by Professor Dr Thomas Jäger, Chair of International Relations and Foreign Policy, Universität zu Köln, Cologne
The New York Times polls from early November 2023 showed a clear picture of the mood in the US. This may still change by November 2024, when the next US presidential election will take place, but it showed more clearly than before how good Donald Trump’s chances are. In six battleground states, all of which Joe Biden had won in 2020, the electoral preference had shifted. Biden is now only ahead in one state. In five states, Donald Trump has an advantage of up to 11%. A deeper analysis also revealed that it will be difficult for Joe Biden to change this. This is because two factors in particular are working to his disadvantage: economic developments, which he cannot simply change, and his age, which he cannot either. There are also special issues, such as his support for Israel, which are rejected by young voters on the Democratic side.
Europe – resistant to learning
There was always the possibility that Donald Trump would return to the White House. He was always tied with Biden in the polls. Biden never managed to get a presidential bonus. And Trump used all the charges against him, which would have ended the political career of any other candidate, to his advantage: he pretends to be the biggest victim of a corrupt political system that Biden and his Democrats stand for, and because many of his supporters also see themselves as victims, they consider Trump to be their leader. It is unlikely that this attitude will change.
This increases the chances that European governments will be taught another lesson. Many thought that the four years of Trump would pass, an accident of American history. They philosophised about the fact that you can no longer really rely on others – meaning the US. Those days are over, said the former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example. However, she left it as words. Actions did not follow. The German government proved to be resistant to learning. It shares this attitude with many other European governments. Incidentally, it has maintained it to this day, which is quite a mental achievement in view of a war in Europe that Russia is waging against Ukraine and a war on the fringes of Europe that Iran’s allied terrorist organisations are waging against Israel. Unfortunately, this is to the detriment of Europe’s security.
Central problems of European security
European states cannot defend themselves, they cannot build a deterrent to the outside world and they cannot project political stability into their regional neighbourhood. This has not changed in recent years. And if they do intervene, as in North Africa, it is for the worse. Without these capabilities, however, Russia would be in a position to dominate the European Union politically in the future. The destabilisation of states in North Africa and the Middle East would have a direct impact on the stability of the EU through migration and indirectly through state weakness and its consequences. EU states cannot do anything to counter this.
This addresses two central problems for European security. Deterrence and defence on the one hand, and the projection of political stability on the other. NATO is indispensable for the first task. The second task requires the leadership of the US. Some may doubt whether the US is still the indispensable nation worldwide. For the EU, the US is the indispensable nation if security, prosperity and democracy are to be preserved. The problem now is that some in the US no longer see this as an American interest, which they are completely wrong about, and some in Europe believe that the US will ultimately intervene to support them, which is why they believe they can continue to be free riders in terms of security policy.
Both assessments can reinforce each other and lead to transatlantic alienation. This can happen even though the vast majority of voters and MPs in both the US and Europe see it differently and recognise that both sides are dependent on each other, and that Europeans must finally build up more military capabilities. The reasons for this lie in the political systems. In the US, there is a large majority between “moderate Republicans” and “moderate Democrats” in favour of strengthening NATO. However, due to the deep polarisation between the two political camps, a few far-right and far-left representatives can hold the entire parliamentary group hostage. Bipartisan cooperation ends political careers. Just ask Kevin McCarthy.
Too late for Europe to wake up?
In Europe, on the other hand, it is coalition governments in many countries that prevent a powerful build-up of the armed forces, a coherent policy of economic security and coercive diplomacy. Just as in the US a few members of parliament are enough to prevent a majority, here parties representing less than 15% of the electorate are enough to adopt veto positions. Nothing changes for the time being. This is not enough in view of the possibility that President Trump will once again ensure an unpredictable, turbulent foreign policy in the US. The EU states have overslept their way through the last 20 years. But instead of waking up, they have fallen into a deep sleep.
This is demonstrated by the fact that EU states will not be able to provide Ukraine with sufficient support on their own if the US withdraws from the Ramstein group. A revival of the Abraham Accords can also only succeed with the US (although Biden has continued Trump’s policy here). The EU Member States alone will not succeed in containing China and Russia’s influence on Europe’s opposite coasts in the MENA region. They cannot even support North African states in the fight against Islamist terrorism. They would rather rely on Russia.
The US sets the tone
The economic competition between the US and the EU would become fiercer under Trump, because he would once again use the EU’s weakness in security policy as leverage. Security guarantees in return for economic benefits for the US only was his motto in his first presidency. There is no reason why he should not pick up where he left off. After all, the concept was successful for the US. Although Biden did not try to blackmail EU Member States, he continued the powerful economic policy of the US with the Inflation Reduction Act. The consequence of this policy is that the gap in economic power between the US and the EU has increased significantly in recent years. The EU wanted to increase its competitiveness; the US has done so.
Both sides have put too little effort into managing their relationships. Europeans should have an even greater interest in this than the US. Disinformation campaigns from interested states want to sell to the European public that relations with the US are the problem and not the solution. This could prove to be a major problem for governments to intensify their relations.
In military and economic terms, the US is superior to the EU. As a result of both, the US also sets the tone diplomatically. Not even in the area of soft power, which EU states found attractive due to their other weaknesses, are they still at the top. Close cooperation with the US is therefore not a gilded cage for the EU, but a necessity if it wants to preserve the democratic values it shares with the US.