Seven Expert Views: America First, Europe Alone?
Series Diplomacy & Foreign Affairs

Seven Expert Views: America First, Europe Alone?

18 Mar 2024 - 14:05
Photo: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel welcome US President Joe Biden during the EU-US summit in Brussels on 15 June 2021. © Sander de Wilde / Hans Lucas via Reuters.
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With the 2024 US presidential election on the horizon, Europe anticipates potential shifts in the transatlantic relationship. How will US policy towards Europe change after the election, and how should Europe prepare? Seven American and European experts offer their perspectives on this pressing question for the Clingendael Spectator.



If Trump wins the election, NATO is in deep trouble

US policy towards Europe could take two very different directions. The election currently looks like a coin flip, with both President Joe Biden and Donald Trump having a good chance of winning.

Should Biden win, US policy towards Europe will likely mirror that of the past 25 years. The US will remain committed to the transatlantic alliance and will probably continue supporting Ukraine, although the intense engagement Europe has experienced since Russia’s full-scale invasion will likely fade. US focus will shift more towards the Indo-Pacific and perhaps the Middle East. Hence, the level of US involvement under a second Biden administration or future Democratic administration would resemble that of the Obama administration: dutiful engagement paired with growing disinterest.

However, US policy towards Europe is slowly but surely shifting towards a greater emphasis on the European Union. The EU’s significance as a critical geo-economic player has led to growing US interest in engaging with the EU. This trend will continue no matter who occupies the White House.

Alternatively, if Trump wins the election, NATO is in deep trouble. A second Trump administration would look very different than the first. This time Trump will appoint likeminded people and have a detailed policy agenda that includes a plan to pull back from NATO. There is also a keen bureaucratic desire within the Pentagon to focus much more on China. Therefore, Trump is likely to pull the US back from its lead role in European defence.

Additionally, Trump may withdraw from the Paris Accords, further alienating the US from European publics. He may also levy tariffs against the EU, potentially initiating another trade war. Yet, the EU’s ability to hit back with tariffs gained Trump’s respect last time and may do so again.


Europe must wake up strategically and set its own international priorities regardless of who is in the White House

Regardless of who wins next November, we cannot forget that the US is engaged in a long process of adjusting its foreign policy, seeking a renewed role in a changing world and an alteration in the way Washington approaches its national interests abroad. A process that became visible during Donald Trump’s presidency and that Joe Biden has continued. We observed this in the withdrawal from Afghanistan, initiated by Trump and executed by Biden; in the advancement of the Abraham Accords, spearheaded by Trump and later taken up by Biden; and in the geopolitical competition with China, which was defined by Trump and continued by Biden.

Both administrations have renegotiated their country's international involvement in terms of costs, burden sharing and the benefits to their own citizens. For Trump it was ‘America First’ rhetoric, for Biden the need to focus foreign policy on the needs and aspirations of the American middle class. Trump's isolationist bellicosity and Biden's foreign policy restraint thus have a lowest common denominator.

However, neither administration succeeded in compelling Europe to decisively address its geopolitical weakness. Yet, both a second Trump and Biden administration would be best served by European allies who have economic and military power, and who are willing to use it. With an unforgiving international landscape, they have little choice but to lean on them.

On the European side of the Atlantic, the tendency to accommodate to American demands – which has so far saved transatlantic relations – will no longer work. Europe must wake up strategically and set its own international priorities regardless of who is in the White House. Above all, it must roll up its sleeves and find a balance between the three legs that make up the transatlantic relationship: 1) the relations between the United States and the European Union, 2) NATO, and 3) the exclusively bilateral relations between Washington and individual European capitals. The last leg would likely be boosted the most in the event of Trump reaching the White House, while for Biden the EU has been gaining weight as an interlocutor.

In no case would it involve re-establishing the old relationship; instead, it would entail forging a new one based on the remnants of the old. And, most importantly, it necessitates rebuilding trust between the two sides of the Atlantic, which is increasingly at a low ebb.

