Can the Europeans find leverage over Trump?

Nato, Biden and Europe could all benefit from ex-president’s bellicosity

Every alliance needs an enemy. Donald Trump’s warning that, should he win the November election, America could withdraw military cover from European countries that underspend on defence could provide just the tonic that Nato needs. And it could encourage overdue European efforts to promote further political integration, a centrepiece of Ursula von der Leyen’s campaign to secure a second term as president of the European Commission.

On an optimistic reading, the former American president’s statement on 10 February may go down in history as a grandiose example of the law of unintended consequences.

Trump’s bulldozer treatment of America’s allies is intended to enhance his electoral appeal by showing his firmness in standing up for American interests. Yet, in his latest declaration, Trump has unwittingly provided his adversaries with a potential strategy to get the better of him. The chances of success depend greatly on whether the Europeans can show much more imagination, skill and determination than they have displayed over the past 10 years.

The ex-president’s strong support base and ability to mine popularity from his judicial and political battles put him ahead of President Joe Biden by a narrow margin in the US opinion polls. But that lead could quickly unravel. It may be a long shot, but Trump’s bellicosity towards Nato and failure to support Ukraine at a crucial time in the two-year war could help provoke a salutary anti-Trump backlash.

Europe has been complacent

True to form, Trump expresses his indignation about the Europeans in outlandish terms, but a good part of it is justified. For too long Europe has gorged itself on complacency and freeloaded on American military largesse. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was the final act demonstrating the extinction of the post-cold war ‘peace dividend’. The US has used its place at the forefront of nuclear and non-nuclear defence to buttress its global power and technological leadership, but it has frequently failed to use its status to best advantage. The disastrous pull-out from Afghanistan in 2021, shortcomings in dealing with the global South and failure to exert significant influence over Israel in the conflict in Gaza have all had deleterious effects.

Over the past two years, America has galvanised its European allies to show solidarity with Ukraine and ramp up supplies of budgetary resources and military equipment. But as the barbaric and debilitating war enters its third year, Russia’s strength in soldiers and equipment, backed by the relentless force of a totalitarian regime, appears to be giving President Vladimir Putin the upper hand.

The 16-18 February Munich security conference, coinciding with news of the death – probably murder – of celebrated anti-Putin politician Alexei Navalny in a remote Siberian prison camp, gave rise to virtually unrelieved gloom about the war and its outcome. Fred Kempe, head of the Atlantic Council, has produced a chilling comparison of the 1938 Munich agreement appeasing Adolf Hitler and stalling action on support for Ukraine by US lawmakers in the Republican-led House of Representatives.

The procrastination across Europe in delivering sophisticated weaponry reflects ever-present fears that an over-extended Nato engagement could unleash a nuclear conflict. Hold-ups in American aid and Gazan distractions have further sapped European resolve. This is a serious impasse from which the West may not be able to extricate itself. But the transactional nature of Trump’s ultimatum may have offered Europe a route not only to gain influence in the confrontation with Russia, but also to lower the likelihood that he re-enters the White House.

Has Trump opened a route to his unravelling?

Purely rational calculations indicate that Europe now has three potential points of leverage before the November US elections. First, by taking long overdue steps to boosting defence spending to Nato’s 2% of gross domestic product target, European countries will do the minimum necessary to maintain strategic credibility. Last year, only 11 of 30 Nato members reached that target but, under plans already under way in most states, collective spending across Europe is due to hit the 2% level this year. Much more can and should be done. Political dexterity is needed in explaining this. Europe will need to project additional military measures both as a means of self-insurance against possible American unreliability and as a contribution to strengthening the West as a whole.

Second, necessary improvements in defence will give the West greater clout when negotiations eventually start on ending the Ukrainian war. Europe needs to play its part from a position of relative strength.

Third, a positive European signal on defence could give Biden an electoral boost. Notwithstanding the fabled indifference of Americans to foreign affairs, suitably orchestrated European displays of solidarity with Biden, channelled in the right fashion to the American populace, could help tip the balance in the November contest.

What’s at stake for Europe – and Germany?

The danger is that Trump will interpret any European outcome – either advances towards fulfilling the Nato targets or appeasement-style backtracking – as a victory for his own policies. Aided by his friends and allies in Europe – and these include, shamelessly, two former UK prime ministers, as well as almost certainly Putin himself – Trump will stop at nothing to win the presidential race. Europe needs to prepare for this by evaluating where its interests lie. The budgetary costs of adding to defence spending are large but minor compared with those that would probably ensue from a second Trump presidency. Beyond money, far more must be done in improving European procurement structures, as has been in evidence for years.

The message is especially acute for Germany – arguably the country that would lose most from a second Trump term. Chancellor Olaf Scholz, widely criticised for poor communications and weak stewardship of the economy, is aware of how his predecessor Angela Merkel saw her image burnished when pitted against Trump in 2017-21. Britain is sidelined by the impending general election and the persistent travails of having detached itself from the rest of Europe. So it will be up to Scholz and the only other European leader who counts, Emmanuel Macron of France – who has his own problems in finding a way of engaging with the German chancellor.

It remains a big ‘if’. But if Scholz can seize the initiative with Biden in repelling Trump’s anti-Nato salvos, he could reinforce his own political future as well as that of the US incumbent. Europe must first realise it has leverage over Trump, both direct and indirect, and then find the wisdom and courage to use it.

David Marsh is Chairman of OMFIF.

This is the first piece of a series on the two-year anniversary of the Russia-Ukraine war. Read the second here.

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