The collapse of Communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe in 1989 convinced most of the West that the world was now headed in the same direction, towards worldwide capitalism and democracy. Things had looked roughly the same 80 years earlier, in 1909 or so, another optimistic moment in which at least one observer, Norman Angell, argued that great-power war had become obsolete. Then the First World War broke out, first in Eastern Europe, and then all over the continent because of imperial Germany's great power ambitions. After the collapse of the Ottoman, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and German empires at the end of that war, the victorious allies looked forward once again to a long peace, but the Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany doomed those hopes as well. The League of Nations failed to prevent small and then large wars in the 1930s.
The US foreign policy establishment, we can now see, looked forward in the early 1990s to the complete hegemony of American values and interests, enforced when necessary by military power. Paul Wolfowitz put this one paper late in the Bush I administration, and no subsequent administration has really abandoned these dreams. George H. W. Bush had fought the first Gulf War with the united support of the UN, but Bill Clinton decided to fight Yugoslavia for Kosovo without it. He also tried and failed to straighten out Somalia, and expanded NATO. Wolfowitz and other neoconservatives returned to power under George W. Bush and wrote a national security strategy declaring, among other things, that the US would attack any nation that was trying to build weapons the US did not think they should have. After 9/11 they implemented that policy in Iraq, with disastrous results, and decided to try to establish a new friendly government in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, initial attempts in the 1990s to use billions of dollars to integrate Russia into the world economy ended very badly, and Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia in 1999. Bush II continued expanding NATO, and at the end of his term tried to bring Georgia and Ukraine into it as well.
Future historians, I think, will see that the collapse of Communism encouraged a new phase of American imperialism focused on the Middle East. That trend continued under Barack Obama, who encouraged the Arab spring, took steps to overthrow Qadaffi in Libya, and committed the US to the overthrow of Assad in Syria. Sick of its elites adventures, the American people in 2016 barely elected Donald Trump, who wanted to end the imperial era. He had nearly pulled out of Afghanistan when he left office, and he apparently had thought seriously about leaving NATO.
The US government did recognize a potential Chinese threat all this time, largely, I suspect, because Taiwan remains the principal reason for the maintenance of the US Navy. The US has been trying to build a new anti-Chinese alliance in Asia, yet we also hoped--and may still hope--that China's increasingly important place in the global economy will dissuade it from dangerous military adventures. The US refused, however, seriously to take account of who Vladimir Putin was and what his ascent to power meant. Shortly after he took power in 1999, bombings of Moscow apartment buildings took several hundred Russian lives. Putin blamed Chechen terrorists--even though there was no ongoing war between Russia and Chechnya at that moment--and made the bombings his pretext to resume the war. He won it by leveling the Chechen capital, Grozny. I recently learned from this excellent episode of This American Life that evidence emerged almost at once that Russian intelligence had set off the fatal bombs in Moscow--and a longtime friend of mine, a Russian expert, confirmed that. Putin, in short, immediately revealed himself as a dictator who would murder his own people to create a pretext for territorial expansion--and it was no secret that he regarded the collapse of the USSR as a catastrophe. He soon began murdering political opponents as well, both inside and outside Russia,. Yet the West, noticing Russia's increasing role as an energy supplier--especially to Western Europe--refused to take him seriously as a long-term threat, and both George W. Bush and Barack Obama treated him as some one we could get along with, at least until the annexation of Crimea and hte beginning of the war against Ukraine in 2014. Donald Trump regarded him as an ally.
The shock within our media and foreign policy establishment at Putin's invasion of Ukraine is wondrous to behold. Many simply cannot believe that Putin would dare do something that we did not believe he should do. Many immediately began grasping at straws suggesting that he could not succeed, such as the hope that oligarchs might overthrow him. This is a real parallel to the response to Hitler in the late 1930s, when many hoped that "moderates" in the German government would restrain him. Putin, however, is obviously an outlaw determined to use terror to tighten his rule at home and force to expand it abroad History tells us, too, that that is not necessarily a self-defeating strategy. That is how the Russian empire was originally created and expanded, and then restored under the USSR. Our vision of a world in which such things do not happen is simply not self-actualizing in the real world.
Two years ago, a longtime friend of mine, a political scientist and retired Air Force colonel named Thomas Ehrhard, summarized the impact of post-cold war thinking on our military in this excellent article. Assuming--like the British government in the 1920s and early 1930s--that a great-power war was too unlikely to worry about, our military stopped preparing for one. That may be one reason why the Pentagon does not seem to be showing any appetite for intervention in Ukraine, the course of action which I continue to believe we should seriously consider. The battlefield news from Ukraine is still good, although the devastation of the major cities and the refugee crisis are horrifying. Unless the war ends with Putin's fall, however--an outcome that does not seem in the least likely--NATO will have to contend with very real threats to seize the Baltic states--which are far less defensible than Ukraine.
Putin has been much more patient and more clever than Hitler was. He spent years building up his economy and shoring up his domestic position. He was not, like Hitler, impelled by economic problems to expand rapidly. He did test the waters in 2014 and emerged relatively unscathed. (It isn't clear that the sanctions the west imposed at that time did that much harm.) The Chinese have also been patient. Yet Russia, and perhaps Chna as well, now feels entitled to use its military power to secure territorial ambitions. It's true that the US set the precedent for unrestrained use of its military power in Kosovo, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. I opposed two of those interventions but I will not make the popular era of assuming that we have no right to complain about Russia's aggression because of our own behavior. A Second World War solution to the problems of Russia and China--their conquest--is obviously impossible. We must figure out what we can do, and what we are willing to do, militarily, to stop their expansion if sanctions do not bring down Putin.