Europe should focus on its own defense readiness, not on Trump

It is time for Europe to finally take its own defense seriously.

At a rally in South Carolina on February 10, former United States President Donald Trump shocked many as he recalled a discussion he had with a European NATO ally when he was president. In response to a question about whether the U.S. would come to a country’s aid even if it had not spent the NATO target commitment of 2 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, he told the crowd: “I said, ‘You didn’t pay, you’re delinquent? No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage [Russia] to do whatever the hell they want.’ ”

This statement elicited strong reactions, especially in Europe, where many NATO countries still do not spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. Some have also claimed that the statements undermine NATO’s principle of solidarity.

Although Mr. Trump used his customary aggressive tone, and the suggestion that a U.S. president would invite Russia to attack an ally is grotesque, the essence of his message has merit. After nearly 80 years of peace due to U.S. protection, European countries should be able to shoulder responsibility for their security.

Europe is in a tough spot. The war in Ukraine has turned into a war of attrition. Kyiv is fully dependent on support from the West, especially Washington. Ukraine-fatigue is setting in with the American populace, and not only among Republicans. The Biden administration will not be able to indefinitely sustain support for Ukraine.

Unfortunately, it is increasingly likely that a cease-fire compromise will be reached, resulting in territorial gains for Russia. This might encourage the Kremlin to continue its policy of reconstituting the old Soviet Union borders and neutralizing Central Europe. Hanno Pevkur, the Estonian minister of defense, recently said that a Russian attack on his country could be a realistic scenario in three or four years. Similar concerns exist in the other Baltic states.

America might not always be there

Regardless of American politics, Europe’s sovereignty in defense will be crucial, not just when it comes to its relationship with Russia. France has been a leader in this regard since General Charles de Gaulle was at the helm in the 1960s.

In this spirit, President Emmanuel Macron made a statement in a 2019 interview with The Economist that was heavily criticized – just as Mr. Trump’s was: “What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO,” he said, adding that Europe was on “the edge of a precipice” and needed to start thinking of itself strategically as a geopolitical power. Without such thinking, Europe would “no longer be in control of [its] destiny.” While this made sense at the time, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has led to a reinvigoration of NATO.

Given the possibility of a new Trump presidency, Europe’s political establishment is worried, particularly regarding issues of trade, Ukraine and defense. These concerns are justified – but not because Mr. Trump could end up back in the White House. Politics in Washington depends on a wide array of factors, most of which the president has little to no influence upon. U.S. politics simply may not always go Europe’s way.

Yet instead of coming up with realistic ways to increase military readiness in three aspects – willingness to defend, sufficient trained soldiers and effective weapons – Europe’s leaders are dithering, lamenting the possibility of Mr. Trump becoming president again.

Europe needs to achieve military sovereignty. Recently, some prominent politicians have begun discussing whether the European Union should build its own nuclear deterrent. Doing so makes little sense given the risk scenario. Responsible actors will only escalate if the threat from an aggressor is existential. Conflicts in Central Europe will not suffice to trigger this escalation.

Furthermore, a nuclear deterrent does nothing to address some of Europe’s other security challenges, including those beyond its southern borders, in Africa and the Middle East. Houthi attacks on ships traveling through the Red Sea, for example, present a clear economic threat that nuclear weapons cannot solve. Russia cannot be the sole focus of Europe’s military rebuild.

Eyes wide open

Nor will it help to whine about former President Trump’s words potentially splitting NATO. Instead, his harangue could benefit Europe, serving as a wake-up call to countries that until now have been snuggling comfortably under the U.S. security blanket.

There are already signs that some European countries are opening their eyes. France, Germany and Poland are revitalizing the Weimar Triangle alliance format, where discussions will hopefully include defense issues. But whatever happens, reinvigorating Europe’s defense capabilities will require close cooperation with the United Kingdom.

Germany appears to support France’s “force de dissuasion” – formerly known as “force de frappe” – the country’s nuclear deterrence force. That, plus the UK’s own nuclear deterrence, should suffice for Europe. EU-wide nuclear weapons are not necessary.

What will be necessary are sufficient budgets with less bureaucracy. The funds must be spent efficiently, and the popular mood and political attitudes must change (this latter concern is the biggest challenge). For this, we might again thank individuals like Donald Trump.

There is another aspect to consider: European countries should be equal partners with the U.S., not just profiteers. This would allow for a more independent European geopolitics in the troubled decades to come and would also alleviate pressure on the U.S., whose main challenge lies in the Pacific.

Regardless of who is elected president, it is unlikely that the U.S. will become isolationist in terms of security – the challenge in the Pacific is too great. However, the mood in Washington could turn to consider conflicts in Europe’s east as primarily a European affair.

The Munich Security Conference just wrapped up a few days ago. In a recent interview, Christoph Heusgen, the seasoned German diplomat and head of the conference, aptly described how Europe should move forward:

“Trump is erratic. We have to adapt to that. If he becomes president, we have to be able to stand up to him and say, ‘We’ll do what you asked. Now let us continue to work together in this alliance that has brought us peace in the transatlantic region over the past decades.’ ”

Read the article, originally published by GIS

Europe should focus on its own defense readiness, not on Trump