Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 12 February 2024

Europe can no longer count on America’s security umbrella

Trump is undermining its safety and the continent must respond

Feb 13, 2024

Europe’s fears of an isolationist America under a second Trump presidency are becoming reality. Donald Trump has not yet sealed the Republican nomination for this year’s White House race and the presidential vote is months away, but he is already working to undermine Nato and the security of Washington’s closest allies. On Saturday, Trump said he would encourage Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” if alliance members failed to meet targets of spending 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defence. Even by his standards of campaign bombast, it was an extraordinarily reckless statement.

With its onslaught against Ukraine, Russia has initiated the most devastating war on European soil since 1945. It poses the biggest threat to the security of the alliance in decades. The US still has tens of thousands of troops stationed in Europe. They are more at risk today than they were on Friday. If Trump is not colluding with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he is undoubtedly serving his interests.

Nato’s promise of mutual defence rests on confidence that it will be upheld more than any legal obligation. Trump has shattered that confidence. Even doubling European military expenditure tomorrow would not repair it. Regrettably, a growing number of Republican lawmakers agree with Trump about the limited value of alliances. That should trouble all of America’s allies around the world. It will certainly embolden its enemies.

The one admirable thing about Trump’s message was its clarity. It is an unambiguous signal to Europeans that they must prepare to protect their continent’s security without US involvement.

In truth, the alarm has been blaring out for some time. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, European governments made sometimes sizeable pledges to ramp up defence spending and refill depleted weapons stockpiles. While encouraging, there are doubts in most countries about how these increases will be sustained over the longer term. Many capitals still appear in denial about the scale of investment needed in technology, in boosting defence industrial capacity and in enlarging their fighting forces as a deterrent to Russian aggression.

Europeans have to start thinking the unthinkable: how to plan for war without America. That requires a European pillar within Nato with Europeans able to provide the crucial military assets like heavy lift and intelligence that only the US currently possesses. It could also involve the EU using Nato assets to run missions other than peacekeeping. The EU should also have an expanded role in driving forward joint development and procurement of weapons systems alongside other collaborative projects, perhaps under the auspices of a European commissioner for defence. The UK and other non-EU Nato states need to be closely involved. This is a work of decades. But Europeans must show purpose and resolve now, not least to send a message to the Kremlin.

The way to start is by arming Ukraine. This has to be the short-term priority. So far, Europe’s performance has been disappointing, despite the best efforts of Germany and the European Commission in particular. Governments have been too slow to sign contracts and too timid to subsidise expanded production capacity, especially for artillery ammunition. They must make amends quickly. They have to do the same for air defence and drones and share electronic warfare technology with Ukrainian forces. Perhaps such ambitions will win Trump around to Nato’s cause, should he become president again. But Europeans cannot count on this. They must prepare for a new world, in which they take care of their own security.

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