How to Keep from Starting a New Cold War in a Multipolar World

'Acting as an imperial power, Russia now seeks to redraw borders by force and to divide the world, once again, into blocs and spheres of influence.'

The world is going through a tectonic shift called a Zeitenwende. Russia's aggressive war against Ukraine has ended a time period. There are now new or re-emerging powers, such as China, which has a strong economy and is strong politically. In this new multipolar world, different countries and types of government are competing for power and influence.

Germany, for its part, is doing everything it can to support and defend a world order based on the UN Charter. Its democracy, security, and economic well-being all depend on people in power following the same rules. Because of this, Germans are determined to become the guarantor of European security that our allies expect us to be, as well as a bridge builder within the European Union and a supporter of multilateral solutions to global problems. This is the only way for Germany to get through the rifts in the world's politics today.

The Zeitenwende is more than just the war in Ukraine and the question of security in Europe. The main question is how we, as Europeans and as the European Union, can stay independent in a world that is becoming more and more divided.

Germany and Europe can help protect the international order based on rules without giving in to the fatalistic idea that the world is doomed to break up into competing blocs again. Because of its history, my country has an extra duty to fight fascism, authoritarianism, and imperialism. At the same time, the fact that we were divided during an ideological and geopolitical conflict makes us especially aware of the dangers of a new cold war.


Most of the world has been at peace and doing well since the Iron Curtain fell thirty years ago. Technology has made it easier than ever for people to talk to each other and work together. Because of growing international trade, value and production chains that span the globe, and exchanges of people and information across borders that have never happened before, more than a billion people have been lifted out of poverty. Most importantly, brave people have ended dictatorships and one-party rule all over the world. The way history went changed because they wanted freedom, respect, and democracy. After two terrible world wars and a lot of suffering, much of which was caused by my country, there were more than 40 years of tension and fighting under the threat of nuclear annihilation. But by the 1990s, the world seemed to have finally reached a more stable order.

The Germans had a lot for which to be thankful. In November 1989, the brave people of East Germany tore down the Berlin Wall. Only 11 months later, the country was brought back together, thanks to leaders who had a long-term view and help from both the West and the East. After the wall came down, Willy Brandt, who used to be the German chancellor, said, "What belongs together could grow together."

Those words weren't just about Germany; they were about all of Europe. Former members of the Warsaw Pact decided to join NATO and the European Union instead (EU). "A whole and free Europe" was no longer a pipe dream, as George H. W. Bush, who was president at the time, said. In this new time, it seemed like Russia could be a friend to the West instead of an enemy like the Soviet Union was. Because of this, most European countries cut their armies and their money for defense. Germany's thinking was simple: Why keep a large army of about 500,000 soldiers to defend itself when all of its neighbors seemed to be friends or allies?

Our security and defense plan changed quickly to deal with bigger and more important threats. After the Balkan wars and the attacks on September 11, 2001, as well as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it became more important to deal with regional and global crises. But NATO stayed strong in its solidarity. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which is about mutual defense, was used for the first time after the 9/11 attacks. NATO forces fought together against terrorism in Afghanistan for 20 years.

Germany's business world made its own decisions based on how history was changing. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the growing integration of the world economy opened up new opportunities and markets, especially in the countries of the former Eastern bloc, but also in other countries with emerging economies, like China. During the Cold War, Russia was a reliable source of energy and other raw materials because it had a lot of them. At first, it seemed like a good idea to keep that good relationship going once the war was over.

On the other hand, the Russian government saw the end of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact and came to very different conclusions than those in Berlin and other European capitals. Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, doesn't think that the peaceful end of communist rule is an opportunity for more freedom and democracy. Instead, he says that it was "the worst geopolitical disaster of the 20th century." In the 1990s, economic and political problems in some parts of the post-Soviet space added to the sense of loss and pain that many Russians still feel about the fall of the Soviet Union.

Authoritarianism and the desire to take over other countries started to grow again in this situation. At the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Putin gave a very angry speech. He said that the rules-based international order was just a way for the US to control the rest of the world. Georgia and Russia went to war the following year. In 2014, Russia took over Crimea and said it was part of its country. It also sent troops into parts of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. This was against international law and Moscow's own treaty obligations. In the years that followed, the Kremlin broke agreements to limit the number of weapons it had and built up its military power. It also poisoned and killed Russian dissidents, shut down civil society, and used brutal military force to support the Assad regime in Syria. Putin's Russia chose a path that took it further and further away from Europe and a peaceful, cooperative order.


