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Opinion In a new world, the U.S. and its allies must rediscover old security truths — and develop new ones

A turret of a burned Russian tank is left abandoned near the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 25 after the Ukrainian army attacked it the previous day. (Sergey Kozlov/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

On Dec. 1, 1862, at a moment of deep peril for his country, President Abraham Lincoln said: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.” Dangerous as Russian aggression in Europe is, the United States faced worse direct peril in the Civil War and in other crises. Our resources, and those of our fellow democracies, are immense. Not the least of those resources is the bravery under fire of Ukraine’s own people, who have thus far kept Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops from taking their capital Kyiv. Still, the importance of Mr. Putin’s onslaught lies in its being attempted, not in its ultimate outcome. And thus the relevance of Lincoln’s words lies in the need for this country — and its allies — to adapt.

The immediate response necessarily involved taking familiar tools off the shelf: economic sanctions against Russia and its kleptocracy, which the European Union expanded Friday, to include an asset freeze targeting Mr. Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. Britain made similar moves, as the United States had already. Progress is being made toward a common Western position on cutting Russian access to the SWIFT bank payments system. Russia has been expelled from a multinational human rights body, the Council of Europe, the 2022 Champions League soccer finals has been relocated from Moscow to Paris and there will be no Russian entries in this year’s Eurovision song contest.

Deterrence — the most time-tested of security concepts — warranted President Biden’s decision to dispatch fighter aircraft, attack helicopters and infantry to the Baltic states, and a 7,000-strong armored unit to Germany. NATO itself has for the first time activated a 40,000-member rapid response force, drawn heavily from the alliance’s non-U.S. members.

Now, though, for some new ideas: The United States must reconsider its focus on China in light of the renewed geopolitical challenge from Russia — and Moscow’s growing cooperation with Beijing. We must match military budget resources to the combination of threats. NATO should consider admitting Sweden and Finland. Today’s sanctions on Russia could harden into long-term blockages in global trade flows, which were already becoming less fluid because of protectionism and the pandemic. U.S. supply chains may henceforth have to take geopolitical criteria into account.

No commodity is more geopolitically significant than energy, including oil and gas, which the United States possesses in abundance — and which, along with low-carbon nuclear, solar and wind energy, can bolster our security and that of our allies. Europe buys 38 percent of its natural gas from Russia, which means — bluntly — that Europe’s businesses and consumers financed Mr. Putin’s military buildup. This must end.

No country must think anew more urgently than Germany, which took a big step in the right direction on Saturday when it announced its first-ever direct supply of lethal weapons to Kyiv. Over the longer term, it must address its hollowed-out military, the result of a historically rooted but strategically unsustainable aversion to investment in defense. After Russia attacked Ukraine, Germany’s top military commander, Lt. Gen. Alfons Mais lamented that his army was potentially unable “to successfully fulfill . . . our obligations in the alliance.”

“Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history,” Lincoln admonished. He meant that future generations depended upon, and would remember, how his generation met its challenge. In that way, too, his words apply today.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus; Associate Editorial Page Editor Jo-Ann Armao (education, D.C. affairs); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care).

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