The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has delivered a shock to Europe’s elite policy consensus on where U.S. relations with Europe were heading, resulting in an outpouring of articles and op-eds, replete with expressions of thinly disguised horror and interlaced with predictions about where the foreign and security policy of the next administration should—or, at the very least, might—go. Some have gone so far as to declare the end of the West as we know it and propose the shifting of the capital of the free world from Washington to Berlin (!). Likewise, there have been almost instinctive affirmations that the European Union needs to cooperate more on defense—EU parliamentarians recently held a non-binding vote 369-255, with 70 abstentions in favor of increased spending on defense and asset-sharing. With the United Kingdom on its way out of the European Union, France has raised yet again the idea of Common European Defense, though again stopping short of calling for a European army.
The Trump election is anything but another opportunity for Europeans to reheat old prescriptions, nor does Europe need another round of building institutional sand castles. If Europe is serious about its defense the time is now to reach out to the United States and to rebuild and strengthen NATO. None of the expressions of outrage or concern since Trump’s election have changed the reality that the European Union is not structured to provide for Europe’s defense and that NATO remains the only security system in Europe with any teeth. Growing instability in the Middle East and North Africa is real, as is Russia’s increased geostrategic assertiveness; still, Europeans continue to ignore the warning signs that America’s patience is wearing thin when it comes to burden-sharing.
At this point most of the divinations about the future of transatlantic relations are likely to be no more accurate than the polling projections on the eve of November 8. But the tectonic shift in U.S. domestic politics makes one thing clear: When it comes to transatlantic relations business as usual will no longer do. This is one message that should be driven home across Europe’s capitals. The coming months will either finally witness a strong coming together of the United States and Europe around the fundamentals of national security, or the unraveling of NATO’s utility as a defense alliance in short order as public sentiment in the United States works itself through Congress.
Anxiety about NATO’s future is growing. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg did not mince words when he urged the Europeans to spend more on defense in order to convince President-elect Trump that a continued U.S. commitment to European security was justified. But thus far only the United Kingdom, Poland, Estonia, and Greece have met the 2 percent defense-spending target. To put the current NATO disarray on defense spending in perspective, after the British exit from the European Union, non-EU NATO members will constitute 80 percent of all NATO defense spending; likewise, three of the four battlegroups to be deployed in Europe will be led by NATO allies who are not members of the European Union. With such limited resources devoted to defense, any enhanced EU military cooperation—should it in fact materialize—would take place at NATO’s expense, not so much duplicating its effort as taking capabilities away from the alliance.
The new U.S. administration will enter office with a clear expectation that the Europeans will finally heed America’s call for equitable burden-sharing. The fundamental question is whether the growing disconnect between how European and U.S. leaders see the use of military power and the need to act will translate into a new security bond. Or if, without a clear recognition in Europe that we are finally at an inflection point, the Europeans do not step up on equitable burden-sharing, the United States may in fact withdraw from Europe.
Europe has a binary choice before it: either refocus on its relations with the United States, finally answer Washington’s calls for equitable burden-sharing, including a reinvestment into its militaries, or maintain the status quo while the residual consensus on the critical importance of the transatlantic link to Europe’s security fragments and eventually breaks. The U.S. election dismissed what I once called the “platitude of transatlantic inevitability”—i.e. that the United States will remain committed to Europe’s security no matter what—with a swiftness and ease that only a year ago seemed nigh impossible. For the first time in a quarter-century, Europe’s security dilemma is real: Get serious about rebuilding the transatlantic relationship, or accept the rapid marginalization and return to bilateralism with all its risks.