Irrespective of whether Europe emerges from its current crisis without a war, it will almost certainly emerge battered and with alliances shaken. Regional ties that had been cultivated since World War II and that had already started to fray have been largely upended by Russia’s renewed menacing of the European security order.

Like the bankruptcy in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the change has happened “Gradually, then suddenly.” The age of a united and multilateral West may be over, with the age of minilateralism beginning.

Minilateralism” refers to ad hoc coalitions formed to address particular global challenges. They exist alongside or replace traditional alliances and multilateral frameworks. They tend to be informal rather than legally binding, often regional rather than global, and increasingly multi-stakeholder rather than state-centric. They sound quaint, classical even, and oddly familiar. That’s because they are. 

Julius Caesar, who made himself Rome’s emperor in 49 B.C., in 60 B.C. formed the First Triumvirate with Crassus and Pompey the Great. The informal alliance dominated Roman politics until Crassus’ death in 53 B.C.Then there was the Bilderberg Group, which was fashioned to unite Europe and North America during the Cold War. Additionally, the Visegrád Group was formed in 1991 to strengthen cooperation between Poland, Hungary, Czechia, and Slovakia.

Minilateralism often happens because multilateralism fails. That is what is now on display in Europe as Russia masses hundreds of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s border and demands an ostensible redefinition of Europe’s security architecture.

More recently, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, and Aukus were formed to more nimbly and effectively respond to the increasingly complicated security environment in the Asian Pacific. They are the realpolitik answers to security concerns shared by countries operating under the shadow of Communist Chinese revisionism.

Minilateralism often happens because multilateralism fails. That is what is now on display in Europe as Russia masses hundreds of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s border and demands an ostensible redefinition of Europe’s security architecture.

In the meantime, Germany refuses to send weapons to Ukraine, opting instead to supply helmets. “A very clear signal,” said German Defense Secretary Christine Lambrecht. Perhaps, but likely not how she imagines. Germany is also preventing its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies from providing Ukraine with German-made equipment. Meanwhile, France clamors for a new security order, Italy has been caught scouring for deals, and Hungary seems to have submitted to Moscow in exchange for cheap gas.

Central and Eastern European trust of its western peers was already low prior to the current crisis. Countries like Poland and Romania continue to hold fast to the merits of the transatlantic alliance, which, they believe, ideologues in Paris and Berlin undermine with their storied references to “European sovereignty” and “strategic autonomy.”

In Europe, history always looms large. Germany’s ostensible silence in the face of present Russian aggression is for many also an uneasy reminder of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed in 1939 between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Between them, they partitioned Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. In Europe, current affairs often intersect with unfortunate histories and lingering suspicions.

In response to the current menaces, the United Kingdom, Poland, and Ukraine have this month announced a new cooperation arrangement. The arrangement is likely to resemble other cooperation “triangles” in the region, as the Weimar and Lublin. Neither is a formal treaty alliance but a loose grouping of states that occasionally meets to deliberate its shared political, economic, and security interests. Minilateralism in action.

The U.K. in particular has in recent weeks shown itself a formidable geopolitical actor — brouhahas over parties and cakes notwithstanding. It has committed 2,000 short-range anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, in addition to £88 million in economic aid. In the event of a Russian offensive, it has pledged troop increases in Estonia and possibly Poland. It has vowed to introduce domestic legislation that would target Kremlin-linked businesses in Britain. Prime Minister Johnson is in contact with presidents Zelensky, Putin, and Biden.

Poland has similarly emerged an ever-mightier European power. Like other Eastern European nations rising to Ukraine’s aid, the Poles are well familiar with the intricacies of the Russian threat. They have been here before. Poland is supplying Ukraine with humanitarian and military assistance, including reconnaissance drones and anti-aircraft missile systems. For itself, it has purchased 250 U.S. Abrams tanks. The successful expansion of its armed forces to 250,000 personnel would make it NATO’s third-largest fighting force, after the U.S. and Turkey.

Poland and the U.K. sit atop a curious lattice of European NATO member and non-member states that have informally allied in the face of renewed Russian aggression. They are filling the unfortunate void in leadership left by Europe’s supposed leaders. The Czechs are donating artillery rounds, the Romanians, Bulgarians, and Hungarians ready to host additional troops. Baltic states prevented from shipping German-made weapons are instead sending American equipment from their own stockpiles.

It is an impressive show of solidarity and determination. It is also indicative of Europe’s realigning geopolitics and its emergent minilateralism — this, as a counterbalance to the seeming rigidity and ineffectualness of its larger powers and bureaucratic organizations.

Historically, the success of such ad hoc alliances has varied. The first Triumvirate did, after all, end in intrigue, death, and civil war. Not quite a stellar report card. Groupings like the Visegárd Group and the Weimar Trianglehave also been only minimally effective. Yet despite its shortcomings, the present geopolitical moment — replete with doubts over the reliability and durability of the international order and, in Europe, regional stability — may make minilateralism attractive for Europe and the U.S.

For Europe, the flexibility inherent in such smaller “coalitions of the willing” could provide momentumto initiate and develop proposals on an array of issues — including those on which there is limited regional consensus. Beyond the Russian threat, policy approaches to China are an example. Energy sector reforms, another. Removed from the theater of treaties or formal rules-based approaches, states could make incremental policy changes. In some cases, this could also enhance actions taken multilaterally.

European sub-alliances emerging to counter current Russian aggression also suggest the potential of small groups for security cooperation and conflict resolution. Of the latter, the Dayton Peace Agreement and the more recent Normandy Format are examples. The arrangement between Poland, Ukraine, and Britain also has security at its core. There is in Europe a palpable fatigue surrounding matters of defense. States whose geography forces them into vigilance could then bypass the malaise and, as now, more effectively supply each other with the mechanisms needed to defend their sovereignty.

For the U.S., Europe’s emergent minilateralism is also an interesting proposition. The U.S. presently lacks the resources and capabilities necessary to meet the bourgeoning global challenges. It must prioritize. Minilateral arrangements are an ostensible way for it to do so, allowing it to insert itself into matters that advance U.S. national interests.

Ukraine’s crisis continues to unearth fractures in the Western alliance and the plurality of its views. Countries once seen as regional leaders are proving themselves otherwise. Those that had been all but written out of global politics are rising to the challenge. New coalitions are emerging and alliances shifting in defense of the liberal world order. They should be encouraged. Ukraine’s struggle is but one of many to come as the world of Moscow and — further afield — Beijing rises. And the fault lines are now more clear.