NATO Without America

Can Europeans shore up their collective defense and security by creating an independent, strongly coordinated defense industrial policy in time to adapt to a possible Donald Trump victory this November? There are three reasons to be skeptical, at least for the near term.

by Ian Bremmer at the Project Syndicate: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the most successful military alliance in history, is stronger than it’s ever been. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 underscored NATO’s continuing purpose and value, and the organization has since added two capable new members: Finland and Sweden. Yet while Russia is steadily losing soldiers, weapons, and its longer-term economic resilience, it is Ukraine, not NATO, that is absorbing Russia’s blows.

What about the future? European leaders know that Donald Trump has a solid chance of winning November’s US presidential election, and that a Trump restoration would cast doubt on the lasting commitment of NATO’s core contributor, along with the credibility of the security guarantees that make the alliance so powerful.

To be fair, the former president has raised some legitimate concerns. After Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, each member state pledged to spend at least 2% of national GDP on defense by 2024. Two months ago, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced that for the first time since the alliance’s birth in 1949, European members will collectively meet that target. But that is only because some states, particularly those closest to Russia’s borders, spend more than their quota.

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Specifically, 13 of NATO’s 31 members still don’t meet the 2% threshold, and Trump has again called into question their reliability as allies. If they fear Russia so much, he asks, why are they still unwilling to spend 2% of GDP on their own security? Nearly all European leaders recognize the need to spend more, and Trump’s recent taunt that the Russians should “do whatever the hell they want” to under-spenders (who, of course, are among the farthest from the Russian border) has many Europeans wondering what a second Trump presidency might mean for them. Could NATO continue to exist without a clear and credible American commitment?

During ceremonies earlier this month to celebrate the alliance’s 75th anniversary, Stoltenberg proposed a €100 billion ($107 billion) five-year fund for Ukraine that would not depend on the outcome of America’s 2024 election. But beyond Ukraine policy, European fears about their lack of readiness have also moved European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to call for a European defense commissioner. This would hardly be the first ambitious plan that European leaders have undertaken in recent years. They oversaw the rapid rollout of vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic, provided emergency relief for governments that needed it, and, after February 2022, launched a costly and complex program to end dependence on Russia for energy supplies. And they did all this while absorbing the historic numbers of refugees that began arriving around a decade ago.

f they can accomplish all that, why can’t they Trump-proof European security by creating an independent, strongly coordinated European defense industrial policy, supported by the EU budget and the single market? Unfortunately, there are three reasons to be skeptical, at least for the near term.

First, a stronger role for the European Commission in defense and industrial policy will take time to design and implement. During what is sure to be a complicated process, the plan will face opposition from national authorities who don’t want to surrender control of these policies. That is especially true for members who are concerned that France – the longtime advocate of collective European defense and the only current EU member with nuclear weapons – will have the most power to set the continent’s security policy.

Second, the EU remains deeply dependent on US weapons systems, access to US intelligence, and America’s role as the driving force behind NATO’s interoperability across countries. The continuing threat from Russia will persuade more Europeans than ever to spend more on defense, build intelligence capabilities, and increase the size of their militaries; but these processes will take a decade or more to complete. The present danger won’t allow for such a long transition.

Finally, at least a few European governments would gladly choose alignment with Trump over ever-closer ties with their fellow EU members. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico are obvious examples, and in the coming years, we may well see other (and more systemically important) EU members elect populist, Russia-friendly governments. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has been steadfast in her support for Ukraine, but that might change if Trump returns to the White House. If Marine Le Pen finally becomes president of France in 2027, closer alignment with Trump becomes plausible even in the Élysée, where there has long been a desire for more independent European foreign and security policies.

Beyond the November US election, there’s a longer-term question to consider. If Trump loses, will the drive toward a more isolationist and transactional American foreign policy die with his political career? Or have new generations of American voters – not old enough to remember the international role the US played, for better and for worse, between 1945 and 2008 – changed American public attitudes toward the “global leadership” that both Democrats and Republicans once insisted the US provide?

If so, not even a Biden victory will end the debate within Europe about its own security.

The article appeared here.