🔒 Europe on edge: The ominous spectre of a Trump comeback and its stakes for Western security

In the looming shadow of the 2024 U.S. election, Europe grapples with profound anxieties over the potential return of Donald Trump. Former diplomats express deep concern about the impact on alliances, citing Trump’s affinity for Putin, hostility to NATO, and the likely repercussions for Ukraine. This unprecedented alarm reflects fears of a Trump-led assault on democracy itself. Recalling historical parallels, Europeans emphasise the pivotal role the U.S. plays in safeguarding Western security, underscoring the urgent need for strategic self-reliance amid growing geopolitical challenges from Russia and China.

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By Max Hastings

The US always matters to Europe, but seldom more so than now. An acute fear stalks the continent: that Donald Trump might be America’s president for a second time. Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, told the New York Times that Europeans are “deeply, deeply concerned about the 2024 election and how it will impact the alliance. No matter the topic, Ukraine or NATO cohesion, it’s the only question asked.”

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Steven Everts, a former European diplomat who is now director of the EU Union Institute for Security Studies, has described the prospect of a Trump return as “slightly terrifying.” He adds: “Given the enormous role the United States plays in European security, we now have to think again about what this means for our own politics, for European defense and for Ukraine.”

There are four separate but linked strands in Europeans’ almost unprecedented level of alarm about the forthcoming election. First is Trump’s seeming enthusiasm for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The German magazine Der Spiegel has suggested, apparently not satirically, that the aspiring president admires Putin “probably even more than Kim Jong Un.” (Recall that Trump once praised a “beautiful letter” he received from the North Korean dictator.)

Next is Trump’s oft-expressed hostility to NATO, and explicitly toward the Germans. Then there is the overwhelming likelihood that his presidency would signal a drastic squeeze, if not an end, of aid for Ukraine. Finally, there is anticipation of a Trump assault on America’s political institutions — a spear driven into the heart of the world’s greatest democracy and exemplar.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1936, with the Great Depression still raging: “Here in America we are waging a great and successful war. It is not alone a war against want and destitution and economic demoralization. It is more than that; it is a war for the survival of democracy. We are fighting to save a great and precious form of government for ourselves and for the world.”

To us in Europe today, the last part of that story looks pretty much the same. However reluctant we may be, as citizens of other nations, to express provocative opinions about US domestic affairs, the stakes seem so high that we cannot hold back. It is not only Trump himself who frightens us. It is what popular support for him among Republican voters says about the mindset of a substantial portion of the American people. 

As a historian, I would identify 1940 as the last US presidential election year in which Europeans, most certainly the British, were so apprehensive about the outcome. The UK then stood alone in the face of Hitler’s legions. Roosevelt seemed the only reliable friend to whom Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s people could look for material aid.

He insisted that his great nation could not stand aside from the global struggle against fascism and its standard-bearers. “We have learned that God-fearing democracies of the world which observe the sanctity of treaties and good faith in their dealings with other nations cannot safely be indifferent to international lawlessness anywhere,” he told Congress in January 1939. “They cannot forever let pass, without effective protest, acts of aggression against sister nations — acts which automatically undermine all of us.”

Yet many of Roosevelt’s fellow countrymen remained passionately opposed to entanglement in foreign wars, just as today an increasing number seem indifferent to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Domestic extremism then also flourished in the US. For a time between the world wars, the Ku Klux Klan — whose hostility extended beyond Black Americans to include Catholics, Jews and indeed all foreigners — boasted up to four million members.

The America First isolationist lobby at its peak boasted 800,000 members, who espoused views directly comparable with those of today’s MAGA-ers. “We are strong enough in this nation and in this hemisphere to maintain our own way of life regardless of what the attitude is on the other side,” the aviation hero Charles Lindbergh told Congress. “The only success for our way of life and our system of government is to defend it here at home and not attempt to enter a war abroad.”   

Ernest Hemingway, who was an ambulance driver in World War I and a correspondent in the Spanish Civil War, wrote of “the hell broth that is brewing in Europe we have no need to drink … We were fools to be sucked in once on a European war.”

Between 1933 and 1937, Congress passed a succession of Neutrality Acts. The White House experienced difficulties in persuading Congress to permit France and Britain to even purchase arms — similar to the situation today over shipments to Ukraine.

Republican opposition to aiding Britain was led by the likes of Burton K. Wheeler, a Democratic senator from Montana. Then, as now, the thinly populated Western states were among the most hostile to foreign entanglements. Even after the assault on Pearl Harbor, Representative Jeanette Rankin, another Montanan, held out against declaring war on Japan. (She had done the same over entering World War I.)

Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican presidential candidate, was far from an extreme isolationist, but even with the war already raging in Europe he thundered: “I have given you my pledge many times over: I will work for peace.” Messages flooded into the Roosevelt White House showing that Willkie had touched a popular nerve. This forced the president to promise American voters, “your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” (History would prove that pledge insincere.)

I have always believed that, absent Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s ensuing declaration of war on the US, Roosevelt would have found it very hard, even perhaps impossible, to lead his great nation to become a full belligerent in World War II.

Nobody understood better than Churchill that Roosevelt was the best friend Britain would ever have. Sure, Roosevelt was no admirer of our Empire — he didn’t even like our prime minister personally. But he was utterly convinced that if the dictators triumphed in Europe, the US would also pay a heavy price.

