President Joe Biden is in Europe to inaugurate the post-, post-Cold War era.
For the first time in at least 30 years, a US president has arrived with the continent rattled by Russian aggression and jarred by a return of nuclear brinkmanship. The West is also mourning its shattered illusion that it had entered an era of perpetual peace.
Biden’s visit to address NATO and European Union leaders in Brussels and his travel to Poland, an alliance frontline state, will underscore how the world changed – probably irrevocably – as soon as the first Russian tank rolled over Ukraine’s border four weeks ago.
For three decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, presidents have traveled to Europe and idealized the West’s victories over Nazism and Communism. Standing among the American dead in a D-Day World War II cemetery in Normandy or orating in an idyllic city square in Prague or Warsaw, US commanders-in-chief have often called transatlantic bonds unshakeable and forever.
Yet in recent years, it’s seemed like presidents and their audiences were going through the motions. The passing of the Greatest Generation severed the emotional twine of memory between Americans and Europeans over World War II. It’s been more than three decades since Europeans had to worry about fallout shelters, and people with strong memories of the Cold War are in middle age. European leaders cashed in their peace dividend on health care systems and neglected their militaries. And the United States looked to rising Asia and its next superpower rival, China.
A geopolitical wake-up call
Those unshakeable bonds – and the reason for them – didn’t seem so relevant, or necessary anymore, in the borderless Instagram age, especially as Russians, rarely seen enemies 40 years ago, now throng glitzy spots in London and Nice.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin, nurturing grievances seeded when he observed the fall of Communism from East Germany as a KGB officer and obsessed with reviving Russian greatness, changed all that. In the process, he reminded the West what it was for, shaking governments like Germany’s out of their post-Cold War complacency, and proved that the United States is still serious about the transatlantic alliance.
A new Iron Curtain has descended on Europe – this time a virtual one of economic sanctions that has severed air links, impounded oligarch cash and closed down Starbucks, Apple stores and Formula One races in Russia. NATO is rushing battle groups to frontline states like Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia. The alliance is locked in an sudden proxy war with Russia in Ukraine, funneling hundreds of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s forces. Vicious civilian carnage and city-destroying barrages by Russia in Ukraine and the exodus of millions of refugees into Europe are, meanwhile, echoing the worst passages of the continent’s blood-soaked 20th century history.