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14 February 2024

Europe’s new age of insecurity

In the era of Trumpian politics, the US’s allies must fortify and regroup: they can no longer rely on the guaranteed support of a superpower.

By New Statesman

Can Europe rely on the United States for security in the age of Trump? The Republican candidate for president has now answered that question: it cannot and should not.

On 10 February, Donald Trump told a rally in South Carolina that he would “encourage” Russia to attack any Nato member that did not meet the target of spending at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence. In doing so, he inverted the defence alliance’s founding principle: that an attack on one is an attack on all members.

The suggestion by Trump that he would instead let Vladimir Putin’s government “do whatever the hell [it] wanted” sparked predictable outrage. The White House described his comments as “appalling and unhinged”, while Nato’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg warned that Trump had put “American and European soldiers at increased risk”.

His remarks were qualitatively different from his past comments on Nato. Trump did not merely chide Europe for spending too little on defence, he hailed potential Russian aggression. The former president’s admiration for tyranny and authoritarians – witness his praise for China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un – is obvious once more.

But Europe, whose grandees and security operatives assembled on 16 February for the annual Munich Security Conference, cannot say that it wasn’t warned. In 2018, Trump threatened to withdraw the US from Nato if European states did not fulfil their spending commitments.

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When he made those remarks, only four members met the Nato target for each to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence. There are now 11 that do: Poland, the US, Greece, Estonia, Lithuania, Finland, Romania, Hungary, Latvia, the UK and Slovakia. The shift owes less to Trump’s goading and belligerence than it does to Russian expansionism. It was in 2015, the year after Mr Putin annexed Crimea, that Europe began to increase defence spending. Yet even now, economic heavyweights such as France and Germany continue to fall short of the target. And Europe is not prepared for a world without US security protection.

Emmanuel Macron’s vision of “strategic autonomy” remains no more than an aspiration. German chancellor Olaf Scholz’s promise of an extra €100bn of defence spending is challenged by his country’s fiscal austerity.

Amid confusion and complacency, threats are multiplying. In its latest annual report, Estonia’s foreign intelligence service warned that Russia intends to double the number of troops stationed along its border with the Baltic states and Finland. The Danish defence minister, Troels Lund Poulsen, suggested earlier this month that Russia would “test Article 5 and Nato’s solidarity” over the next three to five years. “That was not Nato’s assessment in 2023,” he added. “This is new information that is coming to the fore now.”

Britain is similarly unprepared for this new era. The Sunak government has confirmed that it intends to reduce the size of the regular army from 82,000 to 72,500 by 2025, its smallest level since the Napoleonic era. A recent report, Ready for War?, by the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, warned that the armed forces have “capability shortfalls and stockpile shortages, and are losing personnel faster than they can recruit them”.

As with so much of the public realm, the armed forces have been enfeebled by underinvestment, neglect and botched procurement. The UK has been left in the farcical position of having not one but two malfunctioning aircraft carriers.

For decades, the UK and Europe have enjoyed the fruits of the “peace dividend”: the cuts in defence spending that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. But this era is over: the West confronts a revanchist Russia, an expansionist China and an increasingly isolationist US.

European states must prepare for a future in which they spend closer to 3 per cent of GDP on defence than 2 per cent. As during previous wartime periods, this will necessitate higher taxation of the wealthy. Libertarian fantasies of “small government” and radical tax cuts have no place in a new age of insecurity. Even if it is spared a second Trump presidency, Europe should have no illusions about the darker future that awaits it.

[See also: Britain’s ailing body politic]

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland

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