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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Hedging Against a Trump Victory

Allies, friends, and partners fear the end of Uncle Sucker.

Donald,Trump,Speaks,At,The,First,In,The,Nation,Leadership
Credit: Andrew Cline

There is a fearsome specter haunting not just Europe, but the entire globe: a Donald Trump victory in next year’s presidential election.

The Europeans are the most alarmed, though. The Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman detailed their conundrum: “Many European decision-makers admit that they were caught unprepared by Trump’s election as U.S. president in 2016. They are determined not to make the same mistake again. But knowing that Trump might win the presidency back in 2024, and knowing what to do about it, are different things. That is all the more the case since a second Trump presidency would probably be even more radical and unpredictable than the first.”

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Bronwen Maddox of Chatham House was refreshingly honest in admitting that Europeans take American coddling for granted. She explained

British foreign policy, like that in much of Europe and many democracies beyond, is based on the presumption that the US in some sense always remains the same. Its presidents, its policies, its wars of choice come and go. But America upholds the principle of international institutions even if it rails against some of them or funds them sporadically. It continues to pick up the giant’s share of the tab for NATO, above all.

For a good time, call Uncle Sam! 

No wonder the thought of losing the privilege of being a U.S. security dependent is so daunting to so many. For decades, countries enjoyed an essentially free or at least cheap ride, recovering economically behind an American defense shield. In recent years, Europeans have continued to prosper while leaving the heavy lifting of war and peace to Washington. That allowed the continent to concentrate on fun stuff, like creating a bountiful welfare state and carping about American policy priorities.

The first military outlay on the chopping block if Trump regains the presidency probably would be aid to Ukraine. Noted Rachman, “Led by the U.S., NATO nations say repeatedly they will do ‘whatever it takes’ to help Kyiv win. But if Trump subjected Ukraine to an Afghanistan-style aid cut-off, the Europeans would not have enough military materiel to keep Ukraine going.”

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Yet the continent has been backing away from the many fevered promises to devote significantly more money to Europe’s defense. And European states might not even be willing to fight for each other. The Pew Research Center found that more Europeans opposed going to war on behalf of their NATO neighbors than fighting for them. After all, the Biden administration remains ready to underwrite intervention on the continent’s behalf, no matter how miserly its efforts. 

If Washington is on its way out, Rachman warns, withdrawing Ukraine support “would leave the countries closest to Russia, including Poland, high, dry and on the front line.” However, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Europeans continue to advertise their helplessness when it comes to defense. After all, Americans are soft touches, having been ever willing to subsidize their wastrel, derelict Atlantic cousins.

Alas, the problem goes beyond guns to butter. Apparently, European governments can’t even meet soft targets. After all, European taxpayers insist on bulking up their welfare states first. And the U.S. can be counted on to step in financially. Indeed, Washington has provided some $25 billion in economic assistance to Ukraine “to help farmers, subsidize small businesses and pay the country's first responders.” All this for a country with a well-earned reputation for corruption.

Even more distraught about the impending advance of the new Dark Age if Americans go home was Ed Luce, also of the Financial Times, who bewailed the potential return of “isolationism” under Trump. It was a bizarre charge then, and it remains a bizarre charge today. Trump spent more on the U.S. military than his predecessors, added more troops to and devoted more money to Europe, left Washington even more entangled in the Middle East, launched economic war on China, and revived the Ugly American in Latin America. He was no isolationist.

However, to Luce increasing popular pressure in the U.S. to reduce the amount of money going to the allies’ increasingly dangerous proxy war against Russia is evidence enough of impending doom. He insists that “today’s rising isolationism”—meaning reduced funding for Ukraine, nothing more—“is not about even-handedness between Russia and Ukraine; its driving force comes from Republicans in sympathy with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.” With CNN finding a majority of Americans opposed to more aid, there must be a very large number of Russian sycophants and stooges in the U.S. Who knew that more than half of the population had gone over to the dark side?

There is much disquiet at the prospect of “isolationism” in Asia as well. Reported the Wall Street Journal: “For many foreign capitals, the possibility of a second Trump administration is a source of anxiety. Allies from Paris to Tokyo regard Trump, the front-runner for the GOP nomination, as an erratic leader with little interest in cultivating long-term ties to counter Russian and Chinese expansionism.”

