Geography is not alone in placing the Old Continent between Russia and the U.S., the world’s strongest nuclear powers. The history of the last century shows that there is a very close political link between these three entities. Ever since the start of the 20th Century, when the balance of power in Europe was closely connected to developments in relations between the great European powers – most of them owners of imposing colonial empires, the largest of which belonged to the United Kingdom, followed by France and Germany, with Russia having the largest contiguous land empire – the U.S. was still committed to the Monroe Doctrine on the exclusivity of the Western Hemisphere and non-interference in European affairs.
Everything changed in the First World War, when the march toward the systemic Pax Americana basically started, although the genesis of the global war was exclusively European. Germany’s fear of Russia, United Kingdom’s fear of Germany, France’s desire for revanche and Austria-Hungary’s aspiration to survive created that mix of contradictions which on the one hand consolidated alliances into political-military blocs that were to confront each other, and on the other hand generated the confrontation during the crisis of July 1914. The strategic balance between the belligerent sides and, at the same time, the collapse of Russia, which started in February 1917, cleared the path toward the U.S.’s decisive intervention in the war (April 1917), propelled by a programme (W. Wilson’s 14 Points) which showed that the great North American power had a global programme.
The world’s centre of systemic power was inexorably moving toward Washington, Europe nevertheless remaining – through its sprawling colonial possessions, its historical tradition as a global political centre for almost 400 years and the close ties between the UK and the U.S. – a key factor of this new global leadership. This irrepressible historical trend was nevertheless stopped, for two decades, by a Senate vote which threw the U.S. into so-called isolationism, a vote that rejected the peace treaty with Germany and the participation within the League of Nations, a first global governance institution.
The U.S. could not hold global leadership, as a Pacific power, without also being a dominant Atlantic power, and, from this geopolitical standpoint, a dominant power of Europe. The vastness of Russia’s territory – which had become the USSR and was aspiring to Bolshevik communism conquering the whole world – was an insurmountable obstacle to dominating Europe, as long as a powerful Russia was claiming a position just as dominant on the Old Continent. This reality was clear in the first decade after the First World War, with Bolshevik Russia, albeit globally isolated, standing out as a European actor – the signing of the Rapallo Agreement with Germany in 1922 – and actively militating for the recognition of its important European position. With the U.S. and Europe diplomatically recognising Soviet Russia in the third decade of the 20th Century, Russia’s European role became obvious. At the end of the 1930s, faced with the threat of German revanche, the powerful British Empire and France sought Russia’s support in containing its continental domination of Europe, entering negotiations in this sense in 1939, when Moscow asked to intervene if needed (German attack) including in support of the Netherlands (so up to the Atlantic). It’s what drove Hitler – after Moscow rejected his proposals to divide the world in November 1940 – to attack the USSR in June 1941.
What happened in the Second World War was but a resumption of a historical trend interrupted by the U.S. Senate’s vote in 1920, namely isolation from European affairs and the postponement of the bid for global domination. In December 1941, the U.S. entered the war against Japan following the infamous attack on Pearl Harbour, and the game of alliances brought Washington into war with Germany and made it an ally of the USSR. The denouement of the conflagration was but a matter of time, what was pending was the look of the post-war world.
The “Big Three” negotiations (Roosevelt, Stalin, Churchill) in this regard outlined the undoubtable reality of U.S. global pre-eminence in this regard: from the creation of post-war governance institutions – the UN, the IMF, the World Bank – to the behaviour toward the defeated, from the principles of systemic legality established through the UN Charter to universal political governance through the “Four Sheriffs” (in the end five) wielding the veto right within the UN Security Council. Moreover, the technology of systemic organisation was established during three large summits of the “Big Three,” in Tehran (December 1943), Yalta (February 1945) and Potsdam (July 1945), in which the role of the U.S. President (the late Roosevelt was replaced by Truman at Potsdam) was decisive.