Former president Donald Trump during a press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Washington, April 2017. © NATO via Flickr.


Europe is in an increasingly rough neighbourhood, and the police may no longer turn up when called

If Joe Biden is re-elected, and the Democrats control both the US Senate and the House of Representatives, then there would be scope for increased transatlantic co-operation. In this scenario, Washington would probably provide more assistance to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian aggression, and Europe and the US would have similar policies towards China. The transatlantic relationship would not be perfect; Biden is instinctively more protectionist than most European leaders. But this would be the best outcome for Europe.

If Biden is re-elected, while at least one Congressional chamber remains in Republican hands, Europe could expect continuity: a broadly helpful administration but a powerful isolationist majority in Congress able to block assistance to Ukraine. And even more internationally minded Americans would probably press the administration to shift resources from Europe to the Indo-Pacific region. Europe would find itself more exposed to Russian pressure and would need to step up its support to Ukraine.

The nightmare scenario is Donald Trump becoming president again, with his supporters controlling Congress as well. His comments in the election campaign have already undermined the credibility of NATO’s Article 5 defence guarantee. Trump has long been protectionist and isolationist; he would have a Congress that would enable him to turn his instincts into actions.

Europe cannot afford to hope for the best; it needs to prepare for the worst. Even if Trump is not elected this time, his brand of isolationism will remain a powerful force in US politics. European leaders need to be honest with their voters: Europe is in an increasingly rough neighbourhood, and the police may no longer turn up when called. The householders and their friendly neighbours need to ensure they can fight off intruders if necessary. That means more defence spending and less worrying about arbitrary deficit targets.


Regardless of the outcome of the election, the importance of the economic and security dimensions of the transatlantic community will remain strong

Every election has elements of continuity and change. The elements of continuity are often overlooked, while being just as important as the changes. Regardless of the outcome of the election, the importance of the economic and security dimensions of the transatlantic community will remain strong. Unquestionably, the maintenance of the community is a vital interest of the United States, a view that remains strongly bipartisan.

The overview of potential changes is often distorted by intense partisan rhetoric, slanted news coverage and electioneering politics – all of which are probably the least likely indicators of shifts in US policy.

Undoubtedly, there will be changes if a conservative president is elected. At the top of the list will be energy and environmental policy. A conservative president will place a premium on delivering reliable, affordable and abundant sources of energy for the US market as well as for its friends and allies. The US government will abandon the primacy of net-zero and the green transition as practical or desirable goals for achieving better environmental or economic outcomes. The United States will once again withdraw from the Paris Accords.

Border and immigration security will be a first order objective for a conservative US administration. That will also include more sympathy and support for friends and allies dealing with their own border, migration and sovereignty issues. Furthermore, this administration will not be anti-EU, but will have a sceptical attitude towards the value of greater Euro-federalism and creating an independent EU security identity. 

There will be other changes, but they will be driven by the facts on the ground, not US politics. These include economic security from China and how we support a free and secure Ukraine.

President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during the NATO Summit in Madrid in 2022. © NATO via Flickr.


Europeans should always seek to work with their American partners, but also need to find flexible coalition partners within global middle powers on an ad hoc basis

Despite tensions between Europe and the United States in the early years of the Biden administration – due to issues such as the retreat from Afghanistan, the AUKUS submarine deal and the Inflation Reduction Act – transatlantic solidarity has played a crucial role in bolstering Ukraine’s resilience and ensuring Europe’s stability amidst Russia’s aggression. With the prospect of Donald Trump’s return to the White House looming, this core factor of European stability is at risk. The US electorate is currently divided on the extent of support for Ukraine and Europe, but it is unclear how the dust will settle after November 2024.

Therefore, it is important for Europeans to demonstrate that their support for Ukraine, and investment in their own security, does not depend on the choice of American voters. They should prepare by making sure that promised weaponry is actually delivered, that sanctions against Russia are as effective as they can be and that Ukraine’s ambition to join the EU and NATO continues to be met with a path forward.

On other fronts such as US-China rivalry, US strategic industrial policy or the Middle East, American foreign policy could experience continuity rather than change, regardless of who holds power in the White House or Congress. For Europe, it is again important to define its red lines and interests, emphasising the importance of maintaining the ability to trade in the framework of a rules-based order, fostering global cooperation to tackle climate change and renewing diplomatic tracks to bring stability back to neighbouring regions. Europeans should always seek to work with their American partners on all these fronts, but also need to find flexible coalition partners within global middle powers on an ad hoc basis.


Europe must speed up doing its homework on how to become a strategic actor

US presidential elections have always attracted Europe’s attention. While this interest was largely driven by America’s dominant role in world politics, there have been no real concerns about potential effects of American choices on Europe itself. The transatlantic bond seemed, despite ups and downs, a stable relationship.

This time it is different. With Donald Trump nominated to compete for the presidency, the European debate is painting the future of the transatlantic relations in dark colours. Trump’s potential re-election is feared to lead to a full American withdrawal from Europe, resulting in a collapse of NATO and Ukraine succumbing to Russia. Additionally, concerns about tariffs loom large in trade discussions.

Yet, a Trump presidency is unlikely to entail such dramatic consequences. If Trump wins the election, Europe must for sure prepare for uncertainty, volatility and transactionalism. Prioritising his legacy, Trump would likely seek a breakthrough ‘deal’ to end hostilities in Ukraine, regardless of Ukrainian transatlantic ambitions. However, the extent to which Trump could pressure Ukraine into accepting a bad peace deal remains uncertain. Likewise, Trump would not be able to simply withdraw the US from NATO (as Congress holds the ultimate power of decision), though he may drastically limit American military presence in Europe. Nonetheless, his policies may embolden Russia to escalate demands for a new security architecture in Europe, undermining the sovereignty and independence of multiple countries, with Ukraine being the primary concern.

In comparison, a second Biden administration – foreseeable and dedicated to the transatlantic bond – may seem like a vacation for Europe. Yet, a Biden victory will by no means allow Europe to sit on its hands. Biden will likely face a divided or GOP-controlled Congress full of politicians questioning American foreign policy lines. Support for Ukraine and NATO may become conditional. Also, American capacity to deter adversaries in multiple theatres might decline further, with the Indo-Pacific becoming the only priority.

Both visions agree: Europe must speed up doing its homework on how to become a strategic actor. This involves increasing defence spending and investing in impactful capabilities. Ukraine must be made a priority; all national redlines regarding weapon deliveries must be dropped and its road to the EU must begin immediately with a robust plan for reconstruction and reforms. Lastly, Europe must adopt a realist policy towards China, acknowledging its Indo-Pacific assertiveness as a challenge to European security.

Banner Bechev

Trump has a real chance of winning, and his victory could potentially strain European security arrangements

The US election is shaping up to be a toss-up between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. As in 2016 and 2020, Trump has a real chance of winning, and his victory could potentially strain European security arrangements. Even though a pull-out from NATO would be difficult to accomplish considering new legislation depriving the president of such powers, Trump could deliver a death by a thousand cuts to the alliance.

Once back in office, the former president could authorise the withdrawal of American forces from Europe, undermine the credibility of Article 5 of the Atlantic Treaty and, most importantly, block the flow of ammunition and defence equipment to Ukraine. Such a reversal of US policy could push Europeans to assume a greater role in securing the continent. It is clear, for instance, that French President Emmanuel Macron is already thinking of ways to fill the gap.

However, taking charge of Europe's security would never be an easy feat. It will require long-term commitment to defence spending, investment in industrial capacity, capability development and, possibly most challenging, a shift in strategic culture at the elite and popular level. Russian aggression has been a wake-up call, but Europe still has a long way to go.