The possibility exists that the Continent may have a US president who considered leaving NATO and promised to negotiate a ‘peace agreement’ with Russia.
By NICHOLAS VINOCUR
and CHRISTOPHER PILTZ
Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett for POLITICO
It may be difficult for the European mindset to fully grasp, but there is a possibility that Donald Trump could return to the presidency in November 2024.
For Europeans who were the main targets of the previous American president’s hostility during his term, this is a worst-case scenario and they had hoped to never have to deal with him again.
Joe Biden, who took over as president after him, has proven to be one of the most supportive U.S. leaders towards Europe in recent history. This has helped to ease the negative sentiments from the Trump era, making it seem like a distant nightmare. Did Trump truly consider withdrawing from NATO? It’s possible. Did he genuinely refer to the European Union as an enemy and Brussels, the center of the bloc’s establishments, as a terrible place? Most likely. The important thing is that he is no longer in power.
However, with Biden approaching the end of his first term, Europeans are realizing that his time in office may soon come to an end and Trump could potentially regain power. A recent ABC poll revealed Trump with a lead of nearly 10 percentage points over the current president. Although this poll has been disputed as an anomaly, Trump consistently polls higher than other Republican candidates, indicating he is a strong contender for the party’s nomination.
If he is elected, the European version of Trump would probably be more extreme and unpredictable than the one they are familiar with. This could include actually leaving NATO instead of just mentioning it to his team, as well as carrying out his promise to negotiate a “peace deal” with Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding Ukraine without involving Ukraine or the EU.
Certain politicians from Europe desire to witness these displays of excitement. In the previous month, Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, proclaimed that Trump has the potential to “rescue the Western world” by resolving the conflict in Ukraine. Additionally, members of Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party express their willingness to have the former president return, disregarding his previous stance on Ukraine as mere political tactics.
However, these perspectives are not widely held in the Old World. The prevailing opinions regarding Trump’s comeback are fear and unease. An anonymous European diplomat stated, “Trump is a terrifying prospect. This is not something that can be adequately prepared for.”
Given the importance of the situation, it may be expected that European leaders are actively developing a contingency plan to implement in the event of a Trump victory. However, according to discussions with around 20 European diplomats, experts, and government officials, there is currently no such plan in place and none being considered.
“It can be described as a type of sleepwalking,” explained Ulrich Speck, a foreign policy expert who works in Berlin. “We have [French President Emmanuel] Macron’s version of sleepwalking, which revolves around the ideas of autonomy and sovereignty. There is also German sleepwalking, characterized by denial, and British sleepwalking, which is more about detachment.”
However, there appears to be a lack of sincere accountability for potential future events.
Ready, set, prepare
Europeans have shifted their outlook on Trump in one aspect – they are no longer in denial.
In the beginning of 2016, a less experienced journalist from POLITICO was tasked with visiting European embassies and think tanks to inquire about the possibility of Trump winning the election. Some officials arrogantly dismissed the question, stating that it was not worth considering as he had no chance.
In 2023, the situation will not be the same. Europeans are fully aware of the potential for a repeat of Trump’s presidency, and many of the officials interviewed by POLITICO are urging the bloc to be ready.
Former French President François Hollande stated in an email response to questions from POLITICO that Europe needs to be prepared for any potential consequences of the U.S. election results.
He stated that in a democratic system, there is always a chance for the least qualified candidate to be chosen by the people. Even though Trump is currently facing numerous legal issues, he has already held the position of president and could potentially be elected again. The concern should be focused on the US potentially separating from European matters and the potential breakdown of the transatlantic partnership.
Multiple European officials expressed a similar sentiment of accepting reality. “It’s becoming a growing concern. We must prepare for all possible outcomes and prevent a repeat of the unpreparedness we experienced in 2016 with both Brexit and Trump,” stated a second European diplomat who wished to remain anonymous while discussing politics in a different country.
When asked about the possibility of a second term for Trump, the diplomat cautioned Europe to expect the worst. They questioned who would be willing to work with him based on his history of mistreating and betraying others. It was also noted that many of his previous team members have left and even those who may seem extreme have written negative books about him.
Furthermore, the possibility of a second term for President Trump only adds to the discomfort. Despite being impeached twice and facing multiple criminal charges, such as disputing the outcome of the 2020 election, some European leaders question whether he would face any consequences for his actions if reelected.
Germany is deeply troubled by the possibility of Trump making a comeback, especially since they have been a frequent victim of his criticisms. After being caught off guard by his election in 2016, German leaders are determined not to make the same error again. This is evidenced by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock’s recent visit to Texas, where she held talks with Republican Governor Greg Abbott.
Despite efforts to reach out, Norbert Röttgen remains doubtful about his government’s level of preparedness. As a prominent figure in the German parliament and an influential voice in foreign policy, Röttgen did not anticipate Trump’s victory in 2016, and neither did anyone in Chancellor Merkel’s inner circle. This lack of foresight makes it crucial for Berlin to anticipate Trump’s potential return. However, Röttgen states that the government is repeating their previous mistake.
In anticipation of Trump’s comeback, Röttgen suggests that the German federal government should work closely with other European nations to establish a separate defense strategy. However, he laments the lack of action from the government in this regard.
Speck, the expert on international relations, shared Röttgen’s negative outlook on Germany’s level of readiness. He stated that there is no discussion about whether Germany should allocate more funds to defense. While some may have hoped that Germany’s commitment to increasing military funding in light of the conflict in Ukraine would prompt a shift in their approach to security, Speck does not see any significant change occurring.
