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Nail-biting in Europe

Nail-biting in Europe

As November elections come into view, Europeans are staring down the barrel of an unreliable U.S. ally.

Adam Garfinkle

A journalist working for the Singaporean daily Lianhe Zaobao asked me late last month if I would answer a few questions about European security and NATO. The relevant context was twofold: Trump’s outrageous statement in South Carolina on February 10 saying that Russia could do “whatever the hell it wants” with U.S. NATO allies that “don’t pay up”; and the close confluence of the bloody Ukrainian withdrawal from Avdiivka, the murder of Alexei Navalny, and the convening of the annual Munich Security Conference. Taken together, these contextual backdrops have set a scene of potentially worsening threat accompanied by the spectre of an American volte-face with respect to European and global security structures, all dumped into a large room filled with important people and on-the-make journalists very few of whom could not not talk about all this if their lives depended on it. 

But here is the kicker: Amid the torrent of stark headlines and equally breathless media stories, the fact is that what everyone seems so worried about isn’t even the most worrying scenario out there. And so to the questions and answers. 

Is Europe ready for the possible return of President Trump? How can Europe prepare for a second Trump term?

Psychologically, the West Europeans are getting to where the East Europeans have been for years. The shocking Ukrainian abandonment of a Donbas town with many wounded left in the field, Navalny’s murder, and the Munich Security Conference all coming together helps. That said, they’re not ready for the shock of sudden U.S. abandonment—first de facto and then probably de jure—if Trump wins and returns to the presidency. Nor are they ready to take up the security burden if that happens, because it takes a long time to put in place effective deterrent and warfighting capabilities. Even the country doing the most to prepare military right now, Poland, is at least a decade away from having the kinds of capabilities that could repel a serious Russian attack.

The European NATO allies need at last to get more serious about defense industrial coordination than the individual national companies are about making money. They need to think longer term, and not be smugly reassured by the shocking display of initial Russian military incompetence. The wealthier allies furthest from the Russian border need to take more seriously the implications for the alliance of the sharp split between their perceptions and those of the Poles and Balts in the absence of U.S. adult supervision. 

The Europeans also need to think seriously, if quietly for now, about a European strategic nuclear deterrent that is credible on its own, meaning not entirely detached from the U.S strategic arsenal but deliberately attenuated from it. They’re not there yet, and time is flying by. Inauguration Day is January 20, 2025. That’s almost close enough to feel.

Whether it’s Trump or Biden, some in Europe see the United States as an unreliable ally. Do you agree?

 Yes, I do, so long as reliability is understood as a process that unfurls over many years, not merely many months. Russia is always going to be there, just to Mitteleuropa’s east, and it is probably going to remain autocratic as a political culture for a long time yet to come. Hence it will be far more prone for that and other historio-cultural reasons to be expansionist/imperialist. 

Nations in that near zone of vulnerability cannot feel secure with an ally across an ocean whose domestic political circumstances are in such tumult that it may change its tune about its alliances every four years, or even short of that whose partisan divisions prevent it from pursuing any consistent and coherent policy course--as is evident now wth regard to support for Ukraine. And if nations in that near zone do not feel secure, then neither will—nor should—allies further westward, for their security equities are in no small way bound up together with those of their neighbors further east. 

So even if Biden wins and relative normalcy prevails for a while, responsible political elites in Europe would immediately reset their panic timers to 2028, or to the 2026 midterms depending on congressional balances after the November elections—and they would be justified in doing so because by then they still will not have the capabilities or internal cooperative mechanisms fully in place to deal confidently with the Russians. 

The reliability of U.S. security guarantees to Europe is ultimately a function of the trajectory of U.S. domestic political culture at its deepest level, the level of America’s self-worth as one of history’s very few covenantal states. If Americans as a whole come to believe that the United States is not a virtuous and blessed society, and thus not worthy of being an international leader—if “American exceptionalism” as conventionally understood decays in the heart of the nation, in other words—then the political elite, whether nominally Democratic or Republican, will find little support for an active and constructive international security policy, especially amid the populist-inflected moment we’re in now. Bottom line as that trajectory plays through: the end for all practical purposes of the global U.S. alliance system, even if a formalistic shell of it remains, and the end of the order-bearing roles it provides to the global commons.

Trump’s resentment toward U.S. allies in Europe and his affection for strongmen like Putin are well documented. But Putin says he prefers the more “predictable” Biden over Trump. What’s your take on this?

Putin is trying to leverage Republican opposition to arming Ukraine into pressure on the Biden Administration to force Ukraine to a negotiation that, if “successful,” would amount to part ceasefire and part surrender. Putin is praising Biden’s predictability to complement his bait about Russia being ready for negotiations, to wit: “All you Americans have to do is stop arming Ukraine and we can talk and settle all this.” He’s lying to set a trap. He hopes Biden will reason, “Well, if we can’t arm the Ukrainians because of the irresponsibility of the GOP-majority House, we might as well force a negotiation because even that would be better than an outright Ukrainian defeat.” So Putin’s public compliments to Biden and his negotiations ploy are two parts of the same tactic. 

Putin’s ultimate aims are twofold: to Belarusianize Ukraine (e.g., destroy its democratic institutions and de facto sovereignty) and to destroy NATO as a coherent and effective alliance. Here is what would probably happen if the Biden Administration takes the bait and forces a negotiated ceasefire on Ukraine to avoid a worst-case scenario, especially if, against the President’s previous strong reluctance, it offers to support Ukrainian NATO membership as a compensation for Ukraine’s begrudging agreement to negotiate. 

Maybe four months after the U.S. elections in November, maybe ten or twelve, the Russians will resume the war and blame it on some invented Ukrainian provocation. Some will believe the lie for the sake of their own convenience and some won’t, but it won’t really matter. The Ukrainians will not yet have been rearmed in part because NATO publics will have been demobilized politically on account of a negotiated deal that they are liable to take far more seriously than they ought. Then NATO—with Ukraine as its newest member—will be put to the ultimate test in resisting resumed Russian aggression, and will likely fail that test for the whole world to see. 

Why fail? Because bringing Ukraine into NATO as a consolation prize to secure a conclusion to the current war would raise the stakes all around, joining together more closely than ever Putin’s two goals. The stakes thus raised, the basic underlying matrix of great-power interests here is clear as can be: Moscow will never accept as a fait accompli a democratic Ukraine in NATO, certainly not so long as the current marquee-nationalist kleptocratic-mafia regime persists; and, come what may, no serious American vested with decision-making authority will risk death and megadeath in World War III with the missile-bristling Russians over Ukraine. Once again, an imbalance of interests, in this case favoring Russia, will likely prevail over an imbalance of raw power arguably still favoring the United States and its allies. The playing out of those interests would mean the humiliation and effective end of NATO.

Thus, even if Biden wins, the future of the alliance is very shaky if the Administration ends up forcing Ukraine to a “dirty” negotiating table for its lack of viable means to keep on fighting. The point is that who wins the November 5 election is not the only thing that matters when it comes to the future of NATO. 

Not understanding this is the remarkably shortsighted mistake too many people are now making, and the media’s seeming compulsion to fixate on Donald Trump and to view the world through a very near-term strategic aperture is not helping. It is more than just causally misleading; it is contributing to a dangerous form of strategic myopia now stalking both sides of the Atlantic.

Adam Garfinkle is an editorial board member of American Purpose. His newsletter, “The Raspberry Patch,” can be found on Substack.

Image: Cartridges laid atop a NATO flag. (Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyEastern EuropeEuropeU.S. Foreign PolicyUkraine