How Europe Can Prepare for a Second Trump Term—Now

When U.S. President Joe Biden declared that “America is back” after ousting Donald Trump in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, many European capitals were relieved. Now that relief is being replaced with a stark realization: America might be back, but perhaps not for long. Fresh off a victory in the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 23, Trump will almost certainly face Biden in the election come November. Trump leads Biden in some polls, and there is a real chance that he will win the presidency.

Even with Biden at the helm, Europe has had to temper expectations about the limits of U.S. engagement and the nature of U.S. politics. With Russia’s war on Ukraine about to enter its third year, Washington’s support for Kyiv is faltering as right-wing Republican lawmakers hold up Congress on aid to Ukraine. If an isolationist like Trump returned to the White House, the consequences for European security could be grave. Without sustained U.S. support, Russian President Vladimir Putin may be emboldened to act on his maximalist aims and shatter the security order as we know it.

European leaders are waking up to this fact, and it’s time that they made serious preparations to bolster their defense in the event of Trump’s second term. Russia’s war in Ukraine and designs on other European countries have only raised the stakes. Next to whether the United States can finally deliver aid to Ukraine, how Europe readies itself for the potential of a U.S. leader sympathetic to Putin could determine whether Kyiv is able to survive Moscow’s continued onslaught, much less achieve a battlefield breakthrough next year.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 brought Europe’s security vulnerabilities and reliance on the United States into plain view. The war revealed the poor state of Europe’s ammunition stockpiles, an inability to produce the quantity of materiel needed for modern fighting, and forces’ worryingly low combat readiness. Russia’s invasion made clear the centrality of U.S. military support to Ukraine’s survival, as well as just how crucial U.S. commitment is for maintaining the deterrent effect of NATO’s collective defense mechanism.

Trump’s resentment toward U.S. allies in Europe and his affection for strongmen like Putin are well documented. In the last year alone, he has touted his relationship with the Russian leader on the campaign trail, bragged about Putin welcoming Trump’s promise to end the war in 24 hours, and worked to sabotage the current congressional negotiations to deliver further aid to Ukraine. Trump has also previously declared that he would undermine NATO: “If Europe is under attack, we will never come to help you,” he reportedly told European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in 2020. For their own safety, European leaders should spend this year enhancing their security capabilities, as well as defense readiness and production.

Ukraine’s defense is Europe’s defense. Putin has made clear that his ambitions extend beyond Kyiv. The Russian leader’s accusations of Nazism among NATO’s eastern members reflect his characterization of the modern Ukrainian state, a pretext for Russia’s invasion. His statements are worrying enough that some European leaders are warning that Russia could attack a NATO member state in the coming years. Front-line nations in Eastern Europe, which are among Ukraine’s most vocal supporters, are increasing defense spending. Eastern European leaders have pushed their counterparts in other countries to commit billions to Ukraine’s defense, now outpacing even the United States’ contributions.

The threat Russia poses to Europe alarmed Sweden and Finland so greatly that they dropped their long-standing neutrality and moved to join NATO. (Sweden’s accession process now only awaits ratification from Hungary.) The European Union has also rightly realized its role in Europe’s long-term security, as shown by the revitalization of the EU membership process for Ukraine and other candidates and the pace of initiatives between EU members and Ukraine, including the provision of military aid.

Despite this progress, the United States remains the most important source of military assistance for Ukraine. At $44.2 billion, U.S. military aid commitments dwarf those of Germany, in second place (more than $17 billion), and the United Kingdom, in third (over $6.6 billion), for a variety of reasons of history and size. The EU itself made a groundbreaking pledge to send 1 million artillery shells to Kyiv by this spring, and EU officials announced they have finally reached the capacity to produce 1 million shells. However, only 300,000 have been supplied so far. North Korea, meanwhile, has reportedly sent more than 1 million of its own shells to Russia.

As the war drags on, Washington’s resolve has waned. The United States is approaching the sixth month of a congressional debate over continued aid to Ukraine, for which Republicans demand reforms to the U.S. immigration system in exchange. Trump’s interventions are fueling the idea that no deal should be reached to prevent a political victory for Biden in an election year. Dwindling support is already leading to stark choices on the battlefield for Ukrainian troops, who are rationing ammunition and grappling with less effective air defenses.

