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The new era of American darkness

With the Supreme Court ruling, the US has taken a step closer to political ruin. Europe must now prepare for a future without its most powerful ally.

By Jeremy Cliffe

The hills were alive with proclamations of Western cohesion when the G7 gathered in the Bavarian Alps for its annual summit between 26 and 28 June. “We stand united, we stand together,” proclaimed the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, the host of this year’s event. President Joe Biden agreed, saying that Vladimir Putin had “been counting on, from the beginning, that Nato and the G7 would splinter, but we haven’t and we’re not going to”. Boris Johnson hailed “the amazing consistency of our resolve”. The leaders then headed on to Madrid for the most consequential Nato summit in decades. As the New Statesman went to press, the meeting promised firm new commitments to back Ukraine, increases to Nato’s own defences and a new “strategic concept” document outlining an ambitious future for the alliance.

Yet across the Atlantic, American politics is in turmoil. Biden had flown out of Washington DC reeling from a Supreme Court ruling that has overturned Roe vs Wade, the 1973 decision which established that a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy was protected by the US constitution. The ruling is of era-shaping significance both in what it means for the rights of American women but also as another step along the dark political path the country appears to be travelling, one for whose destination – for all the upbeat commitments of Bavaria and Madrid – ­Europe is alarmingly unprepared.

The circumstances of the decision to overturn Roe vs Wade say much of the state of US democracy. At least two of the Supreme Court ­justices who supported the decision had indicated that they would do otherwise in their confirmation hearings. The judgment was preceded by an unprecedented leak of a draft opinion from the Supreme Court, a foiled bid to assassinate one of the justices and the start of the congressional hearings on the 6 January Capitol riots. Even before the news broke, only 25 per cent of Americans professed confidence in the Supreme Court.

The repeal of Roe vs Wade represented an unprecedented withdrawal of previously guaranteed civil rights. Protesters demonstrating outside the Arizona State Capitol were tear-gassed and the US Department of Homeland Security warned that violence in the coming days was “likely”. This may just be the beginning. The Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas has called for a reconsideration of other decisions which protect rights to contraception and same-sex marriage. Environmental legislation also appears to be in the sights of conservative justices now dominant on the Supreme Court after Donald Trump’s appointments to the bench.

The US is increasingly two nations: blue (Democrat) and red (Republican). To some extent that has been the case for over half a century. But where in the postwar decades these nations overlapped significantly, they have been diverging for the past three decades – and that divergence is driving the country to breaking point. Demographics and wider social trends – US citizens are more liberal on issues of gender, race and sexuality than they were 50 years ago – favour the blue US. But the red US has shown itself ruthless enough to rewrite the political rules to entrench its power and ideological credo.

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Biden’s win in 2020 felt to many liberals like the end of the Trump nightmare. Yet increasingly it looks to be an interlude. The US Congress is dysfunctional, so broken by filibusters, gerrymandering and money that even with both houses and the White House in Democratic hands the party cannot pass important legislation. Elsewhere, too, cracks are spreading across the system: states are threatening to disregard each others’ laws while a large group of Republican voters, and some elected officials, believe that Biden won the election illegitimately. The Republicans could take both houses of Congress at the midterm elections in November. And with Biden’s age showing and the current Democratic field weak, either Trump or a like-minded Republican candidate such as Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, stands a strong chance of taking the White House in 2024. A second Trump term would almost certainly be more extreme than his first.

In the worst case, the US is headed towards dysfunction, disintegration and political breakdown. Picture the country in 2030 or 2040 scarred by widespread political violence; its federal system balkanised; dominated by chaos, tyranny or some unholy combination of the two. A US that has turned inwards, has withdrawn from Nato and is incapable of generating the dependable foreign and defence policies – or exporting the technology and energy that undergirds them – on which the post-Berlin Wall world order has rested. Yet even in a less apocalyptic scenario, the US could turn into a less reliable partner to the countries represented at the G7 and Nato summits, its politics becoming more fraught and less conducive to alliance-building.

