The West’s “Too Little Too Late” Collective Security

March 7, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Global Tags: IranRussiaChinaTaiwanUkraineU.S. Foreign Policy

The West’s “Too Little Too Late” Collective Security

Western powers should overcome the counterproductive incrementalism and hesitation with which they sanction and deter adversaries and arm and assist friends.


The Munich Security Conference, an annual event that brings together world leaders to discuss major security problems, adjourned last month. Indicative of today’s fraught and severe threat environment, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, whose people fight on against genocidal invader Russia, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, whose country poses grave challenges to democracies, and Yulia Navalny, whose brave dissident husband “died” in the cruel confines of a Russian prison, were among the speakers. Outside the conference venue, protestors urged attendees to stop “appeasement” of the brutal, militant Iranian regime.

Such gatherings can engender dialogue and ideas but can also become excuses for delaying taking responsibility for global issues. Given the magnitude of the threats the Free World now faces, the United States and Europe should rely less on meetings, “talks,” and “strongly worded statements” and more on decisive action and demonstrations of resolve. They should overcome the incrementalism and hesitation with which they sanction and deter adversaries and arm and assist friends. They should eschew the avoidance and wishful thinking that allows them to believe the false promises of dictators and aggressors. They must respond quickly rather than belatedly to escalating atrocities and hostilities. 


Urging a change in mindset away from “baseless optimism” and “self-deception,” Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielus Landsbergis explained on X why he returned from Munich “gloomy” about the West’s collective security stance. “Ukraine is starved of ammunition and forced to pull back. Europe is facing challenges which might test Article 5, and global instability emerges because autocrats are emboldened by Russia’s action and our cautious response. … And we need action right now, because tomorrow might be too late … we show no urgency in ramping up our readiness.”

As post-Cold War complacency regarding collective security reinforced the West’s moral and strategic inertia, threats to the way of life we took for granted grew. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, China’s expansive provocations and preparation for war on Taiwan, and Hamas’s horrific October 7 terror attack on Israel, followed by Iran-sponsored militias’ ceaseless attacks on international shipping and U.S. forces, were wake-up calls that prompted additional allied coordination and defense measures. But these steps have been plodding and inadequate. Major threats continue to grow.

NATO’s annual security report cites “the gravest threat to Euro-Atlantic security in decades.” A Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States report advises “urgent” conventional and nuclear military expansion and cooperation with allies in preparation for possible simultaneous wars with Russia and China. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says that, given Russia’s continuing assault on Ukraine and designs on other European countries, the West must prepare “for a confrontation that could last decades.” Amid warnings about the potential for a wider war, Estonia’s foreign intelligence service says Russia plans to double the number of its troops stationed along NATO’s border. No wonder British Defense Secretary Grant Shapps emphasizes that the supposed “peace dividend” of the post-Cold War era is over.

Meanwhile, Pentagon reports indicate that China’s overall military might is on a trajectory to surpass the United States and includes ramped-up production of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and bioweapons. The Institute for Science and International Security has upgraded Iran’s threat level to “extreme danger,” saying the country now has “more than enough … highly enriched uranium (HEU) to directly fashion a nuclear explosive.” North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs continue to advance, along with the country’s belligerence.

Especially concerning is the dramatically increased military, strategic, and geopolitical alignment of what can now be called the Russia, China, and Iran “axis.” These powers benefit from trade, weapons and technology transfers, joint military exercises, and sanctions breaches. All want to subvert the U.S.-oriented world order, disseminate fierce anti-democratic propaganda, cultivate ties with other bad actors across the globe, and are individually and collectively working toward devastating cyber and infrastructure attacks on the United States. Add to this China and Russia’s cooperation on space, cyber, and nuclear weapons, and the picture gets more alarming. Together, both of these adversaries could initiate or coordinate hostilities to distract and overstretch U.S. and allied resources. At worst, they could mobilize together against U.S. and allied targets.

But the problem isn’t just that America’s enemies are aligned and formidable; it is that they are emboldened. They are minimally deterred and refuse to be “appeased.” The West’s too-little-too-late policies have led to this place. Imagine the difference if free countries had pursued intimidating and preemptive defenses and alliances and imposed tough and unequivocal sanctions with courage and conviction.

Take the West’s policies before and since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Before the invasion, Russia’s subversive activities, weaponization of energy, treaty violations, extreme human rights violations, and frequent military aggression should already have triggered a tough response. Ukraine already deserved more major military aid to fend off Russia. Yet, as Russia conducted a massive military mobilization toward the Ukrainian border, the Biden administration, instead of increasing penalties on Russia and military assistance to Ukraine, “waived” critical sanctions on the Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline and “paused” essential military aid to Ukraine for the sake of “talks” with Russia. The United States, Germany, and France placed hopes in a “diplomatic offramp,” convincing Russia not to launch another war.

Since that failure, the West has certainly assisted and armed Ukraine. Still, its dithering, incrementalist, restrictive, and delayed manner of doing so has meant that its assistance was insufficient to “stop Russia.” There’s a big difference between committing to victory and preventing or forestalling a loss. Ukrainians have repeatedly pleaded for fast delivery of air defenses and anti-missile systems, ATACMs and Tauruses, to use against their chosen targets. They lament the delays that cost so many lives and allow the horrors and devastation to continue. Time is, and has been, of the essence.

In the absence of a fast infusion of additional military aid, time is not on Ukraine’s side. According to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Russia has the “momentum” now that it has driven Ukrainian forces out of Avdiivka. With Ukraine running low on ammunition and suffering setbacks, and given the current understanding of Iran, China, and North Korea’s support for Russia’s genocidal war, you’d think the West might find the sense of urgency it’s so far lacked. Instead, after the Senate passed a $95 billion assistance package for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, the House, under Speaker Mike Johnson’s leadership, adjourned without considering the bill. Instead, the German Bundestag again ruled out giving desperately needed Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine. For his part, President Biden finally indicated a willingness to provide ATACM missile systems to Ukraine “if Congress passes the funding bill.” Yet, Biden has the authority to send the systems now without waiting for Congress. Gates and other defense experts see ATACMS as critical for Ukraine to regain momentum.

In the post-Cold War period, Truman-esque, Reagan-esque understanding of the exigencies of power and passion for American-democratic principles waned. The United States and Europe generally neglected the idea of “peace through strength” and, for the most part, lacked grand strategy and moral clarity. Delayed or denied responsibility has become the norm. Some on the left would double down on diplomatic outreach to and appeasement of the world’s worst dictators and aggressors. Some on the right would revert to selfish isolationism in spite of the severity, complexity, and convergence of threats we now face. Either course would be disastrous.

 Anne R. Pierce is an author of books and articles on American presidents, American foreign policy, and American society. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, is an appointed member of Princeton University’s James Madison Society, and was a Political Science Series Editor for Transaction Publishers. Follow her @AnneRPierce.