Administrations come and go but for decades nobody doubted America’s commitment to European security. First exemplified in the D-Day landings of 1944 and the Berlin Airlift of 1948, and codified in Nato’s founding charter, the transatlantic alliance has hugely benefited both sides. For the United States, being Europe’s security guarantor gave it clout and allies. For Europeans, with their fragmented decision-making, often stingy defence spending and questionable martial spirits, the American security umbrella kept us safe and free.
Now it’s over. The cowardly nihilism of Donald Trump’s supporters in Congress has blocked a vital $60 billion (£47.5 billion) tranche of financial and military support for Ukraine. No matter that Republicans earlier backed the Ukrainian cause. No matter that the Biden administration conceded their demands to strengthen the US border: an unrelated issue used as a political lever. Under Trump’s leadership, the Republicans would rather tip Ukraine into the abyss than give the hated President Biden a political victory.
The shenanigans in Washington are sending shock waves around the world. It is not just fears of a second term for Trump, with his talk of encouraging Russian assailants to “do whatever the hell they want” to “delinquent” European allies. The US political system has already failed catastrophically.
It is not just the Republicans. The Biden administration has dithered shamefully, and for the Ukrainians, lethally, in its reluctance to send advanced weapons. It has also stopped supplies from other countries. Even if some fancy procedural footwork means that money for Ukraine eventually goes through Congress, it is too late. Too late for the dead and maimed in Ukraine, where battlefield setbacks, horrendous casualties, persistent hardship and political divisions have finally started eroding morale. It is also too late for American credibility, in Europe and elsewhere. Seven decades of bipartisan attention to national security have ended in a partisan tantrum. If it can happen once, it can happen again.
Allies everywhere are drawing bleak conclusions. “The lesson is that America may encourage you to fight, but then lets you down,” a European foreign minister tells me. US allies in Asia facing an assertive China watch Ukraine’s fate closely. Smaller countries will decide that it is better to accommodate Beijing. Bigger ones, such as Japan, may decide that they need their own nuclear weapons.
Europe is split too. People with living memory of Soviet occupation will fight Russia no matter what. They include the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, plus the Poles. Finland is the European country best-prepared for war. Sweden is also rearming fast. After that the list is quite short. Romania is an increasingly serious military power. But Norway, despite its huge wealth and strategic location, is a laggard, as is Denmark: neither of them yet meets even the Nato minimum benchmark of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence. Germany’s much-trumpeted Zeitenwende (sea change) has yet to produce decisive results. France is not trusted by the frontline states, partly because of Emmanuel Macron’s chronic grandstanding, partly for fear of who may succeed him as president.
On the minus side, Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban is an unabashed Kremlin ally; neighbouring Austria and Slovakia are outright appeasers; and many other countries are squishy at heart. In the US heyday, it could overcome these divisions, plugging gaps and cajoling or arm-twisting the reluctant. As American influence recedes, Europe’s underlying divisions become starker and more dangerous.
Urgency deepens the gulf. Russia will need as little as two years to reconfigure its fighting forces after the fighting stops in Ukraine. Nato is not ready. Its new defence plans assume 50 battle-ready brigades. It has at best 25. Without the US, it’s worse: Europe will need at least a decade to fix its defence.
The frontline states realise this: Finland (which spends around £5 billion on defence) has 300,000 trained reservists ready within days, and can fight for a month, alone. No other European country can do that. “Europe divides into countries we don’t need to explain things to, and those that look blankly at us,” says a decision-maker from a capital city within rocket range of Russia.
Britain will have to think hard about this. Our longstanding role as America’s number two is obsolete, partly because our armed forces are so overstretched, and chiefly because the US has lost the will to be number one. The logical response would be to dump our global pretensions and concentrate on stepping up defence in Europe where we can make a real difference. Britain, with its nuclear deterrent and advanced weaponry, and a better-spent £50 billion defence budget, could be the linchpin of Nordic-Baltic security.
Regardless of politics, the immediate task is the unglamorous one of simplifying, standardising and stepping up defence production: the ammunition, drones, spare parts that are so sorely needed in Ukraine now and will be needed elsewhere soon. Russia produces ten artillery shells for each one that Europeans make. And Russian shells, albeit a bit cruder and less reliable, cost one tenth of ours.
As the allies scramble to fill these gaps, they will think twice about buying American. US leadership brought huge dividends, from arms sales to trade deals, and in focusing allied attention on American concerns in other parts of the world. It was a bargain, while it lasted. Americans may not grasp or care about the scale of their retreat. But they will live with its consequences.