During the eight years after Russia illegally took over Crimea and fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine, Germany and its European and international partners in the G-7 worked to protect Ukraine's sovereignty and political independence, stop Russia from making things worse, and bring and keep peace in Europe. The chosen strategy was a mix of political and economic pressure that included both talks and restrictions on Russia. Together with France, Germany took part in the so-called Normandy Format. This led to the Minsk agreements and the Minsk process, which called for Russia and Ukraine to stop fighting and take other steps. Germany and France kept the process going, even though there were setbacks and a lack of trust between Moscow and Kyiv. But because Russia changed its mind, diplomacy couldn't work.

After Russia's brutal attack on Ukraine in February 2022, life in Europe was completely different: imperialism was back. Russia is using some of the cruelest military tactics of the 20th century to hurt Ukraine in unimaginable ways. There have already been tens of thousands of deaths among Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, and many more have been hurt or traumatized. Millions of Ukrainians have had to leave their homes and find refuge in Poland and other European countries. One million of them have come to Germany. Homes, schools, and hospitals in Ukraine have been destroyed by Russian artillery, missiles, and bombs. Mariupol, Irpin, Kherson, and Izyum will always remind the world of Russia's crimes, and the people who did them must be punished.

But Russia's war has an effect on more than just Ukraine. When Putin gave the order to attack, he broke a plan for peace in Europe and the rest of the world that had been built up over many years. Under Putin's leadership, Russia has broken even the most basic rules of international law, such as the promise in the UN Charter not to use force as a means of international policy and to respect the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of all countries. As an imperial power, Russia wants to forcefully change borders and divide the world into blocs and spheres of influence again.


Putin can't have his way, and Russia's attempt to become a world power again must be stopped. Germany's most important job right now is to step up as one of the main security providers in Europe by investing in our military, strengthening the European defense industry, increasing our military presence on NATO's eastern flank, and training and equipping Ukraine's armed forces.

Germany's new role will require a new strategic culture, which will be reflected in the national security strategy that my government will adopt in a few months. Europe has been at peace for the last 30 years, so decisions about Germany's security and how to equip its military were made with that in mind. Now, the main question will be what threats, most of which come from Russia, we and our allies must face in Europe. There is even a small chance of a nuclear attack, which Putin has not been shy about threatening.

The transatlantic partnership is still very important for dealing with these problems. People should thank U.S. President Joe Biden and his team for building and investing in strong partnerships and alliances around the world. But for a transatlantic partnership to be stable and fair, Germany and Europe also need to be involved. After Russia attacked Ukraine, one of the first things my government did was set up a special fund of about $100 billion to better equip our armed forces, the Bundeswehr. To set up this fund, we even changed our constitution. Since the Bundeswehr was created in 1955, this decision is the biggest change in German security policy. Our soldiers will get the political support, materials, and skills they need to defend our country and our allies. The goal is to have a Bundeswehr that we and our allies can count on. To do this, Germany will put 2% of our gross domestic product (GDP) into our defense.

German members of the NATO Response Force in Baumholder, Germany, November 2022
German members of the NATO Response Force in Baumholder, Germany, November 2022
Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters

These changes show how German society has changed. Today, a large majority of Germans agree that their country needs an army that can protect itself and its allies and scare off its enemies. Germans stand with Ukrainians as they defend their country against Russian attacks. From 2014 to 2020, Germany gave the most money to Ukraine through both private investments and government aid. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Germany has increased its financial and humanitarian aid to the country and helped coordinate the international response while it was in charge of the G-7.

The Zeitenwende also caused my government to rethink a long-held, well-known principle of German policy on arms exports that had been in place for decades. We are sending weapons into a war between two countries for the first time in recent German history. In my talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, I have been very clear about one thing: Germany will keep helping Ukraine for as long as it is needed. Ukraine needs artillery and air defense systems the most right now, and Germany is giving them to them, working closely with our allies and partners. Antitank weapons, armored troop carriers, antiaircraft guns and missiles, and counterbattery radar systems are also part of Germany's help for Ukraine. Up to 15,000 Ukrainian soldiers will get training through a new EU mission. Up to 5,000 of them, or an entire brigade, will get their training in Germany. In the meantime, the Czech Republic, Greece, Slovakia, and Slovenia have sent or promised to send about 100 main battle tanks from the Soviet era to Ukraine. In return, Germany will send these countries refurbished German tanks. This way, Ukraine gets tanks that Ukrainian forces already know how to use and are familiar with. These tanks can also be easily added to Ukraine's existing systems for logistics and maintenance.

