Donald Trump just did Europe a favor – POLITICO Europe
Europe might finally get real about defending itself now the Republican frontrunner is inviting Putin to attack some of America’s NATO allies.
BERLIN — It might not be strategic, but at least it’s autonomy.
In one fell swoop over the weekend, Donald Trump freed Europe from the confines of the American security bubble.
“I would not protect you, in fact I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want,” Trump claimed to have told a European leader about how he would respond if their country were attacked by Russia. “You gotta pay!”
Never mind that Trump was talking about what he would do if other NATO countries didn’t live up to the alliance’s spending target of 2 percent of economic output. By casting doubt over America’s commitment to NATO in such a direct and fundamental way, he effectively drove a stake through the alliance’s heart.
It almost doesn’t even matter if he wins reelection at this stage; Europe is on its own.
The only real question the election will resolve for Europe’s security is the timing of NATO’s collapse.
Of course, the Biden administration would dispute that, arguing that if their man wins reelection, NATO would be as safe as ever.
But for how long?
Much of the debate on Trump’s comments so far has focused on the consensus among most right-thinking people that it would run counter to American interests. But for Europe at this stage, that’s almost irrelevant. Europe would be crazy to leave its security every four years up to the whims of about 50,000 American swing-state voters (the rough margin of victory in recent presidential elections).
The reality is that whoever wins in November, MAGA will remain a factor in American politics for some time to come. Who’s to say Trump’s Republican heir doesn’t renew his anti-NATO bent? It’s a risk Europe can’t afford to ignore.
Even as a candidate, Trump has shown the extent of his influence over the Republican party, forcing it last week to block a legislative package that included another batch of sorely needed military aid for Ukraine. The U.S. Congress may yet send more help to Ukraine, but may well not.
The bottom line is that it’s become risky to count on America.
Considering what’s at stake — subjugation to Russia — Europe has no choice but to start preparing a Plan B.
So far though, European leaders are still in the anger-cum-denial stage.
“Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the U.S., and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement over the weekend, one of a flurry of similar statements castigating the former president.
OK, now what?
The truth is, Europe only has itself to blame for the morass. Trump has been harping on about NATO’s laggards for years, but he hardly invented the genre. American presidents going back to Dwight D. Eisenhower have complained about European allies freeloading on American defense.
What Europeans don’t like to hear is that Trump has a point: They have been freeloading. What’s more, it was always unrealistic to expect the U.S. to pick up the tab for European security ad infinitum.
After Trump lost to Biden in 2020, it seemed like everything had gone back to normal, however. Biden, a lifelong transatlanticist, sought to repair the damage Trump did to NATO by letting the Europeans slide back into their comfort zone.
Even though overall defense spending has increased in recent years in Europe — as it should have, considering Russia’s war on Ukraine — it’s still nowhere near enough. Only 11 of NATO’s 31 members are expected to meet the spending target in 2023, for example, according to NATO’s own data. Germany, the main target of Trump’s ire, has yet to achieve the 2 percent mark. It’s likely to this year, however, if only because its economy is contracting.
The truth is, Europe was lulled back into a false sense of security by Biden’s warm embrace. Instead of going on a war footing by forcing industry to ramp up armament production and reinstating conscription in countries like Germany where it was phased out, Europe nestled itself in America’s skirts.
It’s hardly surprising that the Continent, with its generous social welfare states and pacifist populations, took the path of least resistance (with the notable exception of the Baltics and Poland).
Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, the focus of Germany’s national debate has shifted away from the war to heat pumps and mass migration. Even as the country increased its support for Ukraine, the public’s mind drifted elsewhere. Over the past year, Russia has slipped from first place to seventh in the Germans’ perception of threats to the country, according to a study published this week.
Trump’s thunderbolt should help refocus Europe’s strategic compass.
French President Emmanuel Macron talks a good game about pursuing European “strategic autonomy,” but his country hasn’t actually done anything to make that a reality.
One place to start would be to address the nuclear question. Between France and the U.K., Europe would have about 500 nukes at its disposal, fairly modest when compared to Russia’s nearly 6,000 warheads. Neither country has committed to use them to protect the rest of the Continent, however.
Resolving such issues is both time consuming and complicated. Europe doesn’t just need to rebuild its armies, it needs to reprogram its collective mindset. Even as the second anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s failed march on Kyiv approaches, the war and its implications for European security remain far too abstract for many Europeans, especially those in western Europe.
Even if Europe does wake up to the realities it faces, it may well be too late. On paper, Europe, with collective military spending about triple Russia’s and an economy many times its size, should be able to fend for itself. The problem is that Europe is running out of time.
Replacing the American capability NATO would lose without the U.S. would take decades and untold billions. And most European leaders haven’t even accepted the cold reality that American protection is already effectively gone.
Imagine, for argument’s sake, that Trump is inaugurated in early 2025 and Putin decides to test NATO’s resolve that spring by marching into Estonia. Will Trump risk a nuclear confrontation with Putin over little Estonia? We already know the answer.
A more fundamental question is whether the Europeans even have it in themselves to come together and defend themselves without Washington’s guiding hand. History suggests they will just revert to type and descend into chaos. Witness Europe’s handling of the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
“Europe can’t stay united without the United States,” Biden said in a speech to the Senate in 1995 during the crisis in Bosnia. “There is no moral center in Europe.”
Europe now has a chance to prove him wrong.
If they succeed, they’ll have only one person to thank.
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