The West’s biggest vulnerability is internal

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Andrew A. Michta is senior fellow and director of the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative at the Atlantic Council of the United States. Views expressed here are his own.

In the unyielding realm of the Darwinian ecosystem we call international relations, there are rare moments when history abruptly accelerates and decisions set the world on a new course.

This happened when U.S. President Ronald Reagan uttered the famous “we win, they lose” guidance for his administration. Or when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev launched his perestroika reforms in a desperate effort to compete with the newly assertive U.S. — an ill-considered policy that ultimately collapsed the Soviet empire. Or more recently, when Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine for the second time in 2022, and Chinese President Xi Jinping declared Beijing’s “no-limits friendship” with Moscow.

Today, the U.S. and its allies face a similar moment where strategic choices will set the course of history for a generation. But to devise the right strategy, Washington’s political leadership needs to coldly and accurately diagnose what is sickening the world around them  — and its allies must do the same. If not, we risk falling into an all-out global conflict.

Democracies are already in the early stages of a system-transforming war that’s been all but declared by the newly formed “axis of dictatorships.” Russia and China are setting a new global agenda, while Iran and North Korea work to dismantle what’s left of their regional power balances. But political leaders in the U.S. and Europe have been slow to recognize this new reality, with many still clinging to the post-Cold War narrative of a “rules-based international order,” instead of speaking directly to their publics about the storm that’s gathering over the horizon.

Our political establishments seem unable to overcome their disbelief that the good old days of globalization are a thing of the past.

Meanwhile, Russia and China have been arming at speed and scale, with Moscow fully mobilized to generate a force of 1.5 million, and Beijing already commanding a military of over 2 million. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy is already numerically bigger than the U.S. Navy, its shipyards building new units faster than anything U.S. contractors can achieve. And the same goes for the slow rates of munitions production in the U.S., not to mention the subpar performance of Europe’s largest economies when it comes to rearmament. A case in point, this year Russia is expected to produce about three times more artillery munitions than the U.S. and Europe combined — and at much cheaper cost.

Truth is, as the axis of dictatorships continues to consolidate, both politically and militarily, the collective West — though declaring itself united— remains fractured. Democratic allies are often at cross-purposes when it comes to their economic interests, and they lack a shared threat assessment as well.

The post-Cold War decades have accustomed Western societies to life with limited risk — or preferably without risk altogether. In the minds of their citizens, globalization removed state-on-state violence from their national security equation. The “complex interdependence” fostered by the internationalization of manufacturing enmeshed state interests to such an extent, that for them, it became competition rather than war, and negotiation rather than confrontation that framed the world order.

Meanwhile, Russia and China have been arming at speed and scale, with Moscow fully mobilized to generate a force of 1.5 million. | Olga Maltseva/AFP via Getty Images

Our naïveté and wishful thinking prevented us from realizing that when it comes to hard power, there’s only dependence — and there’s nothing complex about that, other than who depends on whom and for what.

But risk is still present. It has always been inherent in our international system — whether manifest in unraveling military balances, mass migration flows or Covid-19. And even though still deemed unacceptable, the only way forward is to relearn how to live with risk and prepare for it.

For the U.S. and its democratic allies to craft a winning strategy against the axis of dictatorships, our political leaders must speak plainly, truthfully and directly: The rules-based international order — if it ever truly existed — is dead. There’s no strategic sleight of hand, no “pivot” that can substitute the imperative to reshore manufacturing to the U.S., decouple from China and double U.S. defense spending, while dramatically reforming our weapons procurement system.

Western leaders must communicate to their people that if we want to preserve our prosperity going forward, we will have to fight for it. If we want to ensure our security — and the security of our children — we must stop clinging to escalation management as our idee fixe, and be ready to go to war if challenged by enemies. Only then will deterrence hold and regional power balances endure.

Citizens across the democratic world don’t need to hear bromides about international norms and values. These have been violated with impunity by Russia, China, Iran and North Korea over the past 20 years. What we need to hear is that there’s no substitute for hard power built on economic strength and national cohesion. After all, it is nations not armies that go to war.

In this context, the biggest challenge democracies face today is the imperative of adaptation. But there can be no adaptation if we don’t articulate what it is we need to adapt to. Simply put: If we want to preserve peace, the U.S. and its allies need to move onto a war footing, if for no other reason than the fact that our enemies have already done so. To mobilize for what’s coming, we need a culture change in how we organize our economic activity and how we relate to each other in society.

We need to bring national security front and center into how we prepare for the future.

Fat times produce managers, hard times produce leaders. Those who mobilized to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, they were children of the Great Depression for whom a cot in Army barracks and three square meals a day awas a good deal. They were accustomed to working with their hands on farms and in factories. And most of all, they had a shared sense of obligation to each other, which comes from knowing one is a part of something larger than themselves: a nation.

Amid our fractured politics, can we say the same of the U.S. or its allies today? Can a country that has to rely on its adversary for critical supply chains hope to persevere and win against it?

And yet, the U.S. still commands unparalleled resources that, if mobilized, would ensure victory. But in order to mobilize, we need honesty. We need to listen to one another once more, and we need leadership that can prepare our societies for this new, unstable international environment.

We need leaders to replace managers — individuals who will have the courage to teach society to accept risk once more and to keep taking risks until we succeed. We need leaders that can articulate a national strategy, which speaks to our irreducible secondary and peripheral national interests, clearly conveying what we’re willing to fight and die for.

Our strategy for victory can’t simply be more reactive normative talk of “defending the rules-based order.” We need a vision of victory in this war, and to communicate it in common sense terms, so that every citizen clearly understands where we’re going and what’s expected of them.

Only then can one place a democracy on a war footing and — should deterrence fail — be able to win.

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