NATO's actions can't lead to a direct fight with Russia, but the alliance must be able to stop Russia from being aggressive in the future. In order to do this, Germany has increased its presence on NATO's eastern flank by a lot. It has strengthened the German-led NATO battle group in Lithuania and given a brigade the job of keeping that country safe. Germany also sends troops to Slovakia to help NATO's battle group, and the German air force helps Estonia and Poland keep an eye on and protect their airspace. In the meantime, the German navy has taken part in NATO's activities to protect and deter in the Baltic Sea. Germany will also send an armored division and a lot of air and naval assets that are all ready to go to NATO's New Force Model. This model is meant to make it easier for the alliance to respond quickly to any situation. And Germany will keep its promise to NATO's nuclear sharing agreements, including by buying F-35 fighter jets with dual capabilities.

Our message to Moscow is very clear: we are ready to defend every inch of NATO land from any kind of attack. We will keep NATO's promise that an attack on one ally will be seen as an attack on the whole group. We have also told Russia that the way it has been talking about nuclear weapons lately is dangerous and irresponsible. When I went to Beijing in November, I agreed with Chinese President Xi Jinping that threatening to use nuclear weapons was wrong and that doing so would cross a line that people have rightly set. Putin should remember this.

Putin's bet that the invasion of Ukraine would make his enemies' relationships worse was one of the many things he got wrong. In fact, the opposite is true: the EU and the transatlantic alliance are stronger than ever. This is made clear by the fact that Russia is facing economic sanctions that have never been done before. From the start of the war, it was clear that these sanctions would have to be in place for a long time, because their effectiveness grows with each week that passes. Putin needs to know that if Russia tries to dictate the terms of a peace deal, not a single sanction will be lifted.

All of the leaders of the G-7 countries have praised Zelensky for being ready for a fair peace that protects Ukraine's ability to defend itself in the future and respects its territorial integrity and sovereignty. In coordination with our allies, Germany is ready to make plans to keep Ukraine safe as part of a possible peace settlement after the war. But we won't accept the illegal annexation of Ukrainian land, which is being done under the guise of fake referendums. Russia must pull its troops out of this war for it to end.


Not only has Russia's war brought the EU, NATO, and the G-7 together against his aggression, but it has also led to changes in economic and energy policy that will hurt Russia in the long run and speed up the important transition to clean energy that was already happening. As soon as I became chancellor of Germany in December 2021, I asked my advisors if we had a plan if Russia decided to stop sending gas to Europe. Even though we had become dangerously dependent on Russian gas deliveries, the answer was no.

We started making plans right away for the worst-case scenario. In the days leading up to Russia's full invasion of Ukraine, Germany stopped approving the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which was going to bring a lot more gas from Russia to Europe. In February 2022, plans were already in place to bring in liquefied natural gas from markets outside of Europe. In the coming months, the first floating LNG terminals will start operating off the coast of Germany.

Soon, the worst-case scenario came true when Putin decided to use energy as a weapon by cutting off the flow of energy to Germany and the rest of Europe. But Germany has now stopped buying any Russian coal at all, and the EU will soon stop buying Russian oil. We've learned that Europe's security depends on having a variety of energy suppliers and routes, as well as investing in energy independence. In September, when the Nord Stream pipelines were blown up, this point was made clear.

To make up for any possible energy shortages in Germany and Europe as a whole, my government is temporarily putting coal-fired power plants back on the grid and letting German nuclear power plants run longer than they were supposed to. We have also made it a rule that gas storage facilities that are privately owned must meet progressively higher minimum levels of gas. Today, all of our facilities are full, but at this time last year, they were mostly empty. This is a good way for Germany and Europe to make sure they have enough gas to get through the winter.

The war with Russia showed us that we need to reach these lofty goals to protect our security and independence, as well as Europe's security and independence. Moving away from fossil fuels will increase the need for electricity and green hydrogen. Germany is getting ready for this by speeding up the switch to renewable energies like wind and solar power by a lot. Our goals are clear: by 2030, at least 80% of the electricity Germans use will come from renewable sources, and by 2045, Germany will have "climate neutrality," which means it won't be adding to global warming.


