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We’re Sleepwalking off a Cliff

A 1931 book of essays titled If It Had Happened Otherwise contains German-Swiss writer Emil Ludwig’s chapter, “If the Emperor Frederick Had Not Had Cancer.” Ludwig has the German ruler living past 1888 and, together with his wife Empress Victoria, leading a liberal German empire with a British-style cabinet. As a consequence, there’s no belligerent “New Course” from son Kaiser Wilhelm II. Wilhelm’s tactless statements, the erratic foreign policy, the naval build-up, the colonial expansion, and the posturing and brinkmanship that helped lead to World War I—all this gets deleted from history and 1914 becomes a year of peace.

Winston Churchill investigates in the same volume what might have happened had the Confederacy won the American Civil War. Churchill has an ironic twist: The South’s own abolition of slavery. Along similar lines, Abraham Lincoln had concluded, “If willing faithfully to cleanse this continent of slavery, and if they will dwell beside us in goodwill as an independent but friendly nation, it would not be right to prolong the slaughter on the question of sovereignty alone.” In Churchill’s counterfactual history, the two Americas and Britain form the “English Speaking Association” and prevent World War I.

Swastika Night was published in 1937. British writer Katharine Burdekin, writing under the pseudonym Murray Constantine, depicts a Nazi future with Jews eradicated, a cult of masculinity gone wild, and women confined in concentration camps serving reproduction purposes only. Burdekin used a pseudonym to protect her family from fascist attacks in England.

The Man in the High Castle came later. Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel is about a dystopian alternate reality where victorious Germany and Japan have divided America into two occupied territories after World War II. Japanese Pacific States are in the west with San Francisco as regional capital. New York is Greater Nazi Reich’s capital in the east. The Amazon-produced television series based on the book premiered in January 2015.

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Russia’s full-scale war on Ukraine began two winters ago with proclamations of “Glory to Ukraine.” Those blue and yellow flags were hoisted everywhere. We all knew that Russian revanchism had to be defeated. An end to Vladimir Putin’s imperialist project, we said, would send the signal that America and its allies were prepared to defend the rules-based world order. China and Iran would be chastened. Authoritarian populism would be dealt a blow. Liberal democracy across the West would rally and be revived.

What if Ukraine loses the war? We’re now getting used to the idea that yet another made-in-Moscow frozen conflict may lie in store. If this is where we’re headed, we’d profit from a wide lens and a long-term view of possibilities and probabilities of what’s apt to follow.

Vladimir Putin is almost certain to use a freeze as a tactical pause to start building back better. Russian armed forces performed miserably at the outset. But then Putin fired commanders, discovered Iranian drones, survived sanctions, and identified a secret weapon—the vast quantity of men he can chuck onto the battlefield. Ask Poland, the Baltic nations, and the Nordic states how secure they’ll feel if today’s Russia, led by an indicted war criminal, is allowed to sit at the table to negotiate peace through Ukrainian partition.

If Kyiv feels compelled to cede territory to invading, occupying forces, Ukrainians will finish the war divided with grievance rather than united and rejuvenated. A friend describes a bleak scene: a village in western Ukraine where inhabitants are women, the elderly, and young men back from war without limbs. Get used to the profile. Young amputees will feature in a future Ukrainian parliament. A decent number will be bitter from sacrifice without victory. The Ukrainian vision all along has been that all invading Russian forces must leave Ukraine. 

Absent this outcome, an angry political Right will get traction, blaming the West for temporizing and appeasement. We gave Ukraine just enough weapons, they’ll maintain, to prolong the war and settle for a draw. Growing ranks of radicals and neo-Nazis will go underground to fight Russian occupying forces in the east. Crimea will remain in Russian hands. The Black Sea will become a Russian lake.

Marjorie Taylor Greene and Viktor Orbán will say I told you so. This was never our war, they’ll sermonize, and Russia was never to be defeated anyway. Pointing to what they describe as those corrupt, ungrateful Ukrainians, authoritarian populists will get a boost. This will include both the right-wing AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) and Sahra Wagenknecht’s new left-wing workers’ party in Germany. It will include Marine Le Pen’s comparably pro-Russian National Rally party in France. Le Pen will have a chance at the French presidency in three years. Michel Houellebecq’s last speculative novel Destroy actually has Le Pen stepping aside and a turn to an even harder Right in 2027.

