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The unintended benefits of preparing for a Trump presidency

The extent to which the prospect of a second Trump presidency weighed on recent conversations in Europe during a recent visit by this author is no surprise. Despite much to discuss about Ukraine and Russia, other threats to Euro-Atlantic security, and domestic politics within specific European countries, conversations turned, inevitably, to the course of America’s 2024 elections. It was as if there was a pre- and post-November mentality – events prior to the presidential election were far clearer and more certain (and optimistic) than those which might follow Donald Trump’s re-election. 

Prognosticating about the electoral fortunes of Trump or Joe Biden, the current president, in the year ahead is a risky endeavour; one may have as much success with scapulimancy as in reading the latest polls. There are simply too many variables, not least the diversity of the American voter. Yet, it was clear that officials in London, Paris, and Brussels were concerned about Trump returning to office, particularly given the numerous ongoing geopolitical issues which the former president’s return may impact. Preparations, or at least the consideration thereof, are clearly underway. But there is certainly a great deal more to be done given the outsized impact Trump’s presidency may have. European preparations for a return of Trump should, additionally and perhaps ironically, be beneficial even if Biden succeeds in retaining the Oval Office.

The policies which will define Trump’s second tenure are unclear currently. His campaign rhetoric and statements are more performance than substance. However, the unpredictability of his first term often masked two parallel policy drivers – the transactional and personal nature of his approach to governance – which are unlikely to change. 

A second Trump administration will also likely be far more effective at pulling the levers of power. In many ways, he was the unexpected victor in 2016 and was ill-prepared for governing. This allowed, initially, an ecosystem of experts to emerge which attempted to guide him towards sensible policy aims (e.g., General Jim Mattis, Trump’s first Secretary of Defense), or constrain his baser instincts (e.g., Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, his National Security Adviser). However, by the end of his administration, these figures had been replaced by loyalists. Trump 2.0 will not have this issue, as former officials are working to generate a cadre of political appointees which are prepared to execute his policies upon entering government, making his administration potentially more effective. 

The anticipated return of Trumpian unpredictability, combined with the potential improved efficiency of Trump 2.0, means allies and partners should be preparing for his re-election now. For European powers, this means paying greater attention to, and allocating greater resources for, domestic and continental defence. If America’s commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and European security is in doubt, as preliminary reports from the Trump camp have suggested, then continental powers will need to increase their spending and preparation now to both support Ukraine and deter Russia. Deepening ties with Congress will also be vital, if only to serve as a conduit to bolster America’s legislative resistance to any attempts by the White House to unilaterally alter the Euro-Atlantic security architecture. 

Yet, regardless of the election’s outcome, this renewed attention, if sustained, should yield benefits for continental Europe. Europe has been strong in its military and financial support for Kyiv, a fact often omitted in the policy conversation in Washington. While it may not be in a position to assume total responsibility for aid to Ukraine – the European Union (EU) warned as much in light of recent chaos in the American Congress – Europe is in a better political position than the United States (US) to continue supporting Kyiv, particularly in Britain, Europe’s foremost supporter.

Europe has also seen an uptick in defence spending since February 2022 which has not been replicated in the US. A decline or halt in American support under Trump would increase pressure on those European’s supporting Ukraine, and likely erode some of the political resolve within them (which Moscow would almost certainly exploit), but this would not result in an immediate collapse of support. Furthermore, if Biden is re-elected, increased European support for Ukraine now, and the public awareness of such, would only make American support more palatable politically by offsetting claims that Washington is shouldering the ‘biggest brunt’ of European security. 

In many ways, these trends and possible scenarios are net-benefits for European security. If Trump is re-elected, European defence and security will already be on an upward spending trend – though subject to domestic economic pressures. Europe will be in a better position to assume responsibility for elements of its own security and offset predictable claims that Europe is free-riding. 

If Biden is re-elected, a stronger and better integrated Europe should be in a more optimal position to deter Russia. Here too, though the calls would be quieter, Europe will still be able to tamp down American claims that ‘Europe is not doing enough’. For Washington, a stronger and more autonomous Europe will mean America can shift greater attention toward the Indo-Pacific, which is almost certainly to be a policy priority in a second Biden term. 

At a strategic level, a better integrated, stronger, and more agile Europe will be more autonomous from America. This will give it greater flexibility to respond to continental pressures and demands, which is a net-benefit for Washington regardless of who occupies the Oval Office. 

Preparation is never an easy or smooth process, and it is certainly not a linear one. Waning American resolve for supporting Ukraine under Trump would exacerbate existing fissures in the debate and likely undermine European unity on defence integration efforts. Indeed, the political implications of Trump’s re-election would be as potentially damaging as the practical impacts in the eyes of America’s European partners. Yet, preparing for a worst-case scenario may herald benefits, in this case particularly if that outcome does not come to pass.

Joshua Huminski is the Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

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