Putin wanted to divide Europe into "zones of influence" and the rest of the world into "blocks of great powers and vassal states." Instead, his war has only helped the EU move forward. At the European Council in June 2022, the EU gave Ukraine and Moldova the status of "candidate countries" and said again that Georgia's future is in Europe. We also agreed that all six countries in the western Balkans must finally join the EU. This is a goal I'm personally committed to reaching. So, I brought back the so-called Berlin Process for the western Balkans. This process aims to deepen cooperation in the area, bringing the countries and their people closer together and getting them ready for EU membership.

It's important to admit that growing the EU and integrating new members will be hard. Giving millions of people false hope would be the worst thing that could happen. But the way is clear, and the goal is clear: an EU with more than 500 million free citizens and the largest internal market in the world. This EU will set global standards for trade, growth, climate change, and environmental protection, and it will be home to leading research institutes and innovative businesses. It will be a family of stable democracies with the best social welfare and public infrastructure in the world.

As the EU works toward this goal, its enemies will keep trying to make its members fight each other. Putin has never seen the EU as a player in world politics. After all, the EU, which is a union of free, sovereign, democratic states based on the rule of law, is the opposite of his imperialistic and autocratic kleptocracy.

Putin and others will try to use disinformation campaigns and influence peddling to turn our own open, democratic systems against us. Europeans have a lot of different opinions, and European political leaders talk about and sometimes argue about the best way to move forward, especially when there are economic and political problems. But these things about our open societies are not problems; they are what makes democratic decision-making possible. Today, though, our goal is to stick together on important issues where division would make Europe more open to outside interference. Germany and France, who both want the EU to be strong and independent, need to work together even more on this mission.

Nicolás Ortega

More generally, the EU needs to get past old conflicts and find new ways to deal with problems. Migration and fiscal policy in Europe are good examples of this. People will keep coming to Europe, and Europe needs immigrants, so the EU needs to come up with a practical plan for immigration that fits with its values. This means cutting down on illegal migration and at the same time making it easier for skilled workers to come to Europe legally, which our job markets need. In terms of fiscal policy, the union has set up a fund to help with recovery and resilience. This fund will also help with the problems caused by high energy prices right now. The union must also stop countries from blocking decisions for their own selfish reasons by taking away their right to veto certain measures. As the EU grows and starts to play a role in world politics, making decisions quickly will be the key to its success. Because of this, Germany has suggested slowly extending the practice of making decisions by majority vote to areas like EU foreign policy and taxation that currently have to be agreed on by everyone.

Europe also needs to keep taking on more responsibility for its own security, and it needs a coordinated and integrated plan for building up its defenses. For example, the military forces of EU member states use too many different types of weapons, which is both inefficient and wasteful. To solve these problems, the EU must change its internal bureaucratic procedures, which will require brave political decisions. EU member states, including Germany, will have to change their national policies and rules on exporting jointly made military systems.

Defense in the air and space is an area where Europe needs to make big steps forward right away. Because of this, Germany will strengthen its air defense over the next few years by getting more tools as part of the NATO plan. I told our European neighbors about this plan, and 14 other European countries joined the European Sky Shield Initiative in October. Joint air defense in Europe will be more effective and less expensive than if we all did it on our own. It is a great example of what it means to strengthen the European pillar of NATO.

NATO is the best way to ensure security in the Euro-Atlantic region, and the addition of Finland and Sweden as members will only make it stronger. But NATO is also stronger when its European members take steps on their own to make their defense systems more compatible with each other within the EU.


The Zeitenwende may have been caused by Russia's aggressive war, but the tectonic shifts go much deeper. Some thought that the Cold War would be the end of history, but it wasn't. But history doesn't repeat itself either. Many people think we are on the verge of a time when the international order will be split in two. They think that a new cold war between the United States and China is about to start.

I don't agree with this point of view. Instead, I think what we are seeing is the end of an unusual phase of globalization. This is a major change in history that was sped up by external shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's war in Ukraine, but was not entirely caused by them. During that special time, North America and Europe had 30 years of stable growth, high employment rates, and low inflation. The United States became the most powerful country in the world, a position it will keep in the 21st century.

But during the phase of globalization after the Cold War, China also became a global player, just like it had been in the past. China's rise is not a reason to cut Beijing off or stop working with it. But China's growing power doesn't give it the right to claim hegemony in Asia and other places. No country is the backyard of any other country. This is true for Europe, Asia, and every other region as well. During my recent trip to Beijing, I strongly supported the UN Charter's rules-based international order as well as open and fair trade. Together with its European allies, Germany will keep pushing for the same rules for European and Chinese businesses. China doesn't do enough in this area and has taken a clear turn toward closing itself off and away from being open.