During Trump’s presidency, Europe was fortunate that Russia had not yet made good on its threats to wage a full-scale war against Ukraine. Trump, meanwhile, was restrained by some of his own officials, who advocated for a strong line on Russia despite the president’s preferences. European leaders will not be so lucky during a second Trump administration. The former president’s allies are already pre-vetting tens of thousands of potential bureaucrats driven by personal loyalty rather than public service. During Trump’s time in office, it was clear that the vast machinery of the U.S. government prevented him from making rapid, radical policy changes. Trump and his allies also learned this lesson and are seeking to overcome it.

No European leader can say they weren’t warned. The time for them to prepare for Trump’s potential return is now. European leaders must arrive at the February European Council meeting ready to meaningfully engage on the issue of European defense, and their priority in that effort should be to support Ukraine’s victory. That means agreeing to a 50 billion euro facility for Ukraine’s financial stability, reconstruction, and technical assistance. Approval of the package would give Ukraine some much-needed predictability in the next four years as the war continues and as Ukraine works toward its long-term integration with Europe while U.S. support remains in question.

Von der Leyen has said that the financial aid package must be approved, regardless of whether Hungary—whose leader is Putin’s closest ally in the EU and NATO—tries to veto it. “We are prepared for an agreement by 26 [countries], but I strongly support and prefer an agreement by 27,” von der Leyen said this month. Under normal procedures, approving the package requires the unanimous consent of all member states, unless some creative workarounds are found.

Also important is agreement on topping up and reforming the European Peace Facility (EPF), which has provided Ukraine a modest 5.5 billion euros of military assistance, with the EU reimbursing members states’ military contributions to Ukraine. EU members currently disagree on the internal methods used by the EPF, but the EU’s own diplomatic service has called on members to recognize the importance of the package, arguing that decisions made now “will either allow Ukraine to decisively progress or will seriously undermine its ability to resist” Russia’s invasion.

Although these two packages are priorities, more support is needed—and fast. There have already been some laudable efforts. Finland began increasing stockpiles immediately after Russia’s 2022 invasion, and its production of artillery ammunition is already five times what it was before. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has encouraged the European External Action Service to audit European states’ military aid to Ukraine to see if governments are sending as much as they are able. The audit will make it easier to apply pressure to EU members who aren’t sending enough.

However, there are too few serious efforts to boost European defense production to make enough weapons or material to meet Ukraine’s current needs—much less Europe’s needs if it cannot count on the United States to defend it. Scaling up defense production is a slow process, and the EU faces structural obstacles to providing defense companies with the long-term contracts needed to make a difference in Ukraine. Nevertheless, at its upcoming meeting, the European Council should seriously consider existing ideas to bolster Europe’s defense, such as joint borrowing—which has earned endorsements from France and Estonia—or a proposal for long-term financing of EU military projects.

Furthermore, Europe should come prepared to this summer’s NATO summit in Washington with a proactive agenda and proposals to enhance the alliance’s readiness and collective defense. Last year’s summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, saw members defer to the United States on most issues, particularly on Biden’s preference to stall a NATO membership invitation to Kyiv despite growing enthusiasm among some members for such a move. While Ukraine’s integration into NATO remains a critical issue, it should not hold back the 2024 summit from making real progress on other collective defense issues.

Instead, European leaders must put forth tangible plans for increased domestic defense spending and work with the United States to make meaningful progress on enhancing capabilities rather than meeting benchmarks such as the “2 percent rule” for defense contributions, which is increasingly viewed by experts as an arbitrary metric.

One European diplomat recently told Politico that the United States’ poisonous domestic politics are holding it back from being a guarantor of European security. Republican policymakers who are undermining U.S. interests in pursuit of partisan power struggles remain a significant threat to both U.S. and European security. But the continued instability in the United States should also add momentum to Europe’s efforts to take greater ownership of its own security.

Even if Trump does not return to the White House, Europe cannot afford to wait and see whether it would be prudent to bolster its own defense capabilities. Significant investments in European defense capabilities are crucial to meeting the security needs of a modern Europe and are unlikely to undermine NATO. They will only strengthen the transatlantic alliance—and enhance Europe’s ability to stand against the greatest military threat it has faced in 75 years.

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