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America First, Europe Alone

America First, Europe Alone

With Trump's possible return to office, Europeans are reconsidering strategic autonomy. Could a "Weimar Triangle" be the solution?

Andrea Rotter

Europeans have been anxiously watching the Republican primaries in the United States, hoping and looking for signs that Donald Trump would not be the next GOP presidential nominee, let alone the next president. But with each primary and poll result, the likelihood increases, and with it the fear on our side of the Atlantic that “America First”could return to the White House, leaving “Europe alone.”

Anyone who remembers Trump’s first term in office and listens carefully to what he is saying now is right to be concerned about the future of the transatlantic partnership in the event of a second Trump administration. Plans are reportedly circulating to replace the bureaucratic apparatus in Washington, (which, from a European perspective, has cushioned many of President Trump’s impulsive decisions) with loyal MAGA supporters. Although Congress ensured last year that a president cannot simply withdraw the United States from NATO, it is not necessary to leave the Alliance to weaken it from within or to undermine its core, the Article 5 mutual defense clause.

Amid concerns about Donald Trump’s second term in office, calls for more European sovereignty and self-reliance are growing louder in Berlin and Brussels—and rightly so. But the urgent appeals are very reminiscent of those of recent years, which have done little to change our security dependence on the United States. As early as 2011, Robert Gates, then secretary of defense under Barack Obama, criticized the unfair burden-sharing in NATO and urged Europeans to take on more responsibility. In 2016, Brexit and “America First” gave rise in European capitals to the idea of European strategic autonomy, which, despite good initiatives at the EU level, has so far remained little more than theory due to a lack of consensus. 

Since 2022, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has underscored the continued indispensable role of the United States as the guarantor of European security. The Russian invasion has shown us the fragility of our security order, which has led, at least in some areas, to a change in the way Europeans think about and provide for their security, the most prominent example being Germany’s “Zeitenwende.”

However, strategic rethinking and rising military budgets in Europe have not yet helped to significantly reduce our dependence on the United States: Military support for Kyiv, NATO’s strategic adaptations following the war in Ukraine, or the nuclear dimension of its deterrence and defense are still hardly conceivable without the United States. 

There are signs that Europeans have finally grasped the urgency: The so-called Weimar Triangle, the cooperation between France, Germany and Poland, which has so far yielded few concrete results, is receiving new impetus to help strengthen European security on its own. NATO, still under Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, is also discussing plans to coordinate military aid to Ukraine in the future and to support it with 100 billion euros over the next five years – in order to transfer tasks previously undertaken by the United States in support of Ukraine to the Alliance in case Donald Trump returns to the White House. But without a consensus among Europe’s capitals and concrete action, history could repeat itself: ambitious rhetoric and little change, sleepwalking into an even greater security crisis.

In Germany in particular, we have been too quick (and willing) to focus on the person of Trump, neglecting the underlying developments in the United States and the status of our own contribution to transatlantic security cooperation. Donald Trump is not the trigger but the catalyst for neo-isolationist tendencies in the United States that have been on the horizon for years, just like Washington’s strategic pivot to China and the Indo-Pacific. For at least as long, we in Germany have closed our eyes to the changes in our security environment that demand more responsibility, leadership, and therefore financial resources and military capabilities, to maintain Europe’s security. While we in Europe cannot influence the outcome of the U.S. election, it is in our hands to finally take active steps to ensure our own security before it is truly too late. 

Andrea Rotter is head of the foreign and security policy division, Academy for Politics and Current Affairs, at the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

This article expresses the personal opinion of the author, and is adapted from an article originally published by the American-German Institute.

Image: U.S. Marines and Sailors along with NATO Allied forces stand in formation during Exercise Trident Juncture 18 in Norway, 2018. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Elijah Abernathy, image color adjusted)

DemocracyEastern EuropeEuropeUnited StatesU.S. Foreign PolicyUkraine