In American movies set in Europe in the 1970s, it’s usually grey outside. The clothing is drab, almost sepia-toned, the kind popular then. Bohemians wear black, the rest rust orange or similarly shaded. Political tension permeates as cosmopolitans mix, and affiliations range from Marxist to ultranationalist to anti-colonialist.
The Munich Olympic massacre and the oil shock of 1973 changed the mood in Europe. Assassinations, attempted and successful, followed increasingly in the wake of Munich. The 1970s saw a dramatic increase in terrorist attacks, mostly bombings, as a range of conflicts and passions made themselves felt in the continent’s cities.
Europe is not experiencing that type of violence now, nor even the atmosphere of vulnerability to Islamist terror that arose in the middle part of each of the past two decades. But a pall settles in, nonetheless. It accumulates over time as Russia poisons regime opponents in Salisbury and shoots them in Berlin. It thickens as a plane is shot down, as the tea of a defector is poisoned, as borders shift, and acts of what we used to call hacking look more and more like state-directed sabotage and subversion.
That’s the environment U.S. personnel now operate in throughout Europe. One in which those deployed to once-friendly confines are deciding it may be safer to leave their families at home. Assassinations are back on the table, as is the risk of border skirmishes and much worse. And from Vienna, to Tbilisi, to Berlin, that same U.S. personnel critical to diplomatic channels are now subject to a series of what may turn out to be directed energy attacks from a foreign adversary.
As Putin masses on the border, the Biden administration is plainly unprepared for this moment, as is most of Washington. This is not the post-Middle East occupation era they wanted, one in which cleaner great power competition and multilateralism presented well-worn pathways for policy. Instead, troop buildups, and Black Sea patrols, and an independent NATO capability make clear that hard power is increasingly relevant. And it’s exercised in increasingly unique ways.
As one recent commentator said, the wires are fraying. And as wires fray, it’s the sensitive and dangerous parts that are exposed underneath the coating. That’s where we stand as the presuppositions and rhetoric that rested on top of hard power alliances are exposed. They are exposed because the hard power underpinning those niceties is no longer guaranteed, the shape of the alliances in doubt, and the beginnings of new blocs might just be barely visible in the distance.
America hasn’t caught up to that mood shift just yet but is beginning to feel it. The honeymoon period a Democratic U.S. president gets in Europe, the applause and the relief, wasn’t just cut short – it barely happened. While we attended conferences and issued joint communiques about Pivots and grand strategy, the starting gun of the new era went off.
The U.S. and its allies have chosen this state of affairs, and are forced into increasing dissonance as they maintain via statement and sanction an order that will be tested by sabotage and subversion. As Putin marches his troops and poses on the border of Ukraine, the world takes a deep breath as the era of major state-to-state conflict reemerges. Whether or not he moves to expand his holdings, likely as an imperial outpost versus a recreated union, that it’s now an option on the table tells us much about what the next years may hold. The grievances of the non-Western powers may be exorcized by the decade’s end.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Jason Killmeyer is a counterterrorism and foreign policy expert specializing in emerging technology applications. For more than ten years, Jason worked in national security, including as Chief of Staff of Global Defense, Security & Justice at Deloitte Consulting LLP. Jason has a Master’s in Middle Eastern Studies with an M.A. thesis on post-invasion Iraqi politics.