learning something similar in Ukraine today.

For years, Western observers debated whether Putin was an unrepentant aggressor or a normal statesman aggrieved by NATO’s expansion toward Russia. As Russian forces murder civilians and massacre prisoners of war and as Putin and his aides openly proclaim their desire to restore the Soviet Union, only the most credulous analysts can still believe that the issue is in doubt. The current crisis has been an utter cataclysm for Ukraine. But it has also forearmed the West by demonstrating what Putin is truly about.

Second, crises can expose weaknesses in the U.S. military posture and provide an opportunity to correct them. The United States and its allies should thank their lucky stars that they discovered the inadequacies of their arsenals and the debilities of their defense industrial bases during Ukraine’s war rather than their own. After only a few months of fighting, Western democracies are confronting painful trade-offs between their ability to support Ukraine and their ability to keep their own militaries well supplied.

This is a scary but informative preview of how rapidly a full-on great-power war, whether in Europe or the Western Pacific, would exhaust Western munitions stockpiles and destroy ships, planes, and other assets that the democracies cannot easily replace. If that problem is now impossible to ignore, the free world can make the most of the Ukraine crisis by surging production of key weapons systems and munitions, investing in greater resilience in their too-fragile defense industries, and otherwise ensuring that they aren’t caught short when the next crisis—or war—breaks out.

Third, crises can accelerate the formation of balancing coalitions. The Ukraine war not only led to an expanded NATO by breaking down Swedish and Finnish ambivalence toward the alliance, but it also nourished a nascent global coalition of democracies—including countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia—that are opposed to autocratic aggression in Europe and potentially elsewhere.

Similarly, a Taiwan Strait crisis could hasten the creation of bilateral and multilateral arrangements meant to hem in Beijing: deeper U.S. military planning on Taiwan contingencies with Japan and Australia, realistic discussions of the role that India or Vietnam might play in a war for dominance of the Western Pacific, the pre-packaging of economic and technological sanctions that Washington and other advanced democracies might use in case of Chinese aggression, and even the emergence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—which has so far downplayed security issues—as a more credible military coalition.

Of course, recklessness is unbecoming in a superpower, so a crisis that Washington is widely seen to provoke—which appears to be the case with Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan—could have the opposite effect. But in a dust-up triggered primarily by an adversary, the United States could make years’ worth of diplomatic progress with its friends.

Fourth, crises can cut through gridlock. The Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty would not have been possible in normal times. Since February, the United States has moved more weapons and money to Ukraine than nearly anyone would have previously thought possible—and it has done so at a speed that is remarkable to anyone familiar with the normally glacial pace of the U.S. government. The question now is whether Washington can use this or a future crisis to achieve something similar on the other side of the world.

Crises can cut through gridlock: Neither the Marshall Plan nor the founding of NATO would have been possible in normal times.

The United States could pursue a significantly expanded and expedited program of military sales and assistance for Taiwan, slashing the red tape that often hinders such programs—if Taiwan ruptures its own inertia by massively increasing its defense budget; adopting a strategy focused on asymmetric capabilities, such as missiles and drones; and building a capacity for resistance by the entire population. Crises may not radically change the world’s understanding of what is necessary—defense analysts have known what Taiwan needs for years—but they can radically reduce the friction that prevents good ideas from being enacted.

Finally, crises are opportunities to build political consensus and momentum. During the Cold War, early crises convinced the American public to support expenditures and policies that would have been unthinkable had tensions not been so high. Crises can jolt democratic systems out of their complacency because they reveal the looming danger more graphically than even the most eloquent speeches or sharply argued strategy documents ever can.

Political torpor is presently a problem. One reason Washington’s China policy often seems stuck in neutral is that many steps to make the United States more competitive, from reducing supply chain dependence on Beijing to spending the money necessary to ensure an adequate defense, carry near-term economic and political costs. That could change when spiking tensions remind Americans of what Truman argued in 1947: that the price of avoiding difficult measures may eventually be higher than the price of taking them.

A serious crisis in the Taiwan Strait or the East China Sea could dramatically shift the calculus of U.S. firms that have so far hesitated to reduce their operations in or exposure to China. It could loosen the government’s purse strings when it comes to diplomacy and defense. It could even cause U.S. leaders to discard political shibboleths—for example, the idea that joining major trade deals, such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, is political poison—that have hindered U.S. strategy.

Crises, former Cold War strategist George Kennan acknowledged, are nearly inevitable: When great powers compete, “There is no real security and there is no alternative to living dangerously.” Great-power crises are once again coming, whether Americans are ready or not. The question is whether Washington can navigate them safely—and use them to its advantage.

Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board, and the co-author, with Michael Beckley, of Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China. Twitter: @HalBrands

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