By then Germany’s Zeitenwende will have gone out with a whimper as Germans turn to a new “principled realism.” Winning would have mattered. But now German Greens and other ardent war supporters will be chastised. Berlin will adjust to accommodate new realities. Russia is still a nuclear power with national interests that are hardly illegitimate, it will be said. America can’t make up its mind about its place in the world; it’s either turning inward or toward Asia. A Berlin-Moscow rapprochement makes parts of Central and northern Europe more than jittery.

By 2027, Poland will be on the path to its own nuclear weapons. It was a grave mistake, Warsaw will explain, that Ukraine ever gave theirs up in the 1990s—and placed faith in the security assurances of Britain and the United States. The European unity that came about initially as a result of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine will be a distant memory. The EU will splinter between Russia hawks and peace-pragmatists. As the United States steps back, Iran will step forward to drive new wedges between Europe and Israel. Mercantilism returns. It fits the evolving and energetic nationalist Zeitgeist and appears to more manageable than what’s now maligned as the old “human rights-centered” foreign policy.

Irredentism is back. Budapest talks about Greater Hungary. This includes Hungarians who comprise the third-largest minority in Ukraine. Far-right Romanians will gain momentum and want back territories that currently belong to Ukraine and Moldova. Hungary also has claims in Romania. War will threaten the Balkans and talk of Greater Serbia will make headlines again. Russia’s war on Ukraine set precedent. Nations can change borders by force. 

Hybrid war goes wild. Russia will rail about endangered ethnic Russians in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia—and use cyberattacks, disinformation, and assassination to destabilize. NATO will worry about pretexts for intervention, but signal there’s little it can do under present circumstances. No one wants World War III. By now Georgia is firmly in the Russia camp, Turkey is all but gone from NATO, and Russia is preparing for another go at Kyiv. 

Ukrainian politics will be fragmented and dysfunctional. Reconstruction will be slower and more expensive than expected. Polish-Ukrainian relations will be fraught with farmers and truckers feuding through border blockades. No one in the West can stomach the idea of another full-scale Russia-Ukraine war. The luster will have vanished from Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who started as Ukraine’s Churchill but who now, out of power, will be blamed by everybody for the immense war costs of 2022–2025 and a bad outcome. 

China will be having a field day. Chinese Communists wanted the United States humbled over Ukraine and thinking twice about the defense of Taiwan. Beijing wanted Russia as its wingman and America marginalized in this part of the world. It had long seen southeastern Europe and the Black Sea region as a gateway to wider Europe. Splitting America from an internally divided EU is now an achievable goal for the Russians and the Chinese. 

And what if the United States is led by our own Kaiser Wilhelm?

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During Wilhelm II’s time, Austria-Hungary was coming apart. Nationalist awakening was everywhere. Trust in any sort of consensual politics was eroding. Faith in armies over process and parliaments had taken root. The Kaiser wasn’t responsible for these trends, but his reckless, erratic leadership and narcissism (Opens in a new window) fed them. A close adviser to Kaiser Wilhelm observed:

Wilhelm II takes everything personally. . . . He cannot stand boredom; ponderous, stiff, excessively thorough people get on his nerves and cannot get anywhere with him. Wilhelm II wants to shine and to do and decide everything himself. What he wants to do himself unfortunately often goes wrong. . . . To get him to accept an idea one has to pretend that the idea came from him.

Wilhelm was bellicose abroad and divisive and vicious at home. “Behead the socialists,” he said. “It may come about that I order you to shoot down your own relatives.” 

We’ll see about America 2025. You don’t have to believe in dystopian futures, though, to grasp the current nature of the problem. Our excessive concern about escalation—and our unwillingness to define clear war aims—has meant we’ve never given freedom-fighting Ukrainians the full military firepower they need to prevail in this war. 

Adversaries and allies alike are watching. A clock is ticking and you can feel victory slipping away. It’s not too late to provide Ukraine with the additional weaponry it urgently needs and a path to victory. Imagine what defeat looks like.

Jeffrey Gedmin (Opens in a new window) is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.


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