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The world must start to prepare for Trump 2.0

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When Donald Trump won the US presidential election in 2016 America’s allies around the world reacted with consternation and shock. They will have no such excuse if he wins again in November. His victory in the New Hampshire primary makes him the all but inevitable presidential nominee for the Republican party. An unpredictable isolationist could well return to the White House. Trump’s effective locking up of the nomination so quickly at least gives US allies nearly a year to prepare for that possibility.

Not all world leaders are upset at the idea of a second Trump term. It is not just that autocrats such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and tyrants such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin would welcome it. Many of the so-called middle powers steering a path between China and America, in particular developing economies, are at least sanguine — a view shared by some in Beijing too.

Some officials in south-east Asia, for example, suggest it may be easier to deal with the “transactional” and decisive Trump than with the more strategic Joe Biden. Others, including in the Middle East and Africa, say they will not miss the “lectures” of the current administration, though they may find out that lectures were preferable to neglect.

For America’s closest allies, including Europe, Japan, South Korea and Australia, the prospect of a second Trump term is a source of great anxiety. They are sceptical of arguments they hear that “Trump 2.0” need not be too disruptive. The likely Republican nominee has talked of reducing US military engagements overseas, ending support for Ukraine and cutting back US commitments to Nato and Europe’s defence.

Whatever the outcome of the US presidential election, Europe’s leaders need to speed up the fulfilment of the military pledges they made after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which they have largely failed to keep. All Nato members should be accelerating efforts to increase defence spending above the agreed target of 2 per cent of GDP (on which Trump has a point). They have to consider not just the short-term financing of Ukraine but how to manage Europe’s defence and procurement potentially without US support. This is not only about weapons but about strategic heft, such as transport and aircraft, and even structures.

February 2022 prompted a remarkable display of unity in the EU. A second Trump term would threaten this. He might try to woo individual countries. Different capitals might take different bets on how to deal with him should he become president. Officials need to be thinking, from now, about what to do if the post-1945 order of collective US-European defence is weakened. The EU and Nato will need to consider how to co-ordinate with each other, including with non-EU members of Nato — in particular the UK. It is hard to see the neophyte European Political Community, the sprawling grouping of more than 40 states formed in 2022, being the answer.

For the UK, which along with France is one of Europe’s two nuclear powers, this could be a moment of choices. No British leader will want to undermine the UK’s historic ties with America. But if Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer wins the UK’s election, expected this year, a re-election of Trump could be a pretext to consider a more fundamental rapprochement with the EU.

The diplomacy will be delicate, not least since no one will want to imply publicly they believe Biden might lose. Understandably, European allies will also be discreetly sounding out possible members of a second Trump team. But they should be planning for all eventualities. Even if Biden is re-elected, this will not be wasted. A rethink of Europe’s defence is long overdue.

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