What are America’s traditional allies to make of last week’s Republican shenanigans on Capitol Hill when they torpedoed the bill to give billions of dollars of aid to Ukraine? Or of Donald Trump’s comments over the weekend questioning Nato’s doctrine of collective defence?
The short answer is: be alarmed. The more considered answer is: prepare, by planning immediately for the possibility of an ultra-unilateralist second Trump term, because this time his people seem to have a plan.
The scuppering of the Senate bill which was to deliver a vital $60bn for Ukraine’s war effort and stricter immigration policies was shameful. The last thing Trump, the likely Republican nominee in November’s presidential election, wanted was a law that allowed President Joe Biden, the presumed Democratic nominee, to look tough on immigration. Ukraine, desperate for the weapons the bill would have funded, is collateral damage.
Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister, spoke for most EU leaders with his response. “Dear Republican Senators of America. Ronald Reagan, who helped millions of us to win back our freedom and independence, must be turning in his grave today,” he wrote on X.
His citing of Reagan is well put. It does require intellectual gymnastics for rightwing thinkers now to argue, as some do, that pulling the rug from under Ukraine is consistent with the Republican party’s traditional hawkishness on Russia.
But the core message from the think-tanks hothousing Trumpian ideas, in particular the old-school Heritage Foundation, which is now having something of a resurgence, is clear. A second Trump term would see American unilateralism on steroids. If they have their way, unlike in Trump’s first term, there would be a plan of action from day one.
Russell Vought, Trump’s last budget director, and president of the Center for Renewing America, another supportive think-tank, rejects the charge of isolationism often levelled at Trump’s supporters as “slander”. We believe in the “strength” of America, he says. “Don’t mess with our allies, don’t mess with our interests.”
But relationships, he makes clear, would be bilateral and based on “mutual interest” rather than multilateral. In short, it is a transactional philosophy that makes the unilateralism of George W Bush seem akin to the globalism of the UN.
At the heart of this stripped-back world view is a reimagined, if not weakened, Nato. The first part of Trump’s critique, that Europeans need to take up a greater share of the financing of the alliance, is pretty much incontestable. Europe has for decades effectively been freeloading under America’s umbrella.
So this is a call to arms. The more Europe’s powers can show their commitment to spending more on defence, the greater the chance they may be able to counter Trump’s second and more radical challenge to Nato. At the weekend, he questioned the foundational idea that an attack on one member is an attack on all. He had told allies, he said, that he would “encourage” Russia to attack Nato members that did not meet their target of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence.
“The old idea of Nato’s collective defence needs to be reassessed,” says Vought. Since its expansion into eastern Europe after the cold war, Nato has become too sprawling. “We have a narrower view of our interests than Estonia would like us to have.”
As for Ukraine, it’s just not a strategic interest now, he says. Vladimir Putin has been thwarted from his original mission of taking over the country. It’s time to move on and focus on “the actual threat which is China”.
Trump’s recent warning that he would consider a tariff of more than 60 per cent on Chinese imports underlines that approach. It may also have shifted the widely assumed view of Beijing that they would prefer Trump to the more painstakingly strategic Biden.
But for allies in the Asia-Pacific, while the focus on China would be welcome, the transactional talk is unsettling. A regional policymaker says Japan, South Korea and Australia traditionally related to the US in a hub-and-spoke fashion. “Now the spokes may need to be ready to co-ordinate without the hub.”
For Europe, too, it’s a moment. Tusk’s outburst suggests that Poland for one would not be easily picked off by Trump in a bilateral deal. In Britain, the opposition Labour party is right to be thinking of options for a beefed up role in European defence if it wins office. France and Britain, Europe’s two leading military powers, need once again to reassess how their armed forces can collaborate.
Ukrainian officials are pinning their hopes on the idea that you can’t believe everything you hear in the fevered electoral climate, and that the $60bn of funding may possibly be passed in a new bill.
Moreover, in the event of a Trump victory, his domestic agenda might engulf him. The Heritage Foundation has laid out an ambitious plan to cut back government bodies and expand the president’s power — a vast, contentious and possibly unrealisable goal.
Besides, Biden may be re-elected. For now, opinion polls give him no credit for the health of the economy but the election is a long way off. But there is no excuse not to prepare, and fast. Europe’s shift on defence spending is long overdue anyway.