According to an anecdote known in several variations, some people debate what would have changed in the history of the world if Khrushchev had been assassinated in 1963 instead of Kennedy. A well-known statesman gave a sharp response: “Only one thing is certain: Onassis would not have married his widow.” “Alternate histories” are the source of fascinating novels, such as C.J. Sansom’s “Dominion” (2012), in which Lord Halifax becomes prime minister in May 1940, instead of Churchill, and Great Britain capitulates, or Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” (2004), in which the pro-Nazi pilot Lindbergh becomes president of the United States in 1940.
Alternate history is an interesting exercise of the mind for historians as well. What would have happened if in 1920 Greek King Alexander’s German shepherd had not taken on the macaques of the royal estate? Alternate history allows us to better understand the reasons why things turned out the way they did. But it can also inspire us to imagine for the future something that was not possible in the past.
In 1991 Yeltsin put on the table the prospect of the Russian Federation joining the NATO; the proposal was repeated by Putin in 2000, on condition that his country would not have to wait in line. What would have happened if Yeltsin, instead of approaching NATO and the “leader of the Western world,” had acted like a European statesman. What would have happened if he had turned to Mitterrand, Kohl and Major to propose the creation of an alliance of European countries and for European interests? What would have been the implications for the Middle East, the refugee crisis, poverty and hunger in Africa, or the development of China? Such a prospect was unrealistic in the 90s. The political leaders at the time were in thrall to the past. Their perceptions had been shaped by the Cold War. In the West there was euphoria from the collapse of the communist regimes.
During a war, alliance changes do not happen. But they are prepared by leaders who think in the long term
Is what was unrealistic 30 years ago undesirable and unattainable in the future? The war in Ukraine gave the kiss of life to NATO and made the US once again the guarantor of the security of European countries. But the presidential system in the US does not guarantee continuity in foreign policy. The withdrawal of the US from international obligations is the conviction of many in the Republican Party, regardless of whether developments ground them in reality. George W. Bush, while a presidential candidate, could not point to where Afghanistan was on a map; two years later he waged war there.
Trump’s hostility to European allies is a given. On April 21, he stated clearly that as president he would not fulfill the US obligation to defend its allies unless they dramatically increased their defense spending. The likely Republican return to power under the slogan “America first” will have important consequences for both NATO and Europe. But even under Biden, the US signed a defense cooperation agreement with Great Britain and Australia in September 2021, without consulting their European partners. The US looked after their own interests; the Europeans are reluctant to envision an alternate future for Europe.
During a war, alliance changes do not happen. But they are prepared by leaders who think in the long term. The war in Ukraine is likely to be long and Russia’s weakening will be gradual, not rapid. Rapid seems to be the exodus of members of the scientific and intellectual elite. When the US is considering fast-tracking visas for Russians with advanced degrees to weaken Russia, the Europeans stand idly by. The brains that leave Russia today could, by returning to their country after a regime change, become a force for change towards a European Security Pact to replace the North Atlantic Treaty. Putin himself stated in an interview with David Frost in 2000: “Russia is part of European culture. And I cannot imagine my country in isolation from Europe.” An alternate Europe is not a utopia.
Angelos Chaniotis is a professor of ancient history and Classics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.