What do America’s traditional allies think of last week’s Republican shenanigans on Capitol Hill when they torpedoed the bill to provide billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine? Or comments from Donald Trump this weekend questioning NATO’s collective defense doctrine?
The short answer is: be alarmed. The more thoughtful answer is: prepare, by immediately planning for the possibility of an ultra-unilateralist second Trump term, because this time his people seem to have a plan.
The sabotage of the Senate bill, which was supposed to provide $60 billion critical to 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 would make President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, look tough on immigration. Ukraine, which desperately needs the weapons the bill would have funded, is collateral damage.
Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, spoke for most European leaders in his response. “Dear Republican Senators of America. Ronald Reagan, who helped millions of us regain our freedom and independence, must be turning in his grave today,” he wrote on X.
His quote from Reagan is well worded. Right-wing thinkers need intellectual gymnastics to argue, as some do, that pulling the rug out from under Ukraine is consistent with the Republican Party’s traditional hawkish policy toward Russia.
But the central message from the think tanks that harbor Trumpian ideas, particularly the old-school Heritage Foundation, which is now experiencing something of a resurgence, is clear. A second Trump term would see American unilateralism on steroids. If they get what they want, unlike Trump’s first term, there will 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 accusation of isolationism often leveled against Trump supporters, calling it a “slander.” We believe in the “strength” of America, he said. “Don’t mess with our allies, don’t mess with our interests.”
But relations, he makes clear, would be bilateral and based on “mutual interest” rather than multilateral. In short, it is a transactional philosophy that equates George W. Bush’s unilateralism with UN globalism.
At the heart of this stripped-down worldview is a reinvented, even weakened, NATO. The first part of Trump’s criticism, that the Europeans must take on more of the financing of the alliance, is almost indisputable. For decades, Europe has effectively used America.
So this is a call to arms. The more European powers can demonstrate their commitment to spending more on defense, the greater their chances of being able to counter Trump’s second, more radical challenge to NATO. This weekend, he challenged the fundamental idea that an attack on one member is an attack on all. He told his allies that he would “encourage” Russia to attack NATO members who fail to meet their goal of spending 2% of their GDP on defense.
“The old idea of NATO collective defense needs to be reevaluated,” 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 simply no longer presents any strategic interest at the moment, he says. Vladimir Putin was thwarted in his initial mission to take control of the country. It’s time to move forward and focus on “the real threat that is China.”
Trump’s recent warning that he would consider imposing tariffs of more than 60% on Chinese imports underscores this approach. It may also have changed Beijing’s widely held view that they would prefer Trump to the more carefully strategic Biden.
But for Asia-Pacific allies, while a focus on China would be welcome, transactional discussions are troubling. A regional politician says Japan, South Korea and Australia traditionally have a hub-and-spoke relationship with the United States. “Now the spokes may need to be prepared to coordinate without the hub.”
For Europe too, this is a moment. Tusk’s outburst suggests that Poland would not be easily eliminated by Trump in a bilateral deal. In Britain, the opposition Labor Party is right to consider options for strengthening its role in European defense if it wins power. France and Britain, Europe’s two main military powers, must once again reassess how their armed forces can work together.
Ukrainian officials are pinning their hopes on the idea that you can’t believe everything you hear in a feverish election climate, and that the $60 billion in funding could eventually be passed in a new bill.
Moreover, if Trump wins, his domestic agenda could swallow him up. The Heritage Foundation has outlined an ambitious plan to shrink government agencies and expand the president’s power — a broad, controversial and perhaps unachievable goal.
Furthermore, Biden could be re-elected. For now, opinion polls give him no credit for the health of the economy, but the elections are far away. But there is no excuse for not preparing and fasting. In any case, Europe’s change in defense spending is long overdue.