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Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at the University of Oxford and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His most recent book, Homelands: A Personal History of Europe, is a finalist for this year’s Lionel Gelber Prize, presented by the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy.

Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago started the largest war in Europe since 1945. It also ended a distinct period of European and probably of world history. After what is conventionally called the postwar period, meaning after 1945, we have been through what I call the post-Wall period, which lasted from the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, to Feb. 24, 2022, the date of Mr. Putin’s full-scale invasion. This means we are in a new epoch, and the question is: what comes after the post-Wall world?

One possibility is another post-W: a post-Western world. Among the depressing revelations of the war in Ukraine has been the discovery that much of the world will not line up with the West against Russia, even when Russia is waging a war of recolonization against Ukraine. And that rest of the world goes a long way to counterbalance Western efforts to isolate and sanction Russia while helping Ukraine defeat it. In two rounds of global opinion polling done for the European Council on Foreign Relations, in partnership with my Oxford University research project on Europe in a Changing World, we discovered a sobering picture.

People in great and middle powers such as China, India, Turkey, South Africa and Brazil are as likely to blame the West or Ukraine itself for the war as they are to blame Russia. Many of them are perfectly happy for their countries to go on having close relations with Russia, think the U.S. is at war with Russia in Ukraine, and that Russia will probably win. Chinese-Russian trade has soared, India is quite ready to buy the Russian oil that the West is buying less of. The Russian economy is surviving sanctions quite well, even as it becomes an outright war economy. Not to mention the fact that Russia has got more ammunition from North Korea alone than Ukraine has received from the EU.

This is not yet a world war in the sense that there are two great alliances in combat across the globe. There’s not an Axis of China-Russia-Iran-North Korea in the way there was an Axis of Germany-Italy-Japan in the Second World War. But the very disparate great and middle powers outside the traditional transatlantic West are pulled together by a shared, deep historical resentment of Western and especially of American supremacy. And, like 19th-century European great powers, they are quite happy to pursue their national interests in shifting alliances with any partner. As I and my co-authors put it, it’s now an à la carte world.

I heard an even grimmer scenario being discussed at last month’s Munich Security Conference, a formidable gathering of Western leaders and security experts. Quite a few European ministers have delivered warnings that we must be ready for a Russian attack on NATO territory within the next three to five years. Were that to be the case, future historians would record that, after the end of the post-Wall period, Europe was living not in another post-something era but rather in another prewar one, as it did in the 1930s.

But there’s nothing inevitable about this, just as there was nothing inevitable about the outbreak of the Second World War. It depends on us. In history, as in romance, beginnings matter. The four or five years after 1945 shaped the European order for the next 40 years; those after 1989, the next 30 years. So the decisions we make this year and next, in relation to Ukraine, but also to other issues such as the Israel-Hamas war, migration and the climate crisis, will shape the world for decades to come.

The gamble of civilization is that we can learn from the errors and horrors of the past without having to go through them all again ourselves. That’s why we write history. Let’s hope Europeans, Canadians and Americans can learn from history before it is too late.

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