Younger generations of American politicians and strategists intellectually defined by the looming contest with China are questioning the US’s long-standing commitment to Europe. Even before the Trump presidency, Barack Obama chided Europeans for doing too little to provide their own security. Elbridge Colby, the author and former Pentagon official, argues that the US’s transatlantic vocation is an unaffordable distraction from the Pacific. “Should a conflict simultaneously break out with China in Asia and Russia in Europe, the US may not be able to deploy adequate reinforcements to Europe,” warns a new paper from the Brookings Institution by Hans Binnendijk, Daniel Hamilton and Alexander Vershbow. “European allies need to be able to pick up the slack.”

Biden’s presidency does not spell a return to business as usual for transatlantic affairs – much as the pally optics of the G7 summit suggest otherwise. His tenure is closer to the last gasp of an era of Atlanticist cold warriors in Washington DC with the geopolitical instinct and the domestic political capital to prioritise Europe. That era is fading.

Yet the reassuring mirage of Bidenism has made Europe complacent about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For all of the talk since 24 February of increased military budgets, of a historical Zeitenwende – or turning point in world affairs – the US backing for Ukraine outweighs European efforts. By 7 June its military aid had totalled €24bn; that of the biggest European donor, the UK, was worth €2.38bn. The gulf between US and European assistance is growing. And these numbers also do not capture the role of US coordination, diplomacy and intelligence. Had support for Ukraine been left to the Europeans alone, Kyiv might well be in Russian hands by now.

[See also: My abortion showed me that women in Britain are far from free]

Illustration by Brian Stauffer

US defence spending is more than double the combined sum for all the other Nato members put together. The number of US troops in Europe declined to 65,000 in 2018 but is now rising and will soon break 100,000. “A more corrosive effect of Putin’s war… has been to deepen even further Europe’s strategic dependence on the US,” argue the authors of the Brookings Institution paper, “a trend that had already become unsustainable even before the conflict began.”

Indeed it had. European forces in Kabul required US support to the bitter end, when their limited airlift capabilities were exposed. Max Bergmann, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has noted that even France’s supposedly autonomous operation in the Sahel since 2014 “required the US government to provide emergency assistance”. Paris is now winding up the operation. From airlifts to air-to-air refuelling, to C4ISR (digital technology coordinating battlefield data), Europe lacks crucial military capabilities that only the US can provide.

[See also: The war in Ukraine should have strengthened Europe’s common voice. Why hasn’t it?]

Then there are the other drivers of geopolitics: energy, intelligence, and research and development. Weaning Europe off Russian gas requires greater imports of liquefied natural gas from the US, which have more than tripled since March. American and British intelligence saw Russia’s invasion of Ukraine coming; by contrast, the head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service was caught so unaware that he had to be evacuated from Ukraine by special forces. And on the cutting-edge technology that will define future wars – artificial intelligence, drones, hypersonic missiles, robotics – the US is in a league of its own among Western nations.

Imagine that a future US emphatically rejects the Atlantic alliance or collapses into internal turmoil (or both). And then consider Europe’s fundamental geopolitical situation. To the east, a Russia nihilistically adrift from any sense of international rule-of-law and determined to rebuild a former empire that includes parts of today’s Nato. To the south-east, an unpredictable Turkey, a Middle East in turmoil and a Central Asia increasingly contested by China. And to the south, an Africa in the early stages of a population boom – bringing opportunities for Europe but also potential security threats. The task of confronting all of these challenges without US leadership looks far beyond Europe’s abilities today.

[See also: The end of Roe vs Wade: what is there left to write?]

One answer is for Europe to increase its military spending. Various of the continent’s governments have announced defence spending increases since 24 February, but many of these will serve to clear a backlog of problems rather than add new capabilities. Germany’s new €100bn defence fund – the centrepiece of its Zeitenwende – will go primarily on overdue procurement such as replacing its 40-year-old fleet of Tornado jets with F-35s.

The weapons sent to Ukraine also need to be replaced. Bergmann sees the continent approaching a crunch point: “Defence ministries across Europe now face a trade-off between supporting Ukraine by parting ways with expensive equipment, maintaining their national militaries, and for some, complying with other export contracts.” Without more cash, he warns, “there is a danger that European militaries will be weaker in 2023 than in 2021”.

Yet money is not even the biggest barrier. Ultimately, Europe has the capacity needed to defend its interests. The combined GDP of the EU and UK is only around 14 per cent lower than that of the American superpower and even now their combined military budgets are greater than those of Russia or China. Europe has the means to provide its own security, but it lacks the mentality. Politicians are far too comfortable with the US security umbrella to have built their militaries in unison. European defence is fragmented; a tangle of different weapons systems and strategic cultures. The US’s armed forces use one main model of tank, two types of howitzer, six sorts of tactical aircraft and four main models of warship; the equivalent figures for the EU are 17, 25, 20 and 29 respectively.

Political factors too obstruct a “one Europe” mentality on defence. Brexit has sundered the continent’s dominant economic and political bloc from one of its two major military powers. And while European societies may not be experiencing the extremes of violent polarisation rising in the US, politics in the continent has become more fragmented, fractious and populist over recent years.

Some change is afoot. Trump’s election in 2016 was a “wake-up call” (to use the preferred Brussels cliché). France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has championed the vision of a sovereign Europe capable of providing its own security. A patchwork of initiatives has evolved. Permanent Structured Cooperation and the European Intervention Initiative are frameworks for common military action – the former looser, the latter more focused and including the UK. A European Defence Fund, established in 2017, finances defence research within the EU. Following the Ukraine war the EU announced a rapid reaction force, a potential kernel of a European army.

Yet none of this changes the fundamental reality: as things stand, a Europe without the US is in serious trouble. The initiatives launched to date are small fry. The rapid reaction force will number merely 5,000 troops, for example. And Europe’s geostrategic reliance on US energy and technology will take decades to change. At this rate Europe will need to wait deep into the second half of the 21st century to achieve meaningful strategic sovereignty (if ever).

The only realistic way of speeding things up is structural and political reform. Serious common action requires the EU to ditch its unanimity requirement for foreign and defence policy. Common borrowing for defence demands common revenue streams, such as EU taxes. A European military force requires a more intensive and responsive European democracy. And all that requires treaty change. To put it mildly, this is a tall order.

States in central and eastern Europe look at such moves with suspicion – understandably, given that they are most exposed to a revanchist Russia against which the US appears to be the only reliable shield. Then there is the British conundrum: an essential European security power now semi-detached from the EU’s emergent security architecture and more interested in its partnership with the US and a new role in Asia.

[See also: Trapped in the Cold Web]

That points to the mentality shift required above all: away from the fallacy that European strategic sovereignty and the Atlantic alliance are at odds. It is not hard to see how this perspective has arisen. Seen from Tallinn, Warsaw or Bucharest, the European agenda looks dangerously like a goodbye to the ultimate protector, the US. Seen from London, an advantage of quitting the EU was to stand at the US’s side in the Indo-Pacific. Seen from Berlin and Paris, Europe is an insurance policy against American unpredictability. All of these perspectives have elements of validity.

But the truth is that Europe can – and must – have both. It must draw on the continued benefits of an alliance with a country as powerful as the US for as long as that remains on offer, while also pursuing its own capabilities in preparation for a future when it is not. The US needs a more sovereign Europe so that it can concentrate on its internal problems and its contest with China. What Europe must do to prepare for a world of fracturing or distracted American power, a world that drew a step closer with the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe vs Wade, is no different from what Washington is urging it to do anyway: invest, build security capacity, and become ready to act alone. Really, there is no trade-off at all.

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This article appears in the 29 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, American Darkness