Several other European governments are attempting to make connections with Republican leaders. Representatives from three EU nations reported that their teams in Washington, D.C. were increasing efforts to reach out to Republican officials in both the House and Senate. One mentioned similar diplomatic initiatives, including former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s visit to Texas in May, as evidence that London is also preparing for the possibility of Trump’s comeback.
Polish Law and Justice party member Jacek Saryusz-Wolski expressed his camp’s support for Trump’s potential reelection, citing positive experiences with the current administration. He noted progress made in terms of American troop presence in Poland, including the establishment of a base called Fort Trump.
Poland has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies in Europe since the start of Moscow’s invasion, even if relations have taken a turn for the worse in recent weeks amid a spat over grain exports. Asked if Warsaw was worried about Trump’s promises to end the war in Ukraine “in one day” via a deal with Putin, Saryusz-Wolski dismissed the comment as electoral posturing.
He acknowledged that there may be changes, but if there is a change in leadership in the U.S., he believes that the long-standing American government will have more influence than campaign promises.
At the same time, a number of European officials emphasized the actions that EU governments have already taken to strengthen the strategic independence of the Continent.
They contended that European nations have not only worked together to provide large amounts of weapons to Ukraine, surpassing the U.S. in terms of total value of support given. They have also significantly increased ammunition production on the Continent, led by France’s Thierry Breton, who is responsible for industrial policy as the European commissioner.
Former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves praised the efforts of Europeans, acknowledging their significant contributions which have surpassed expectations. He pointed to the presence of a substantial amount of European weapons on the Ukrainian battlefield as evidence of their involvement.
However, there is a significant contrast between slightly increasing defense spending and properly planning for the potential consequences of Trump’s actions in Europe, especially if he attempts to make a deal with Putin to resolve the conflict in Ukraine.
This action would not only greatly disadvantage the Ukrainians, who may face immense pressure to relinquish a portion of their land, but also be embarrassing for the European nations who have aligned themselves with Kyiv.
According to François Heisbourg, a senior adviser for Europe at the International Institute for Security Studies, it would be challenging for Europeans to maintain unity on the issue of Ukraine under these circumstances. He suggests that they may attempt to support Ukraine, but could potentially end up opposing the United States due to the negotiation efforts of President Trump. This is seen as a worst-case scenario.
A potential agreement of this kind would likely just be the beginning of the impact Trump could have on relations between the United States and Europe. In 2018, Trump suggested the idea of withdrawing from NATO and leaving the Europeans to handle their own defense. However, this plan was ultimately abandoned due to the interference of former National Security Advisor John Bolton and General Jim Mattis.
It is unlikely that Trump would invite individuals who have criticized him, like Bolton, into his cabinet if he is reelected. This is due to the extensive criticism he received in books after they left his administration.
The result is that if Trump is reelected, he could potentially make any decision, possibly including withdrawing from NATO. This is a worrying possibility for Europeans who have been dependent on the US for security for almost 80 years. As a result, very few diplomats and officials are willing to speculate on the potential repercussions for Europe’s future.
Security analysts who are willing to go there paint an alarming picture: Suddenly deprived of U.S. strategic leadership, European countries would face huge, daunting questions about how to reorganize the security alliance. Who would be in charge? Would NATO continue to exist? Would European countries make sacrifices to their social welfare model to accommodate much higher defense spending?
According to Rasmus Hindren, a security expert from Finland, there would need to be a significant event, such as the United States leaving NATO, for Europeans to shift their perspective on defense. However, even in this scenario, increasing spending enough for Europe to defend itself without the U.S. against a conventional Russian attack would present a major challenge in the near future.
The issue of leadership arises when considering a European security alliance. It is uncertain who would hold this position – Paris, Berlin, a rotation of European capitals? Additionally, the location of Europe’s military leadership is also a challenge due to the lack of strategic culture within the EU’s executive branch. Finding a solution is complex, especially considering the animosity between European nations and the fact that some countries, such as Poland, have more trust in Washington than in Brussels.
An example of this is the deteriorating relationship between Berlin and Warsaw. Recently, Poland’s conservative government has increased demands for reparations from Germany for World War II, while Berlin has implemented border checks with Poland in response to a visa-for-cash scandal in Warsaw.
According to Hindren, a former fellow at the Atlantic Council who now works for the Finnish defense ministry, there is a lack of trust between certain countries and Brussels that could create complications. He hopes that in a difficult situation, Europeans would make the correct decision, but acknowledges that it would be challenging due to the current polarized climate.
If there is a potential deterioration in relations between the United States and Europe due to a Trump presidency, Speck predicts that Europe’s security structure could be effectively divided. Countries in Eastern Europe that share a border with Russia and those who are particularly worried about Moscow’s intentions, such as the Nordics, Turkey, and Romania, would likely come together in a non-official security alliance. According to Speck, this could create a coalition to prevent Russia’s aggression.
This alliance would create tension for other European nations to create their own groups, causing more division among the countries. Essentially, the potential outcome of a post-U.S. security order in Europe could resemble the state of affairs before World War I – with interconnected alliances that could potentially lead to war.
The current situation might seem far-fetched, but it is a clear indication of the current state of affairs that these possibilities are no longer considered impossible. European leaders are facing a looming nightmare as Trump’s potential return looms closer, with seemingly no solution in sight.
Images captured by Seth Herald, Scott Olson, Jeff Swensen, Robert Perry, and Brendan Smialowski, sourced from Getty Images and AFP.