Despite his celebration this weekend with Nigel Farage – in a Trump Tower golden elevator, no less – the president-elect of the United States is not an anti-European in the sense we in Europe are most familiar with.
And despite his ‘Brexit plus, plus, plus’ predictions, Donald Trump’s presidency does not necessarily presage an attempt to disrupt or to destroy European integration. Trump is no Farage or Marine Le Pen. In fact,President Trump will care little about Europe and whether it rises or falls. What matters to him is to overcome the imbalance he sees between the commitments and returns he sees in the United States’ foreign relations. Like the now-wealthy nations in East Asia, EU countries fit Trump’s dictum about self-defence and American support: The US should not provide to them what they could afford themselves.
What this means is that what Europe is to become will be for the Europeans to decide.
This could hardly be news to European policymakers. No president has ever spelled out the linkage between burden-sharing and the US security assurance in such drastic terms, but several have looked at the issue in similar ways, particularly since the demise of the Soviet Union. Other presidents have muted their criticism because of the value of US-led alliance systems to America’s global role. Now, the precondition for partnership with the US will be Europe's ability to defend itself, and no longer its inability to do so.
Now, building a collective European defence seems next to impossible as it runs counter to the intergovernmental trend that has shaped European security over the past two decades.
In the 1990s precious years were wasted for Europeans to develop, debate and implement a defence structure of scale. Instead of using the momentum of change for devising an efficient European scheme of territorial defence – the contingency they had spent so much money on when Europe was divided – they set about spending the peace dividend internally. Now, building a collective European defence seems next to impossible as it runs counter to the intergovernmental trend that has shaped European security over the past two decades. To be sure, much more is done in terms of cooperation, joint development and procurement than it was 20 years ago, and some remarkable projects of forces integration exist. But it still all rather looks like a set of warm-up exercises to a marathon than the real run.
Across the capitals, policymakers by and large know that committing to spending two percent of GDP on defence will not solve the puzzle alone, even if and when the target is reached by 2020. Currently, roughly two-thirds of Europe’s defence spending comes from just Britain, France and Germany, the first two of which evince little interest in helping other European countries achieve more bang for their euro in defence spending. Another part of the problem is that at least one-third of that spending, that is 25 small and smallest national defence budgets, would mostly be spent on subcritical or redundant structures, spent on an inefficient deployment scheme, and on paying, equipping and commanding too many soldiers in uniform while underspending on research and development. Such a vast asymmetry cannot be addressed through voluntary intergovernmental cooperation with very little by way of common assets. Such is the lesson of the past decades of defence cooperation within NATO and the European Union.
The answer for European countries in the age of Trump lies in genuine integration of territorial defence. Europeans may differ over strategy and operations of projecting military force beyond Europe, but they are all bound by clear-cut solidarity articles on territorial defence in NATO and EU. With the changes in Russia’s foreign and and military policy, to many Europeans the threat to integrity no longer is merely a residual challenge. Yet the political conditions in Europe put this far out of reach. It could – and therefore it should – become the goal of a coalition of the willing, pursued in the name of Europe but on the basis of its own formal agreement if the permanent structured cooperation clause of the EU treaties would not apply. In normal times, British opposition to it, French frustration with Germany’s unwillingness to adopt their strategic parameters, and German historical trauma around building a big territorial army in the centre of Europe would kill any such initiative off at birth. Especially as it would need to to be conceived in one of the three capitals.
Instead of launching a European Defence Community as it was tried in the 1950s, this time integration should begin with two or three countries taking the initiative of pooling their defences with the option of bringing in neighbours later on.
Genuine defence integration seems improbable right now. But as we have recently learned, the improbable can quickly become the inevitable. At 28 or at 27 there is no agreement on how to proceed, so the new world of European defence will be built from the bottom up. Instead of launching a European Defence Community as it was tried in the 1950s, this time integration should begin with two or three countries taking the initiative of pooling their defences with the option of bringing in neighbours later on. Essentially, such an approach come down to mean Germany and … which other European country? France, the nuclear power focused on force projection beyond Europe? The Netherlands, the army of which is mostly organised in joint structures with the German army already? What about Denmark, Austria or the Czech Republic? A lot of history to overcome while still not addressing the current threat perceptions directly. What about Poland, equally driven by fear of Russia and distrust in Germany? Berlin and Warsaw launching such an initiative would indeed be another “Schuman moment” in European politics. Neither side seems to feel the spirit, however.
But the second real challenge of an American retreat from the European theatre is that , rather than closer cooperation, Europe’s underlying weakness are only laid even more bare. To the fore may come the many differences and rivalries among the nation states of Europe, the mistrust and the animosities between them, the cleavages between north and south, east and west, between the rich and poor, the large and the small, and between the large as well as between the small.
Since the end of the second world war, the overwhelming presence of the US and the forward march of European integration have together worked to smooth out intra-European tensions. Alas, in the moment in which a Jacksonian is elected to the White House, the EU is struggling with centrifugal forces of unprecedented strength. It is now more than likely that neither US presence nor EU integration will be there to suppress the diverging trajectories of EU member states. European countries will need to undertake clear-eyed assessments of security threats and respond accordingly. How they respond could define their collective future for decades to come.
This article was originally published by RealClearWorld.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.