True, Trump talked about withdrawing troops from South Korea, but he never acted on those threats. He formed a tight bond with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and never pushed for the withdrawal of much of anything from Japan. Trump also deployed the U.S. Navy to counter Chinese maritime activities. His secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, led the anti-Beijing campaign and now advocates for an independent Taiwan. These positions do not bring “isolationist” to mind.

Where the term might be more accurately tossed at Trump is on trade. Nevertheless, his policies look little different from those of his successor. Trump has promised to impose tougher restrictions in a second term, but the Biden administration’s investment and technology controls on China go much further than anything promoted by Trump. 

Indeed, Maddox reluctantly conceded the policy convergence, adding: “these are just awkward policies—and the U.K. has not found the current administration easy on that front either. Biden ordered the precipitate exit from Afghanistan which upended 20 years of British efforts in that country. The Inflation Reduction Act, a subsidy of hundreds of billions of dollars for green technology, has been drawn up with blithe disregard for the way it will suck investment and manufacturing from U.S. allies.” 

Still, even if the Yanks continued to defend her country, there’s something about Trump and his Yanks she obviously doesn’t like. He “would have an utterly different conception of America’s role in the world and the nature of its democracy at home, of the rule of law at home and abroad. And so would the U.S. voters who elected him.” At which point “the implications for global institutions, for international law and order, for predictability of a world superpower are stark.”

America’s nervous dependents are pursuing two different strategies. The first is to cozy up to the very people they despise. Reported the Journal: “Leading members of the three parties of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s governing coalition have been jetting across the Atlantic ever since they took power in late 2021, meeting with GOP officials and Trump confidants. A key Scholz aide, Wolfgang Schmidt, has made regular visits to Washington, forging links with key Republicans. In September, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock will embark on a 10-day visit to the U.S., including an extended visit to Texas, a GOP bastion, to familiarize herself with the party.” Visiting Texas! Such is the sacrifice made by German grandees!

Still, even an artful “suck-up” can only go so far in delaying the inevitable. The other strategy is to embrace reality. Unfortunately, some countries, such as the United Kingdom, have been pulling back from their promises to do more. Germany, with Europe’s largest economy, also has been a disappointment. Admitted one analyst, there was hope that “Germany would leave the comfort zone and start to take security more seriously. But I don’t see any game changer.”

Other governments, however, may be ready to take a more responsible position. For instance, Poland is contemplating a major military buildup: “Poland’s military expansion plans would make the country Europe’s leading military power by raising its long-term defense spending target from the current 2.4% to 5% of gross domestic product. Warsaw wants to increase spending to 3% of GDP as early as next year to kickstart an armament overhaul as well as a huge expansion in troop numbers to 400,000 from 150,000.” 

Despite Berlin’s poor performance, the senior German parliamentarian Norbert Röttgen urged the creation of an independent foreign policy. Paris, too, is pressing for more: “French officials have been warning European allies that the possibility of Trump’s return requires the continent to significantly expand arms production, from artillery to missile defense systems, so it can supply Ukraine on its own.” After decades of enjoying a cheap ride on America, it is time for Europe to start doing something “on its own.”

Will doing so be easy? No, of course not. Nevertheless, as revolutionary hero Thomas Paine reminded us: “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: It is dearness only that gives everything its value.” Josep Borrell, the European Union’s “High Representative” for foreign policy, declared that “Europe is facing an existential threat.” If so, the EU’s twenty-seven member states should act accordingly, investing in their militaries, improving continental coordination, and establishing a multilateral framework for operations.

No doubt, Donald Trump was and again would be a difficult partner even for a friendly government. He would be a particularly unwelcome ally for those used to playing the helpless dependent to take advantage of Washington’s foolish tendency to turn the Pentagon into an international welfare agency. Say what you will about Trump, he doesn’t suffer this sort of fools gladly.

Rather than strategizing how to best “play” Trump if he again ends up in the Oval Office, foreign officials should begin to act as leaders of important and capable states. The U.S. remains the world’s richest and strongest nation, but no longer can afford to play military nursemaid to Europe and the others. Governments which took over their own security would no longer need cower in fear of what the next American election might bring.