The last time Europe fought a major war, there was no shortage of planning. We knew what peace meant. Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt issued their Atlantic Charter in August 1941, before the Allied victory was anywhere close. This was followed by more meetings and conferences, including in Tehran in 1943 and later at Yalta, in Crimea, in 1945. The fighting never stopped, but there was a lot of thinking about the future of Germany, Europe and the new world order.
This sort of thinking is less evident today with Ukraine. Maybe it’s because Russia’s war in Ukraine, as bad as it is, isn’t yet a world war. It is happening some place out there, in ruined towns that few have ever heard of, and fewer still really care about. People are dying, but they are not us. The West keeps increasing its military aid to Ukraine, and we rightly cheer at its every victory, but there is a disconnect between this effort and our broader thinking about the post-war world. We don’t have a clear idea of what peace looks like.
The reason we have failed to think about the post-war world should be clear to any observer of international politics. Russia is a nuclear power that can annihilate its enemies, even if that means the complete end of normal life on earth, and Russia’s own destruction. It is difficult to plan for Russia’s defeat because the outcome where the Fuhrer, in his bunker, ends it all, is improbable. If Hitler had a nuclear briefcase, would he not have used it before killing himself?
Instead, we indulge in fantasies about a coup d’état in Russia. In any moment, we’re told, Putin’s generals might throw him out. The obedient orcs of Mordor will rebel. There might even be a civil war, as historian Timothy Snyder helpfully prophesised, with different parts of the Putinist establishment fighting it out among themselves while a happily liberated Ukraine rebuilds and joins the West.