Trump may not be in power, but his Ukraine rhetoric has spooked Europe


Amid the grandiose surroundings of the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich’s historic old town, previously cautious and low-key German politicians were in such a state of alarm about future US commitment to Nato that they were discussing how Germany might acquire an independent nuclear deterrent, potentially overturning decades of national defense doctrine.

The setting was the annual Munich security conference in April and the talk among statesmen and officials gathered in the Bavarian capital was dominated by the ad-libbed threat from Donald Trump days earlier to “encourage Russia to do what the hell they want” with European alliance members supposedly derelict in paying for their own protection.

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The former US president’s menacing broadside intensified and overshadowed the anxieties being felt over a more immediate problem: the determination of rightwing congressional Republicans – apparently at the former president’s bidding – to block $60bn in military aid for Ukraine, jeopardising the country’s capacity to continue its two-year fight against Russia’s invasion.

To at least one Washington policymaker, it was the very possibility of an independently nuclear Germany – a country whose non-belligerent post-second world war posture has been underpinned by protection from the US nuclear umbrella – that most eloquently evoked Europe’s fears about future American commitments.

“The fact that I show up in Munich and there’s a debate going on about whether Germany should go nuclear, or whether France should extend nuclear deterrence to Germany is a sign of just how profound the concern is,” said Charles Kupchan, a former White House senior adviser on European affairs under presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and now international relations professor at Georgetown University.

In the event, the notion was slapped down by Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, who dismissed talk of a European nuclear deterrent free of US involvement as “not helpful”.

The jarring scene illustrated the ability of Trump – once again the Republican nominee in this year’s presidential election – to undermine European trust in American global leadership even when not in the White House and while the presidency is occupied by Joe Biden, a liberal internationalist who has prioritised US commitment to the alliance and helped Ukraine repel Russian forces.

More urgently, it speaks to a yawning divide between the respective European and American debates on Ukraine – as evidenced by the log jam on Capitol Hill.

Three attempts at passing a Ukraine assistance bill have failed since the White House first tabled the package nearly six months ago.

In its latest iteration, the aid – bundled up with assistance programmes for Israel and Taiwan – has been tied to reforms tightening the US southern border with Mexico, a condition demanded by Republicans and already passed with bipartisan support by the Senate.

In the House of Representatives, the speaker Mike Johnson – egged on by the GOP’s Trump-supporting Maga (Make America great again) faction – has refused to allow a vote on the bill, despite it having enough support from members of his own Republican party to pass comfortably.

The apparent obtuseness stems from a Republican determination to score points and win votes from the mass influx of asylum seekers at the southern border in a presidential election year. While portraying Ukraine as a distant cause low on American voters’ priority lists, GOP rightwingers are at the same time trying to paint Biden as weak on the border, which surveys regularly ranks highly on most voters’ list of concern.

Biden’s agreed compromise of linking fresh border restrictions to Ukraine aid is now unacceptable to the same Trump-supporting faction, Democrats say, because they fear the president would win credit for tackling a frontier crisis that they hope will ease the Republican nominee’s path back to the White House.

The entanglement of Ukraine’s battle for national survival with domestic US politics provokes bewilderment in Europe, where it is seen as inflicting longterm damage on America’s relations with its allies and perhaps, in the worst-case scenario, presages the lurch of the world’s leading democracy into autocracy.

European fears were voiced bluntly by Poland’s prime minister, Donald Tusk – who after meeting Biden in Washington accompanied by the country’s president, Andrzej Duda – said “the fate of millions of people” hung on whether Johnson allows a house vote.

“This is not some political skirmish that [only] matters on the American political scene,” Tusk said. “Mr Johnson’s failure to make a positive decision will cost thousands of lives. He takes personal responsibility for that.”

Kupchan said the congressional impasse raised legitimate concerns among allies about US reliability.

… The United States has been inconsistent in its statecraft and the nature of American foreign policy has been in the hands of whoever wins elections

Charles Kupchan

“I think the Europeans are right to be freaking out,” he said. “Who knows whether Trump’s statements will ever be acted on – [but] what is happening on the Hill is the cause for the greatest concern because there’s an emergency in Ukraine.”

The current US-European divide has its roots in the end of the cold war, which heralded the collapse of the Soviet Union following the demise of allied communist regimes in eastern Europe.

“Since then, the United States has been inconsistent in its statecraft and the nature of American foreign policy has been in the hands of whoever wins elections,” Kupchan said. European allies are suffering “whiplash”, as a result.

“They look across the Atlantic and see a country that doesn’t seem to know its own mind,” he added.

A second Trump term threatens Europeans with a markedly more ominous scenario than the first, according to Max Boot, a historian and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“He is taking the Republican party back to where it was on 6 December 1941 [the eve of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour, triggering the US entry into the second world war], when many of them were hostile to Britain and sympathetic to Nazism,” said Boot.

“Clearly he is tapping into something visceral otherwise he wouldn’t have as much support for it. The cold war is long over and the isolationist Republican party is back with a vengeance.”

Robert Orttung, professor of international affairs at George Washington University, agreed that Trump’s “America First” foreign policy was a throwback to the Republicans’ pre-1941 posture of hostility to entering the second world war.

“Opposition to spending money on foreign wars and people in other countries before dealing with our own problems at home is the driving force in the grass roots of the Republican party. In that sense, they are coordinating with Trump,” he said. “This isn’t a temporary problem.

… The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought Europe together like never before

Robert Orttung

“The US has given Ukraine $75bn in the last couple of years, which is a lot of money, and many Republicans are asking how much more we need to give them. These questions are going to continue to be important, even for Biden, and unless something dramatic happens – like a Russian attack on Poland – it’s hard to see it changing back.

“Meanwhile, I think the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought Europe together like never before. So it’s understandable that Europeans have difficulty understanding what’s going on [in the US].”

The combined effects of stronger inter-European solidarity and fears over future American commitment has the potential to deliver a “silver lining” in the form of increased European spending and responsibility for its own defense, analysts believe.

By addressing a key complaint of Trump’s criticism of Nato, such an outcome may weaken his case for abandoning the alliance – as some former officials in his first administration insist is his inclination – should he be re-elected to the White House in November.

However, Boot cautioned that Europe is still far from being able to cope with threats from Russia without American help. “Europe has to confront the major obstacle to its military power – which is the division of resources and capacities among so many different countries,” he said. “There has to be a greater pooling of European military strength so they can have a greater chance of competing on their own.”

Yet, Orttung warned, the apparent gain of having Europe take more responsibility could come with a cost for US global power and influence.

“Obviously Europe has to compete with the Middle East and Asia for US attention and resources, but Europe is much more important to the United States than the Middle East and Asia,” he said. “That’s our core base. If we don’t protect that we are going to be without a foundation for American power in the world.”



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