Trump may be President again in a year. Europe must be ready

Opinion piece (Encompass)
19 January 2024

On 20 January 2025, the next US President will take office. In November 2023, the editor-at-large of The Washington Post, Robert Kagan, wrote “A Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable. We should stop pretending”. Trump’s rhetoric is getting more and more extreme, describing his opponents as “vermin” and claiming that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country”, but the majority of recent opinion polls still show him level with or leading Joe Biden.

In 2016, Europeans did not take Trump’s candidacy seriously. Even Trump himself did not expect to win. As I heard in Washington before Christmas, this time Trump will be better prepared, with think-tanks already crafting policies to implement his ideas. Europe must be prepared, too. There are at least four areas of particular concern if Trump wins a second term.

Defence. EU industry and defence commissioner Thierry Breton recently revealed that in 2020 Trump told European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that the US would never defend Europe, that it would leave NATO and that Germany owed him $400 billion for its defence. There is nothing new about Americans demanding more effort from Europeans – I was a British diplomat at NATO in the late 1980s, and it was a feature then – but no previous president has threatened to destroy an alliance that has given the US so much influence in Europe and beyond.

European countries that take defence seriously should be considering privately how to defend the continent if deterrence fails and the US decides to stay out of the fight. Europeans urgently need to increase investments in defence – from research, development and innovation, to faster production of basic supplies like ammunition, to fielding larger forces. France and the UK should explore together how they could provide an effective nuclear deterrent if the US ‘umbrella’ were no longer there. 

Trade. Trump has a long record of hostility to free trade. China was his number one target during his first term, and probably would be again. But when he imposed tariffs on aluminium and steel imports in 2018 on the spurious basis that they threatened US national security, the rules applied to European (including UK) as well as Chinese producers. There is a high risk that in a second term Trump would use the ‘national security’ excuse to impose tariffs on more goods, regardless of European complaints.

A trade war would be more damaging to Europe than the US, since trade makes up a larger share of many European countries’ GDP, but economies on both sides of the Atlantic would be hit. Apart from increasing their own tariffs, Europeans would have few options: if the US market became more difficult to sell into, it would be hard to replace it.  

The rules-based international order. The multilateral system is already creaking. Trump might break it entirely in his second term, having pulled the US out of a number of international organisations and agreements in his first. That would be bad news for European countries: superpowers can to some extent cope in a world without rules, but smaller countries cannot. 

If governments in Europe (including the UK) want to defend the rules-based international order, they need to build links not only to like-minded democracies such as Japan and Australia, but to countries like India and South Africa that may share fewer of their values, but still attach importance to the survival of the UN system and other parts of the international architecture. 

US internal divisions. With or without a Trump victory, an ever-more divided America is likely to turn inward in the coming years. In the House of Representatives, isolationist, pro-Trump Republicans, though in a minority, already call the shots – for example, blocking further US aid to Ukraine. Rather than looking at the US’s global interests, still less the interests of US allies, Trump’s Congressional supporters see funding for Ukraine and others only in terms of the domestic political battle: if Biden is for it, they must oppose it.  

European leaders should still do everything possible to explain to American voters of both main parties how NATO and the EU contribute to US as well as European security. The level of popular support for Trump, however, shows that a significant part of American society has already turned its back on the rest of the world. In the coming years, Europe needs to be ready to deal with problems in its neighbourhood with less or no US help.

Last month I drove across America’s Deep South. Among other things, I was struck by two things: the number of advertisements for personal injury lawyers, and the number of churches. Maybe in the Bible Belt people think that if the courts don’t solve their problems, praying will. But Europeans shouldn’t count on either to save them from the consequences of a second Trump term. European leaders need to take practical steps as soon as possible to mitigate the impact of a Trump victory. If he is defeated, so much the better for transatlantic partnership. But hoping that he loses is not a strategy. 

Ian Bond is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform.