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16 March

Europe needs to brace for a Republican president in 2025 

Comments by Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump are an alarm bell for America’s allies.

By Jeremy Cliffe

Writing from the Nato summit in Madrid last June, in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs Wade, I warned that Europe needed to draw the wider lessons about the risks of relying so heavily on American power. Europeans “must do [more] 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, I wrote. This view became rather unfashionable over the subsequent months as Joe Biden’s presidency flourished and a whiff of the 1990s returned to the transatlantic relationship.  

Yet nine months on, the basic facts remain no less stark – and in some respects more so. Europe remains obviously, inescapably, embarrassingly reliant on the US for its security. According to the Ukraine Support Tracker produced at Kiel University, current up to mid-January, the US still dwarfs European military support for Ukraine at €44.3bn compared with €4.9bn from the UK, the largest European donor, and €2.4bn from Poland, the largest EU one. It remains the case that without American support the front line in Ukraine might well be creeping far westwards by now. And it remains the case that all this is highly susceptible to the vagaries of US domestic politics.

If anything has changed since last June it is that the prospect of an isolationist Republican presidential candidate has risen as the 2024 election has drawn closer. Today it looks likely that either Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, will clinch the Republican nomination. While it is also true that Biden now looks set to go stronger into a contest with either than seemed probable 12 months ago, that may well be a competitive contest. Recent polls by Quinnipiac University and Morning Consult put Biden and DeSantis just one point apart in a hypothetical race between the two, at 47-46 per cent and 43-42 per cent respectively; and a Biden-Trump race at 49-45 per cent and 43-42 per cent. Such numbers are too close for comfort, especially given where both DeSantis and Trump stand on America’s commitment to Ukraine’s defence.

[See also: American hubris]

That much was confirmed earlier this week when the Tucker Carlson Tonight show on Fox News published the responses to a questionnaire it had sent to prospective Republican candidates. Trump’s conformed to his longstanding both-sides attitude (one that is in effect favourable to Russia and Vladimir Putin). “Both sides are weary and ready to make a deal,” wrote the former president.

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The response from DeSantis created greater waves, as it swept aside the notion that Trump’s prospective rival would take a more orthodox stance on America’s backing for Kyiv. He described Ukraine’s defence as not being among America’s “vital national interests” and dismissed the war as a mere “territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia”.

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This was a departure from the impression left on the transatlantic foreign-policy community by the bipartisan Congressional delegation at the Munich Security Conference last month. “Don’t look at Twitter, look at people in power,” Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate minority leader, had told the audience there. “Republican leaders are committed to a strong trans-Atlantic alliance. We are committed to helping Ukraine.” Many Atlanticists took heart from this. It’s now in greater doubt whether they were right to do so.

The central scenario is surely that Biden will win re-election next November. Yet he may well not. DeSantis or Trump may well win. If that is the case, the “people in power” in the White House will clearly take a very different line on Ukraine – and Europe’s security more widely – than McConnell claimed.

And that is a scenario for which Europe is in no way prepared. Consider Britain, its “Integrated Review Refresh” only now acknowledging what some of us were arguing when the original Integrated Review appeared in 2021: important though the Indo-Pacific is, Britain’s security will ultimately be determined in Europe. Or witness France under Emmanuel Macron, correct in its level of ambition for a “sovereign Europe” but often much too short-sighted and unilateralist in its pursuit of that ambition. Or contemplate Germany gradually coming to terms with its “Zeitenwende”, or historical turning point, but too lost in its own bureaucratic orthodoxies and structures to make serious progress on modernising its military. Or look at the European Union itself, straining to play a bigger geopolitical role but fatally limited by differences between its own member states.

None of this is so much of a problem with Biden in power. Yet this would change fast in the event of a second Trump, or a first DeSantis, administration in Washington. That is a scenario for which Europe is not remotely prepared.

[See also: Why size does matter for Europe and Brexit Britain]