Thus Britain’s leader was acutely concerned for the 1940 election outcome. All the polls predicted a Democratic victory. But polls — especially in those days — were often wrong. If the Republicans prevailed, it was plausible that the US would withdraw consent for British arms purchases. It was a vast relief to Churchill, and to Hitler’s foes worldwide, when Roosevelt triumphed in November, carrying 38 states.

Churchill telegraphed him after the result: “I did not think it right, as a foreigner, to express my opinion upon American politics while the election was on, but now I feel you will not mind my saying that I prayed for your success and that I am truly thankful for it.”

Yet the president’s political difficulties with the isolationists and anti-New Dealers did not end there. Only days before Pearl Harbor, in December 1941, the British Embassy in Washington reported to London about the setbacks the administration was suffering in Congress. For example, there was conservative labor legislation advanced by Democratic Congressman Howard Worth Smith and “rushed through by the same combination of Republicans and Southern anti-New Dealers who have opposed the administration in other recent debates.”

“The administration’s defeat over the Smith bill, coming as it did after a number of similar reverses, was a further indication of the extent to which the president’s control over the House has recently weakened,” the British diplomats warned London. “New Deal influence in the House is at present practically negligible.” Nearly a third of the House and the Senate opposed or abstained on the February 1941 Lend-Lease bill enabling aid to Britain.

A continuous thread in the lives of many of us on our side of the Atlantic has been a fundamental respect for the US, and a consciousness of our absolute dependence on it as the principal bulwark of Western security. In 1985, I wrote a book about the 1950-53 Korean war, for which I interviewed Sir Oliver Franks, who was British ambassador in Washington when North Korea invaded South Korea. Franks expounded to me his admiration for the group of Americans then at the summit of the nation’s affairs.

First was, of course, President Harry Truman “a man of wider outlook than you might think; he had read a lot of history, especially of Europe and the American Civil War”; Secretary of State Dean Acheson, a close friend of Franks’s, was “a natural First Class in any university”; General George Marshall, Truman’s secretary of defense, was “a cool definite mind which looked for solutions to problems rather than simply worrying about them”; General Omar Bradley, chief of the Army, was “very, very high class.”

Behind those men were Robert Lovett, George Kennan, Chip Bohlen, Dean Rusk and other giants of US foreign policy. Franks concluded our conversation by saying of 1950: “It was one of those moments when people — the presence of that extraordinary group in the administration — made a decisive difference to history.”

One of the great achievements of that generation of US diplomats and politicians was to convince enough Americans that their country had an overwhelming self-interest in the fate of Europe, and indeed the rest of the world. This belief endured beyond the end of the Cold War. And it literally paid off: Most economists agree that America’s global role since 1945 has contributed much to the nation’s enrichment, despite its imposition of huge defense costs.

The Wise Men, as Acheson’s generation of US foreign policy leaders have been dubbed, no longer seem to exist. If they do, they certainly do not command the sort of authority such people enjoyed in the mid-20th century. Americans’ willingness to trust elites, to believe that those in charge know better than other folks, has drastically ebbed.

Though the Ku Klux Klan long ago atrophied, other white supremacist groups flourish in today’s America, much to the dismay of its European friends. A new book by Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware of the Council on Foreign Relations, Gods, Guns and Sedition, highlights the rise of armed white terrorist groups, their spread fed by “the creation of a digital universe where only one’s own worldview is legitimate, with any debate or discourse suppressed, excluded and thus silenced … the lowered barriers to terrorism also have tactical implications.”

Germany’s Der Spiegel has published a piece about Trump’s possible reelection under the heading “Horror scenario.” In it, Agnieszka Brugger, deputy head of the Green Party in the German parliament, argues that Europeans need to be “more self-reliant, less vulnerable.” This has been plain to some of us since the end of the Cold War. But today the urgency has become acute, given that without America’s dominant military aid, Ukraine would be toast, despite the vast economic aid EU members have pledged.

The Europeans — and especially the Germans — need forthwith to fulfill promised but stalled deliveries of military aid to Ukraine; to accelerate production of munitions; and to recognize a historic necessity to bear a greater share of the cost of defense of the continent. Yet this week I had a conversation with an authoritatively informed German politician, who said that he is near despair about the slender prospect that his nation will embrace any of these objectives. 

Political will to address Germany’s — and all Europe’s — huge security shortcomings is, if anything, shrinking. Yet if Trump becomes US president, Germany will become the critical NATO European power, with responsibility for filling the chasm a Republican administration threatens to create in the continent’s defense. 

Britain talks big about its support for Ukraine, but is fresh out of munitions to send.  We need a major rearmament program both to strengthen our own armed forces and to sustain Ukraine, but there is absolutely no sign that the current Conservative government, or its likely Labour successor, have the political or financial will to step up to this. 

On our eastern side of the Atlantic, we shall be watching the 2024 presidential race with acute apprehension. American leadership is indispensable to the West’s struggle for the cause of the freedom. We fear, as never before in modern times, that another Trump presidency would pose a direct and terrifying threat to the three pillars of our peace, security and prosperity: liberty, stability and international order.

Russia and China are striving mightily to divide us. On present course, they are failing. But Donald Trump could be decisive in enabling them to achieve their aim — for us to become the losers of Cold War II.

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