Welcome to an era of grave and persistent tension, one in which great-power crises will be frequent and intense. In Europe, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has destabilised the continent's eastern half, triggered a proxy war with Nato, and created an ever-present risk of escalation.
In Asia, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's trip to Taiwan could touch off a serious crisis between the United States and China. Indeed, given the way the two countries' interests are now colliding in hot spots throughout the Western Pacific, the question is not whether they will find themselves in some sort of perilous showdown but when, where, and under what circumstances.
These are not the only global flash points: Washington is currently labouring under the threat of renewed nuclear crises with Iran and North Korea. But showdowns with even the most roguish of rogue states are not as consequential as great-power military crises—incidents that have a meaningful prospect of war. So buckle up for a period when the world's mightiest actors engage in high-stakes tests of strength.
Crises are terrifying, but they can also be clarifying. Diplomatic or military confrontations illuminate the intentions of an adversary. They vividly illustrate the stakes of geopolitical competition. Crises are also opportunities for constructive action: They can catalyse initiatives and investments that will help the United States triumph in the protracted rivalries ahead.
For proof, look backward to the early Cold War. The late 1940s saw near-incessant crises from Western Europe to East Asia. Fears of war were omnipresent amid repeated superpower disputes. Yet Washington and the nascent Western world ultimately came through these crises with a mix of firmness and flexibility and used them as stimulus for many of the legendary measures that ultimately won the Cold War.
The great policies that positioned the United States for success in this twilight struggle – the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the creation of Nato, and others – were not products of calm, deliberate planning. They were born of the urgency and creativity that flourish in a crisis.
To be sure, no one should welcome the perils that are now coming into view. Yet the United States and its friends can use moments of high tension to address their military weaknesses, strengthen vital coalitions, and rally domestic support for sharper competitive measures. The key to thriving in this era of great-power rivalry will be seizing the opportunities that crises present.
Crises are the norm in great-power rivalries: They occur as participants probe for weakness, gauge one another's resolve, and measure their relative strengths. Indeed, crises are particularly common near the outset of great-power rivalries, when red lines are yet to be fully established, zones of influence remain fluid and the key patterns of competition are still being set.
The early Cold War was no exception. Diplomatic collisions and war scares occurred when the Soviet Union exerted pressure on Iran and Turkey in 1946. The first half of 1947 saw one crisis precipitated by communist subversion and coercion against Greece and Turkey and another caused by the economic near-collapse of Western Europe.
Early 1948 brought more trouble: a Moscow-backed coup in Czechoslovakia and the onset of then-Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's blockade of West Berlin. In Asia, the Chinese civil war was simultaneously roiling superpower relations. In 1950, the outbreak and escalation of the Korean War put the whole world on edge.
Amid these incidents, not even steely nerved statesmen were certain that the Cold War could be kept cold. In 1946, then-US President Harry Truman chose to support Turkey against Soviet intimidation on grounds that "we might as well find out whether the Russians were bent on world conquest now as in five or 10 years." During the Berlin blockade, Truman wrote of "a terrible feeling … that we are very close to war." When China intervened in the Korean War in late 1950, many US officials feared that global conflict was imminent.
Truman ultimately avoided such a cataclysm by blending prudence and strength. The United States refused to back down in areas it deemed crucial: Washington supported Turkey, Greece, and Iran against pressure from Moscow or its proxies.
The United States stayed in West Berlin during the blockade and even fought a limited war to save South Korea from destruction. Yet Truman also gave ground in areas then thought to be of secondary importance, refusing to intervene in China's civil war even though that abstention guaranteed a communist victory.
And when it became clear that Truman had overreached in Korea – by turning a defensive war to preserve the South into an offensive war to liberate the North – Washington settled for a localised stalemate rather than precipitate a larger conflagration.
Through these measures, the United States avoided potentially disastrous retreats in the Cold War while also limiting the danger of a global hot war. What made this period so geopolitically transformative, though, was that Washington and its friends paired crisis management with crisis exploitation.
Consider the emergence of the Truman Doctrine in March 1947. That initiative entailed around $400 million in aid for Greece and Turkey, paired with Truman's statement that the world was now split between "alternative ways of life" and that the United States must support "free peoples" in their struggle against totalitarian encroachment.
At stake was more than the security of the Mediterranean rim, Truman explained. If Washington failed to prevent Moscow and its proxies from imposing their will on independent nations, it risked seeing a global resurgence of the sort of aggression and coercion that had brought on World War II.
The Truman Doctrine helped preserve critical noncommunist outposts at the intersection of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. It made clear that Washington would invest heavily in international stability now rather than paying a great deal more once that stability had crumbled.
It also began the process of winning congressional and public support for an open-ended competition with Moscow by compelling Truman to explain what was fundamentally at issue in that competition and ask for new investments to wage it effectively.
Yet the Truman Doctrine was not some carefully crafted, long-gestating initiative: It emerged from an unanticipated crisis caused by an intensifying communist insurgency in Greece, Soviet diplomatic intimidation of Turkey, and the collapse of a bankrupt Britain's influence in the region.
For Washington, the crisis clarified that fading British power would place new and sustained demands on the United States. It forced US officials to devise, in just two weeks, an unprecedented package of peacetime economic and security assistance for Europe – and to marshal the arguments to push that package through a sceptical US Congress. In other words, a fast-breaking emergency stimulated a historic burst of diplomatic creativity and political persuasion.
Even more innovative was the Marshall Plan, a record-breaking $12 billion injection of economic assistance meant to revive Western Europe and weld it into a community that could resist Soviet depredations. That policy, too, came together in a comparative snap of the fingers – just three weeks – after worsening economic distress in Europe and growing US-Soviet tensions over how to manage occupied Germany made it clear that there was no time to waste.
"The patient is sinking," then-US Secretary of State George Marshall declared, "while the doctors deliberate." So the United States threw out its prior hesitance about long-term support for Europe and threw together the program that would spur the continent's economic and political revitalization.
Yet the Marshall Plan also occasioned new tumults, including sometimes-violent upheavals by communist parties in Western Europe and the Soviet-backed takeover of Czechoslovakia in February 1948. In response, terrified Western European governments created a military alliance and urgently sought to tie the United States to that pact.
This was the genesis of the North Atlantic Treaty, a revolutionary project that broke with 150 years of US diplomatic non-entanglement – and never would have been possible without the psychological shock of the Czechoslovak coup and the Berlin blockade that quickly followed.
Nato existed mostly on paper in 1949 though and it took one final crisis to produce the US alliance structure we know today. The outbreak and intensification of the Korean War led the United States to dispatch additional troops to Europe, seek West Germany's rearmament, create a unified Nato command structure, and conclude security pacts with Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand. It unleashed a free-world rearmament program meant to provide conventional strength and lasting nuclear superiority vis-à-vis the Soviet bloc.
The crises of the early Cold War forced and allowed Washington to craft the policies, muster the coalitions, rally the domestic support, and build the strong positions that eventually helped it prevail over the Soviet Union.
Hal Brands is a professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement