Trump is no aberration. America won’t guarantee our safety, we must

Donald Trump
Donald Trump
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It is a statement of the obvious forgotten by too many politicians and pundits. The United States is a foreign country that follows its own interests, in an often ruthless manner.

Those interests often overlap with our own. Britain and America, and the wider West, have a shared concern for the security of free and democratic societies, the ability to trade freely and fairly, and the independence of allies threatened by our enemies.

But our interests do not match perfectly, and even when they do there can be profound differences. There are differences in judgment, such as when Britain refused to follow America into Vietnam and when France chose not to go into Iraq. And there are differences in prioritisation too. While president Obama dismissed Russia as merely a “regional power”, for those living in the east of Europe, Moscow remains an existential danger.

Ahead in the polls and challenging an ageing president whose mental powers are seemingly fading, Donald Trump looms large.

As with his first presidency, Trump is calling into doubt the future of the Nato alliance. At a campaign rally on Saturday, he recalled how a leader of “a big country” had asked him, if they had not spent enough on defence, and if Russia attacked, whether America would intervene. “No, I would not protect you,” Trump said. “I would encourage [Russia] to do whatever the hell they want. You got to pay. You got to pay your bills.”

This echoes the doubts Trump created about Nato in 2016. Perhaps, if Vladimir Putin had attacked Estonia, Trump would have turned a blind eye, arguing as his ally Newt Gingrich did that it was “in the suburbs of St Petersburg”.

If this had been likely, and he had been in the pay of the Kremlin as his opponents claim, perhaps Putin would have put it to the test. Perhaps Putin judged that even if he had Trump onside, there was no way the wider US state would have allowed the destruction of Nato.

Such ambiguity is part of the Trump playbook. The only verified consequence of his Nato policy was a spike in defence spending by European countries.

In the years before Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, non-American Nato defence spending grew by an average of 1.2 per cent per year. During his presidency, it grew by 4.6 per cent per year.

This is exactly what Trump wanted. He does not see the world in the same way as conventional politicians and policymakers. He does not value long-term trust and the expectation of reciprocity. He sees relationships in a zero-sum way, and diplomacy as transactional – little more than a series of deals in which immediate American interests must always come first.

Yet prosperous countries including France, Germany and the Netherlands still do not meet the Nato target to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence. The Europeans have taken millions of Ukrainian refugees and spent billions supporting Kyiv, but this will not be enough for a Trump administration.

Protectionist and isolationist by instinct, Trump sees war – especially war funded or fought by America – as a costly diversion. It is likely he will force President Zelensky to come to terms with Putin.

This makes him different to other US presidents, but not as different as some might think. President George W Bush judged he had to leave Georgia to its fate when Russia attacked in 2008. President Biden did not wait for discussions with allies before withdrawing abruptly from Afghanistan.

Neither of these decisions was wrong – but they show that American presidents often make decisions with brutal consequences for the countries concerned.

This is a feature of leadership not specific to the US. It is forgotten now, but before the 2008 war, George W Bush pressed for Georgia and Ukraine to become Nato members. He was opposed by France and Germany, whose governments argued against offending Moscow.

Regardless of the history, however, Ukraine – bravely defending itself and rightly supported by Britain and our allies – is more than aware of a likely change in US policy if Trump wins.

All this points to an inconvenient truth for European leaders. While it is not difficult to identify the threats faced collectively by the West – including China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and Sunni extremism – the relative urgency and prioritisation of each is very different for Washington and the various European capitals.

This is true regardless of party politics. For the rest of our lifetimes, America will treat Beijing as its greatest strategic threat. President Biden has sought to escape his Middle Eastern commitments to focus on China. In doing so he has emboldened Iran, which has started a war with Israel via Hamas, disrupted global trade via the Houthis, and halted the progress of the Abraham Accords.

In a similar way, Republicans see Russia as a distraction from China and believe the Europeans need to fund and organise their own defence.

China is undoubtedly a serious threat to Europe as it is to America.

But, thirsty for trade and investment, and despite all the evidence of Chinese aggression, espionage and economic warfare, European leaders favour appeasement and compromise with Beijing.

For the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, Russia is the more pressing problem. For Europe as a whole, with a Muslim population that could treble by 2050 to more than 75 million, Islamism will be a greater domestic threat than in the US – even if few admit it today.

Overlapping interests and shared values will continue to mean that the West is able to act in concert.

But it is inescapable that whether it is Trump in the White House or another, if it is a Republican or Democrat, every country in the West will have to do more to ensure its own defence and security.

The answer to this challenge is not, as some inevitably argue, European armies and security services, not least because differences within Europe are often as great as those between Europe and America.

But we are long past the time to take responsibility for ourselves. Just look at the world around us.

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