Donald Trump in New Hampshire last month (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

February 15, 2024   5 mins

Donald Trump, we’re told, is “dumb”, “shameful” and “un-American”, at least according to President Biden. He’s a warmonger verging on a war criminal, a global threat who “intends to give Putin a greenlight for more war and violence” in Europe. Yet what if Trump has actually done the continent a favour?

When Trump boasted at the weekend that he would “encourage” Russia to attack any Nato member that did not meet its defence spending quota, many drew the (rather hyperbolic) conclusion that, if he wins in November, the US will leave Nato — and the Red Army will start marching across Europe while America looks the other way. In one fell swoop, the age of America’s global guardianship would be over. Cue an inevitable outburst of Trump hysteria.

Imagine the surprise yesterday, then, when it was revealed that a majority of member nations — 18 out of 32 — will meet Nato’s spending target of 2% of GDP on defence this year. While this is hardly a substitute for America’s 80,000 troops on the continent, it certainly suggests that Europe is successfully boosting its defence capabilities and preparing for a possible American disengagement from Europe, if not Nato itself. Suddenly, Trump’s inflammatory comments carry less of a sting. Indeed, some saw them as a much-needed “wake-up call” for Europe. Does this mean a Trump presidency could be an opportunity rather than a threat to Europe?

The answer, I suspect, is that it would be neither. Even accepting the questionable premise that a US disengagement from Nato would be a problem for Europe, there is no evidence that Trump, if re-elected, would really pull out. When he was president, Trump described Nato as “obsolete” and threatened multiple times to withdraw the United States from the bloc — but never did. At a Nato summit in 2018, for instance, he railed against European leaders for not meeting the spending goal and threatened that the US would “go its own way” if military spending did not rise. But that didn’t happen, and nor did he take any serious steps in that direction.

Similar claims that Trump “aligned himself with Russian President Vladimir Putin” while in the White House — and that therefore his re-election would be a “gift to Putin” — are equally groundless. Contrary to the fictional narrative of a Trump-Putin “bromance”, Trump actually escalated US military support for Ukraine; indeed, it was under him that the US started selling weaponry to Ukraine for the first time. The objective, the US Naval Institute explained, wasn’t just to arm the Ukrainian army, but also to “improve [its] interoperability with Nato” — signalling that Washington would begin treating Ukraine as a de facto Nato member regardless of its formal status. Elsewhere, Biden’s recent suggestion that Putin would view a Trump victory as a “green light” for further invasions also clashes with the obvious fact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine happened under Biden himself, not Trump. Overall, it’s hard not to conclude that the doomsday “death of Nato” scenario envisaged by Trump’s critics is grounded mostly in fantasy.

But let’s assume for a moment that Trump’s critics are right and that, if re-elected, he would pull the US out of Nato and destroy the transatlantic military alliance. Would this really be such a tragedy for Europe, as the continent’s leaders claim? Only if one believes the rose-tinted narrative of Nato as a purely “defensive alliance” working for peace and security in Europe.

Alas, the reality is quite different. Far from being an alliance among equals, Nato is one of the key institutions through which the US has exercised its control over post-war Western Europe. As the researchers Rajan Menon and William Ruger argue in a recent paper: “Nato’s continued existence ensures that Europe remains a strategic subordinate to the US, which explains why the US, though it has complained often about inequitable burden sharing, has never demanded a dramatic increase in European military power, let alone a Europe with an autonomous defence policy.” Rather fittingly, it was none other than Lord Ismay, Nato’s first Secretary General, who observed that the purpose of the Alliance was to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down”.

“Nato is one of the key institutions through which the US has exercised its control over post-war Western Europe”

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this is exactly what the US has achieved by dragging the whole of Europe, via Nato, into a proxy war with Russia in Ukraine. It has allowed the US to reassert its waning hegemony over Europe; it has driven a deep wedge between Europe and Russia; and it has condemned Germany to deindustrialisation.

Of course, one could argue that European leaders have largely brought this upon themselves. But it is also the natural outcome of an “alliance” that has always treated European nations as subordinates. The result, as this week has demonstrated, is an infantilised political class terrified at the prospect of losing its transatlantic overlord. Which brings us to the alternative view: that a more isolationist America under Trump would be an opportunity for Europe to finally develop its own strategic autonomy.

Under normal circumstances, this might be true. I have long argued that Europe needs to free itself from the geostrategic grip of the United States. But this would require Europe to have a truly autonomous vision of how the continent could ensure its security and prosperity in a multipolar world — something which would mean rejecting America’s New Cold War approach to non-Western powers and re-normalising relations with neighbouring Russia.

Regrettably, alternative views of this kind are a rare commodity. With few exceptions, Europe’s political elites have internalised America’s geopolitical strategy to such an extent that today they are even more Russophobic than their American counterparts — not only in Eastern and Baltic states that have long been weary of Russia, for obvious historical reasons, but in Western Europe as well. As a result, a “European Nato” would arguably be even more bent on antagonising relations with Russia than the current US-led Alliance is.

And so, what is framed as an epic clash between the post-war transatlantic order and America’s looming isolationism is in fact little more than a minor disagreement about whether Europe would be better off preparing for war with Russia, deemed all but inevitable, under the US security umbrella or whether it should go it alone. Biden and the Democratic establishment would prefer the former; Trump is partial to the latter. But both scenarios imply Europe’s subordination to whatever the US happens to identify as the interests of the “collective West” — and a future marked by a permanently militarised new Iron Curtain and the permanent threat of nuclear war.

Indeed, Trump himself wants a militarily autonomous Europe, not a geopolitically autonomous one; consider the efforts his administration put into stopping the construction of the Nord Stream pipeline. In this context, suggestions that the EU should develop its own nuclear arsenal — with Germany playing the role of America’s lieutenant in Europe — are far from reassuring.

This isn’t to say the entire of Europe is willing to accept this reality. Hungary’s premier Viktor Orbán has notably opposed the EU’s military-victory-at-all-costs approach to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, urging a diplomatic solution and maintaining cordial relations with the Kremlin. Meanwhile, in Germany, Sahra Wagenknecht has just launched a new Left-wing party based on a radically alternative geostrategic vision for Germany and Europe as a whole. It calls for an end to arms supplies to Ukraine and to the oil and gas embargo against Russia (the main reason for Germany’s collapsing economy), as well as the re-establishment of long-term economic relations with Russia. This, Wolfgang Streeck writes, could potentially lay the groundwork for a new Eurasian security architecture, and provide “an alternative to a hostile division of the continent at Russia’s western border”.

Away from the hysteria over another Trump presidency, this is the kind of debate we should be having in Europe. We are already engaged in two Nato wars, in Ukraine and in the Middle East, for which we are already paying a very high price in economic and political terms. Meanwhile, Nato is ramping up its presence in the Indo-Pacific in view of a conflict with China that is deemed just as inevitable as war with Russia. This isn’t “great-power politics” — it’s madness. And whether Europe succumbs to it depends more on the choices of our own leaders than those of whomever ends up in the White House.

Thomas Fazi is an UnHerd columnist and translator. His latest book is The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Toby Green.