Comment

How Europe should prepare for Trump 2.0

Simon Nixon / Jan 2024

Image: Shutterstock

It is time for the continent to wake up to the very real threat of a "dormant NATO"

The outcome of yesterday's Iowa Caucus merely confirmed what the polls have long been signalling: that Donald Trump is as good as certain to win the Republican nomination and is the frontrunner to be re-elected as US president in November. That is a prospect that should fill European governments with alarm. A second Trump term is sure to prove even more disruptive to the global order than the first. He has already made clear that he would scrap aid to Ukraine, pull America out of the Paris Climate Accords and slap a tariff of up to 10 per cent on all imports, destroying what remains of the global rules-based trading system. But for Europeans, the greatest anxiety concerns what Trump 2.0 might have in store for Nato.

Nato has played a far more important role in Europe’s post-war political development than is often recognised. It was thanks to America’s security umbrella that Europeans were able to focus on constructing an economic and regulatory union, without having to confront the far thornier challenge of developing a credible common defensive capability which would intrude far more deeply into national sovereignty. Plans for a European army and deep defence cooperation have been present since the earliest days of European integration, starting with the planned European Defence Community in the 1950s, but have either failed or amounted to little.

But a second Trump presidency would throw the future of the alliance in question. He has never made any secret of his dislike of Nato, accusing Europeans (rightly) of free-riding on American defence spending and questioning Article 5 which requires alliance members to treat an attack on one as an attack on all. Thierry Breton, an EU commissioner, last week recounted how Trump told him and Ursula von der Leyen in 2020: “You need to understand that if Europe is under attack we will never come to help you.” Last week Trump refused again to rule out quitting Nato. His election platform states that  "we have to finish the process we began under my administration of fundamentally re-evaluating NATO's purpose and NATO's mission”.

Dormant Nato?

A paper published last year by the Centre for Renewing America, a Trumpian US think-tank, may offer a clue where this re-evaluation may be heading. According to recent US media reports, Pivoting the US away from Europe to a Dormant Nato is being widely circulated in Trump’s circle. It makes for interesting reading. Dr Sumantra Maitra, the author, argues that unlike during the Cold War when Soviet communism posed a direct threat to the American way of life, Russia today lacks both the “will and capability” to launch an expansionist push into the rest of Europe. Nor, he says, is it clear why a border war in the far east of Europe affects America’s vital interests. Plus European states are these days rich enough to take care of themselves.

Maitra accuses European governments of “fleecing” America, scaling back their own military capabilities as Nato’s border has drifted East, while “Eastern European protectorates” have dragged America into their ethnic conflicts at a time when America needs to prioritise confronting China. At the same time, he argues that Nato has “morphed from a military alliance to an ideological and political group”, finding new tasks to sustain its vast bureaucracy such as promoting democracy and counter-terrorism. His solution is to dramatically scale back Nato and put European defence entirely in the hands of Europeans; America would act only as an “offshore balancer”, protecting supply routes via naval and air power. He calls this “dormant Nato”.

Of course, it is hard to think what is more calculated to embolden America’s adversaries, including Russia and China, than a decision to scale back its most important military alliance. But Europeans cannot afford to assume that Trump is bluffing. The US Congress considers the risk to be sufficiently serious to have passed an amendment in December with bipartisan support preventing a president from quitting Nato without Senate approval. But that would not block a dormant Nato policy. Nor can Europeans count on “adults in the room” acting as a restraint on Trump as they did in his first term: Trump is reported to be preparing to install loyalists in key positions in the Pentagon, State Department and CIA.

Europeans need to start preparing for a dormant Nato now, rather than waiting to see what happens in November. That will require facing up to tough decisions that go to the heart of the political economy of the continent, including questions that have been ducked for decades. But is Europe collectively up to the challenge?

Make Europe Great Again

The immediate priority must be to ramp up defence spending. Despite recent pledges to increase spending, only 11 out of 31 Nato members meet the two per cent of GDP threshold. Last month the EU was unable to agree on a new €50 billion package of aid for Ukraine after it was vetoed by Hungary. Breton has proposed a new €100 billion EU defence fund, but it is not clear where this money would come from. Many countries are opposed to issuing new tranches of EU debt. Meanwhile draft new EU fiscal rules, due to come into force this year, reiterate the old 60 per cent debt and three per cent budget deficit limits. For most countries, defence spending will have to compete with other priorities in the context of a period of renewed austerity. Britain says it will increase defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP but not said when.

A second priority must be to ramp up defence equipment production, which is lagging far behind America, let alone Russia. A new EU defence investment strategy is promised at the end of February. Yet the reality is that Europe's fragmented defence industry is reluctant to increase production capacity without firm orders. Current EU common procurement initiatives are small-scale. State aid rules prevent national governments from subsidising domestic manufacturers. National politics stand in the way of much-needed industry consolidation. The result, as the Centre for European Reform has noted, is that Europeans armies have 17 types of main battle tank and 20 different fighter aircraft, while the US has one tank and six types of fighter.

A third priority is to speed up EU decision-making, particularly in areas such as fiscal policy and foreign and security policy, which remain subject to unanimity. Yet how many member states would really be willing to give up their veto power in areas that go to the core of national sovereignty? One way to overcome an immediate obstacle to faster decision making would be for the EU to use the nuclear option of Article 7 of the EU treaty to strip Hungary of its voting rights, to prevent Vladimir Putin-supporting prime minister Viktor Orban holding the bloc to ransom. But even with the Polish government now back in the European mainstream, it seems unlikely that the EU would unite to take such a drastic step against a member state.

That still leaves the question of how Europeans should organise their own defence. Could a dormant Nato be reformed to adapt to the reality of a scaled back US engagement? Many alliance members will be reluctant even to contemplate such a scenario for fear that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Similar concerns apply to handing a bigger role in European defence to the EU. In any case, even leaving aside sovereignty concerns and differing foreign policy agendas, how could an EU-led approach incorporate non-EU members such as Britain? The idea that Russia can be credibly deterred via the establishment of new ad hoc arrangements without integrated planning and command structures seems unlikely.

To be fair, this debate is already underway in many European capitals, though not in Britain, where there is no appetite for reopening debates over European integration so soon after Brexit. The temptation is to sit tight and hope for the best. Yet the reality is that even if Europe escapes Trump 2.0 in November, these challenges will not go away. America’s debt is approaching 100 per cent of GDP and is projected to reach 181 per cent by 2053 , according to the Congressional Budget Office. That is already a source of concern in the bond markets. Regardless of who occupies the White House, America will be increasingly forced to prioritise. Europeans should assume that dormant Nato is coming - and prepare for it. They may not have long.

 

More of the author’s writings can be found at his 'Wealth of Nations' susbstack.

 

Simon Nixon

Simon Nixon

January 2024

About this author ︎►

cartoonSlideImage

EU Elections

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

Sunak puddle

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

Nul points

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

Better Late...

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

Erdogan

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

US Gladiators

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

Scholz hacker

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

Navalny

See the bigger picture ►

soundcloud-link-mpu1 rss-link-mpu soundcloud-link-mpu itunes-link-mpu