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Is enough being done to prepare for Trump’s return?

Recent polls indicate that not only is Donald Trump the favourite to win the Republican Party primary, he is also in a statistical dead-heat with incumbent, and Democratic Party candidate, Joe Biden for the presidency itself. The prospect of Trump returning to the White House has thus created much dread. Many observers agree that his second stint as president would be much more dangerous than his first.

The alarm is already blaring loudly. The Economist predicts that his ‘second term would be a protectionist nightmare.’ One academic columnist wrote for The Hill that ‘the climate cannot survive another Trump term.’ Michael Steele, Former Republican National Committee chairman, describes Trump as a ‘clear and present danger.’ Multiple news outlets have also published essays highlighting how a vengeful Trump would transform the American political system into an authoritarian one bent on punishing his political enemies, real and imagined. Politico has warned that a second Trump term represents a ‘nightmare scenario’ for Europe, not least because it would pose an existential threat to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and would fatally undermine Ukraine’s ability to withstand the onslaught of Russian aggression.

All systems appear to be red. Yet what is being done amid such a palpable sense of the apocalypse to come? Not much, if anything, suggesting that there are not many who really care about the ramifications of Trump potentially winning again. 

The lack of urgency seems most apparent with respect to the military support Ukraine has received from NATO members. Specifically, NATO members, including the United States (US), should be much more proactive and more forward-leaning in the provision of military assistance to Ukraine now, as Trump could very well discontinue support for Ukraine upon coming back to office.

To its credit, as of September 2023, the Biden administration has given about US$75 billion (£60.4 billion) in military, economic, and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, with US$23.5 billion (£18.9 billion) worth of weapons and military equipment also provided from Defense Department stocks. Yet, at critical moments, the Biden administration has proven itself to be too timid, giving enough to Ukraine to hang on but not enough to achieve strategic victory.

Even when the United Kingdom (UK) gave a portion of its arsenal of Storm Shadow missiles in May 2023, which usefully endowed Ukraine the ability to strike Russian ammunition depots far from the front-lines prior to its counteroffensive, the US refrained from following suit with the provision of a similar system, the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). One argument against their provision was that giving Ukraine these munitions would cross a ‘Russian red-line’ and so up the risk of nuclear confrontation. The obvious rebuttal is that other weapons deliveries – not least the British provision of Storm Shadow missiles – have crossed other alleged ‘red-lines’ without much added risk of a nuclear exchange.

Little future proofing of NATO seems to be taking place.

When Ukraine finally received ATACMS in October, it only received very small numbers of them, and the much-hyped Ukrainian counteroffensive was already in its fifth month and had begun to run out of steam. Although Ukraine did push the Black Sea Fleet out of the Crimean peninsula and has repelled multiple Russian offensives in the Donbas, its counteroffensive has not succeeded in liberating much of the territory which Russia has been militarily occupying since at least 2022. The ATACMS strike in mid-October which did destroy at least nine Russia rotary-wing aircraft should have taken place months prior, especially as those helicopters caused many difficulties for Ukrainian armor attempting to move on Russian lines earlier in the counteroffensive.

The specific case of ATACMS is but one instance of NATO members dragging their heels. Ukraine has had to suffer multiple delays in getting promised packages of military assistance. Dithering over whether to provide F-16s has meant that Ukraine has to go about difficult ground operations without sufficient air cover and interdiction. Some countries, like Canada, have even eschewed expanding ammunition production which would help Ukraine in its intense artillery war against Russia. Such slowness has characterised the response from certain free and open countries. It is even more alarming given how Trump promises to cut military aid to Ukraine and to seek a peace deal at its expense if he comes back to office on 20th January 2025.

Furthermore, little future proofing of NATO seems to be taking place. Although it has pledged to bolster the enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup it leads in Latvia, Canada is looking to cut a billion Canadian dollars from its defence spending. Such cuts will only further undermine its already compromised force structure and operational readiness. Many observers, in Canada and the UK, argue that non-US members of NATO should tighten their bonds, but few of such efforts appear to be happening. Reports indicate that German leaders will increase military aid to Ukraine, but they face major budgetary shortfalls in defence and various procurement difficulties. More European leaders speak of European strategic enablers but European defence cooperation remains highly fragmented despite the geopolitical turmoil seen in the last decade.

During a second Trump presidency, a potential military confrontation could break out over Taiwan. How the US might react to a Chinese blockade – or worse, the use of armed force against the island by the People’s Republic of China – is already difficult to predict. An erratic or volatile Trump would be another complicating factor. Unfortunately, American allies and partners in both Europe and the Indo-Pacific seem to be settling on taking a reactive approach to the problem, to the extent which they consider the problem at all

Given such apparent insouciance, one can be forgiven for thinking that the doom and gloom associated with a second Trump presidency is much overstated. After all, if the threat is so obvious and serious, then should leaders not be being much more proactive in order to mitigate it? Perhaps they do care, but their preoccupation with the short-term inhibits them from taking action. Regardless, time is being wasted, and much effort spared if the nightmare that many suggest could befall the US and its allies and partners does come alive.

Dr Alexander Lanoszka is the Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy and Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Waterloo. His most recent book is Military Alliances in the Twenty-First Century.

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