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How a Second Trump Term Could Destroy NATO
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How a Second Trump Term Could Destroy NATO

Withdrawing support from Ukraine would start a chain reaction.

Two Tornados of the German air force's tactical air wing 51 "Immelmann" during a flyby as part of a return roll call at NATO's Schleswig/Jagel Air Base. (Photo by Christian Charisius/picture alliance/Getty Images)

A second term for Donald Trump—the prospect of which cannot be ignored—would likely have devastating consequences for Ukraine. Trump has been highly critical of American support for the war effort, without which Ukraine would likely lose. But there’s an even more serious consequence of U.S. abandonment of Ukraine: the end of NATO.

To understand how that could happen, you have to understand European federalism, an ideology that has nothing in common with what Americans call federalism: While American federalism emphasizes the value and necessity of local government, European federalism calls for the centralization of power in the hands of the EU. It strives to transform Europe into a federation in which national governments are nothing more than regional authorities tasked with carrying out Brussels’ directives. This vision is popularly known as the “United States of Europe.” 

European federalism became popular among intellectuals and certain policy-makers in Europe in the aftermath of World War II. When what today is known as the European Union was founded, it was a narrow organization concerned mainly with ensuring the ease of trade of coal and steel across its then-six member states. But even the Treaty of Rome, the founding treaty of what was then the European Economic Community, had the fingerprints of federalism, stating that its aim was to lay the foundation for an “ever closer union between the peoples of Europe.” A union of nations that grows ever closer does inevitably become a superstate. The founding fathers of the European Union were aware of this, and many of them, including Konrad Adenauer, actually spoke rather candidly about their hope that their project would one day create such a superstate.

The appetite for federalism came from two sources: Some supported it simply in the belief that it was the only way to guarantee peace in Europe at a time when the continent had just suffered two horrendous wars in a span of less than 30 years. This was an admirable ambition, but was only half of the reason federalism caught on: Politicians from former or declining empires looked with despair at how Europe’s influence on the world stage was waning. Finding themselves in this helpless situation deeply wounded the pride of Europe’s political leaders. 

During and in the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. pushed the European colonial powers, at least once by threatening to withdraw Marshall Plan aid, to agree to decolonization with the stated reason being that the U.S. believed in a universal right of self-determination. The perhaps-not-unintended side effect of decolonization was that no European country would ever again command a large enough territory, population, or military to threaten the United States’ position in the Western world. While Europe allied with the U.S. during the Cold War, the resentment against the U.S. never quite went away. In my view, European federalism may most accurately be classified as a revanchist ideology: While no European country is big enough to challenge U.S. hegemony on its own, a European superstate could at least in theory restore what the federalists consider to be Europe’s “rightful place” in the global order.

Yet, despite federalists possessing a large majority in the European Parliament and European Commission, there is one item atop the federalist wish-list that has never even been close to materializing: an EU military. If the EU is to become a United States of Europe, a superpower in its own right, it needs not just soft but also hard power. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has spoken openly about her desire to one day see the EU become a military alliance, operating independently from NATO. French President Emmanuel Macron has also expressed support for the idea. Whether this would be merely an alliance, or whether it would include an army directly under Brussels’ command, is not clear.

Support has been lackluster among member states, however, on the grounds that NATO already exists. Why reinvent the wheel by forming a separate, EU-wide military alliance, when nearly all EU members are already also members of NATO? This would serve no purpose other than adding an additional layer of bureaucracy for the national militaries participating in the new alliance. Besides, the new alliance would always be weaker than NATO simply on account of the United States not being a member. 

Federalists would respond that Europe should not depend on the United States for its defense. Who knows if the Americans can really be relied upon in a moment of truth? These arguments tend to be ignored by ordinary Europeans, for whom the idea that the United States could not be trusted to defend its allies has always been nonsensical.

Re-electing Trump and abandoning Ukraine would change that. Forever. 

Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but it did receive security guarantees from the U.S. in the 1990s in exchange for giving up its nuclear arsenal, left over from the Soviet Union. While the U.S. may argue that the agreement never specified that it had to defend Ukraine if Russia, another signatory, violated the agreement, this was the common understanding in Eastern Europe. Besides, Trump has flirted with the idea of abandoning NATO altogether, so what is to say that leaving Ukraine to fend for itself won’t just be a first step?

The other reason leaving Ukraine would be a big deal is that European countries have sacrificed immensely to help Ukraine resist the Russian invasion. Like the U.S., EU members have supplied arms, intelligence,m and humanitarian aid. Unlike the U.S., the EU has also had to deal with millions of war refugees, for the second time in less than a decade. And unlike the U.S., the EU had to rapidly transition away from Russian gas. Many European countries have suffered inflation rates peaking above 20 percent because of the war, which is now personal for Europeans. They’ll not be in a forgiving mood if the U.S. ends its support.

Abandoning Ukraine would give European federalists the ultimate proof that the U.S. can no longer be counted on, and that an EU-controlled military alliance is necessary to replace NATO. The Eastern European member states that are the geographically closest to Russia and its puppet state Belarus are traditionally the fiercest critics of federalism, but they could conceivably be convinced to cave on this issue if they themselves suddenly felt vulnerable.

A push for an EU military would likely happen regardless of the outcome of the war in Ukraine. In fact, if Ukraine were to be able to cast out the Russian invaders with only the support of the EU (and the U.K.), it would be yet another argument that NATO was obsolete: Not only can the U.S. not be trusted, but we don’t even need them anymore.

It may be tempting to think that, just like NATO survived Trump’s first term, it would survive his second. After all, his second term would be his last, and by January 2029 the U.S. would be back to normal. Even if Europe formed an alliance to protect itself while Trump was in office, surely it would come back into the fold once the U.S. had a decent president again? Unfortunately, this would not be the case.

The first is that, as mentioned earlier, militarizing the EU has been a long-term goal of the European federalists that form the majority in the European Parliament. To anyone who has studied the workings of the EU, it is ridiculous to think that the federalists would let go of a military alliance once it was formed, even if its original raison d’être (Trump) was no longer around. The very business of the EU is consolidating power, not ceding it. 

The second reason is that reelecting Donald Trump would prove that his brand of politics has a staying power many thought and hoped otherwise. But even a Democratic or non-Trumpist Republican victory in 2028 would not mean a Trumpist candidate couldn’t win again another four years later. An America governed by isolationists every other four years will not be a reliable ally—not for Europe, nor for anyone else.

A NATO collapse would greatly diminish U.S. clout around the world. It would officially usher in a new era of a multipolar world, one where we would see more frequent wars between nations as the world returned to the pre-WWII state of regional great powers. Refugee flows would increase, supply chain disruptions would become commonplace, and from these disruptions price increases would follow. America’s weaker position would also make it harder for it to negotiate favorable trade agreements, leading to both higher prices and lower exports. The cost, both to U.S. taxpayers and consumers, will be far greater than the cost of helping Ukraine defend its sovereignty.  

While American progressives may think a European superpower replacing the U.S. on the world stage might actually sound like a good idea, given the EU’s more progressive bent, the EU will never be able to lead the world. A hypothetical European superstate would be but one great power among many in this new world order. The EU lacks the coherent ideological framework provided by the U.S. Constitution, and most of its member states lack the willingness to sacrifice for others’ freedom that so often throughout history has been demonstrated by the U.S. 

What hangs in the balance is not merely the fate of American conservatism, but the fate of the very post-war order that has kept both Americans and Europeans safe and prosperous.

John Gustavsson is a conservative writer from Sweden and has a doctorate in economics.