At Beijing, I also talked about my worries about the increasing danger in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, and I questioned how China treats human rights and personal freedoms. Respecting basic rights and freedoms can never be a "state matter" because every UN member state promises to do so.

Wind turbines in front of a coal-fired power plant near Jackerath, Germany, March 2022
Wind turbines in front of a coal-fired power plant near Jackerath, Germany, March 2022
Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters

While China and the countries of North America and Europe get used to the new phase of globalization, many countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America that used to help the world grow by making goods and raw materials cheaply are now getting richer and have their own needs for resources, goods, and services. These areas have every right to take advantage of the opportunities that globalization brings and to ask for a bigger role in world affairs, since their economies and populations are getting bigger. No one in Europe or North America needs to worry about that. On the contrary, we should try to get these areas to join the international order and be more involved in it. In a world with many different kinds of power, this is the best way to keep multilateralism alive.

This is why Germany and the EU are putting money into new partnerships with many countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America, and expanding partnerships they already have. Many of them are just like us in one important way: they are also democracies. This similarity is very important, not because we want to pit democracies against authoritarian states, which would only create a new global dichotomy, but because sharing democratic values and systems will help us set joint priorities and reach common goals in the new multipolar world of the twenty-first century. To paraphrase an argument economist Branko Milanovic made a few years ago, we might all have become capitalists, with the possible exception of North Korea and a small number of other countries. But whether capitalism is set up in a liberal, democratic way or in an authoritarian way makes a big difference.

Take the world's answer to COVID-19, for example. Early on in the pandemic, some people said that authoritarian states would be better at handling crises because they could plan better for the long term and make hard decisions faster. But the history of pandemics in authoritarian countries doesn't really back up this point of view. In the meantime, the best COVID-19 vaccines and drug treatments were all made in free democracies. Also, unlike authoritarian states, democracies can self-correct because people are free to say what they think and choose their own leaders. In our societies, parliaments, and free media, there is always a lot of debate and questioning going on. But in the long run, it is what makes our systems stronger.

Freedom, equality, the rule of law, and the dignity of every person are not just things that people in what has been called "the West" believe in. Instead, they are rights that people and governments all over the world agree on, and the preamble of the UN Charter says that they are fundamental human rights. Autocratic and authoritarian governments, on the other hand, often question or deny these rights and principles. To protect them, the EU countries, including Germany, need to work more closely with democracies outside of the West, which is how they are usually thought of. In the past, we said that Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin American countries were all the same. But too often, our actions don't match what we say. This needs to go away. During the time that Germany was in charge of the G-7, the group worked closely with Indonesia, which is in charge of the G-20. Senegal, which is in charge of the African Union, Argentine, which is in charge of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, our G-20 partner South Africa, and India, which will be in charge of the G-20 next year, have all been involved in our discussions.

In the long run, dialogue and cooperation in a multipolar world must go beyond the democratic comfort zone. In its new National Security Strategy, the United States does the right thing by recognizing the need to work with "countries that do not embrace democratic institutions but depend on and support a rules-based international system." The democracies of the world will need to work with these countries to defend and uphold a global order that ties power to rules and stands up to revisionist actions like Russia's war of aggression. Pragmatism and a little bit of humility will be needed for this.

On the way to the democratic freedom we have now, there have been many mistakes and setbacks. Still, some rights and principles were set up and accepted hundreds of years ago. Habeas corpus is one of these basic rights. It protects people from being locked up without a reason, and it was first recognized not by a democratic government but by the absolute monarchy of King Charles II of England. The basic rule that no country can take what belongs to its neighbor by force is also very important. All states, no matter what kind of government they have, should be required to respect these basic rights and principles.

Most of the world lived through a time of relative peace and prosperity in the early years after the Cold War. These times of peace and prosperity don't have to be rare or just an exception to the rule that brute force has always ruled history. And even though we can't go back in time, we can still stop aggression and imperialism. The world is more complicated and divided now, which makes this task harder. To do this, Germany and its partners in the EU, the US, the G-7, and NATO must protect our open societies, stand up for our democratic values, and strengthen our alliances and partnerships. But we must also resist the urge to put the world back into groups. This means trying as hard as possible to make new partnerships, both from a practical and an ideological point of view. In the world we live in now, which is very connected, promoting peace, prosperity, and human freedom requires a different way of thinking and different tools. The goal of the Zeitenwende is to help people develop this way of thinking and these tools.

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