This time around too, Europe played an extremely important role. Ravaged by war, unable to claim a global leadership role – the interwar period had showed its impotence from this point of view both in the case of the Chinese crisis (1930) and the Abyssinian crisis (1934-1935) but also in the case of the German occupation of the Rhineland (1936) and of Austria (1938) –, Europe was at the discretion of American power. The U.S. maintained occupation forces in Germany after the war (numbering almost half a million soldiers at one point), launched a “Marshall plan” to support continental economic recovery and drew a line of separation from the USSR, first a military line of separation while the war lasted then by forming NATO in 1949, thus openly showing which was its sphere of influence in Europe.
The Cold War with the USSR, taking place on the margins of the danger of nuclear war, was basically another image of the U.S. and Russian fight for the domination of Europe, both superpowers making this goal the symbol of their own domination of the global system. That is why Germany’s “Fulda gap,” where Russian and American armed forces faced each other, became from a military standpoint also a symbol of the potential American-Russian fight for systemic domination.
Beyond Europe, the confrontation between the U.S. and the USSR gained global dimensions, China becoming a communist power, India gravitating toward Moscow, and the latter implementing a very successful policy of avoiding Washington’s containment. In the 1970s, the confrontation between the two superpowers gave room to the joint search for strategic balance (the initiation of SALT then START in the strategic arms domain), provoking a détente that gave Moscow the possibility to deploy in Africa and Central America by offering a new model of social-economic development. Moreover, through the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which started in 1972, it obtained a sought-after prize, namely the freezing of borders in Europe through the Helsinki Final Act (August 1975) and the written recognition of its dominance in Eastern Europe through inter-bloc (NATO-Warsaw Pact) negotiations on the reduction of conventional armaments (CFE).
In the complex equation of “Pax Americana,” which undeniably took hold after the Second World War, another factor appeared first, namely the European Community, growing from 6 members on its establishment in 1957 to 9 members by the end of the Cold War, to 12 in 1995 and to the highest number of 28 member states (including Romania) in 2007. The EC’s evolution was basically Europe’s attempt – guided by the Franco-German duo – to circumvent the hegemonic condominium that the U.S. and USSR exercised over it in a competitive fashion until 1962 and then through an agreement (“détente”) to avoid nuclear war, which materialised on the plane of traditional realism in this condominium sanctioned at Helsinki in 1975.
Simultaneously, another power centre emerged on the global arena, namely communist China. Setting out on the path of capitalism with communist leadership in 1978, China surprised the world with its economic take-off. In three decades, this country of 1.4 billion people became the world’s second-largest economy, the first in the global rankings in terms of volume. As it acquired economic force, Beijing became a factor in global developments, one without which no systemic decision can be safely taken. This is the situation we are in today, the U.S. needing Russia to oppose the Chinese dragon, and Russia having to call on Beijing to be able to promote its own goal to change the global order.
In this equation, Europe is between Scylla and Charybdis, namely between the U.S. and Russia which geopolitically flank it and both of which stringently need to pull the other out of a possible alliance with China. In this situation, for Washington, but also for Moscow, the possible solution to attain this – and which is apparently being considered – is a U.S.-Russia agreement to dominate/rule/control Europe.
This is not the first time Europe finds itself in such a position. During a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of the USSR, on 21 January 1989, M. Gorbachev, Secretary General of the Soviet Communists, mentioned a discussion he had with Henri Kissinger at a “trilateral” summit that had just concluded. Apart from the fact that back then he considered that USSR’s relations with Eastern European communist states must necessarily be changed, that what USSR can offer them must be assessed, Gorbachev said: “Kisa [H. Kissinger] hinted at the idea of a USSR-U.S. condominium over Europe. He was hinting that Japan, German, Spain and South Korea were on the rise, and so, let us make an agreement so that the ‘Europeans do not misbehave.’”
So, the aforementioned political paradigm, namely the establishment of a hegemonic U.S.-Russia condominium, against the backdrop in which Europe’s autonomy is growing, was deemed applicable back then by the same American diplomat (Henri Kissinger) who in recent months has travelled back and forth between Washington and Moscow, holding talks with both Donald Trump and V. Putin.
This is where we are today, and Trump taking office will soon show us where we are heading.