If Donald Trump returns to power in 2025, he will find a world radically different from the one he tried to build when he was president. All hopes of normalizing relations with Russia have been dashed by the massacre in Ukraine. China is more powerful than ever. Iran is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. And Kim Jong Un still behaves like Kim Jong Un.
But, in a narrow but important sense, the world has become After Trumpian since leaving office. After NATO met in Madrid last week to agree on a new defense strategy for the West, the great irony is that it began to look like the type of organization that Trump and his Party wing Republican have always wanted.
European members of NATO pay more for their own defense, the alliance is more East European in outlook and positioning, and, for the first time, it focuses explicitly on America’s great power rivalry with China. Trump is not primarily responsible for these changes – for that he can thank Vladimir Putin – but they nevertheless signal an important moment for the West, as Europe aligns itself more closely with US domestic political concerns. Europe’s change of course is part of an attempt to protect the status quo that has existed since the creation of NATO, but which is now threatened both by Russian aggression and by the growing attention of the United States on its great rival power in the 21st century: China.
Just as NATO is becoming more and more American in its outlook, the grand strategies of the countries Trump so obviously distrusted – Germany and France in particular – have never been so out of place. Germany was forced to abandon its longstanding reluctance to increase defense spending as well as its Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project with Russia. France, which has long wanted a greater role for the European Union rather than for NATO, is now faced with a continent that wants After NATO, no less, which, as France has well understood, means support for American primacy.
A similar reprioritization is underway in the G7, another international organization that Trump seemed to hate, and which also met last week, transformed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine into a body that serves more obviously American interests.
Notably, President Joe Biden consciously rejected President Barack Obama’s focus on the broader G20 group of advanced economies, which included developing democracies such as India and Indonesia, but also Russia and China. In one of Obama’s first forays onto the world stage, he declared that the G20 would now be the most important international format, better representing the 21st century than the kind of world where “there is only Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a Brandy.” His vice-president has decided to step back and return the G7 to its former role, an organization much more like a group of wealthy Western powers deciding how to get to their purposes.
If Trump returns to power, then he should have far less to complain about than he did during his tenure, when Europe was clearly failing to share the burden of its own defense with the United States. while concluding independent trade and energy agreements with both China and Russia. Then, it was legitimate for Trump to wonder if Europe was taking a turn at the United States. This grievance seems much less real today, even as Europe doubles its dependence on the United States.
With bipartisan support in Congress for US military support for Ukraine and its economic sanctions against Russia, many have taken comfort in the knowledge that NATO – and its support – is growing stronger than ever. And yet with Trump, there is always an “and yet”.
The first is that there remains an obvious, growing and valid American grievance against Europe that Trump will almost certainly take up if he returns to the White House. Led by France, Europe is erecting barriers to protect its defense industry: new rules mean that the moment a European defense company accepts a single euro from the EU, partnering with non-EU companies becomes almost impossible due to strict restrictions on intellectual property, a sort of poison pill.
This kind of protectionism was already noticed by Trump towards the end of his first term, according to a senior NATO official I spoke with, but it has since evolved in several stages. The idea behind these regulations is to strengthen Europe’s military industrial capacity so that it can better defend itself, a form of burden sharing. And in some senses, that would be good for the West collectively. However, such a decision only accentuates the bigger problem: why should the United States pay for the defense of Europe if Europe is erecting obstacles to American defense companies? If the West is worth defending collectively, then how can it continue to erect walls between its members? As one European government official told me, “Putting fences around the West is good. Putting them in the West is not.
The second “and yet” is both less profound and potentially more important: Trump himself. It is naive to think that his problems with Europe will ever be solved, that once Europe responds to his criticisms, all will be well. Trump’s problems with Europe are instinctual rather than specific. Where he has political differences, they are surely mere expressions of his “American first” mentality and a deeper philosophical rejection of his nation’s Western allies. Deep down, Trump doesn’t really believe in the US-led Western order, convinced that it imposes too many burdens on the US that America doesn’t need or benefit from. Essentially, he thinks the United States, as the strongest nation on Earth, would be better off competing directly with everyone else, not subsidizing their supposed allies, who then compete with America for business.
As Fiona Hill, Trump’s former Russian adviser, told me, what he really wants is for Europe to open up completely to American industry – and for America not to open up not to Europe in return. When Trump looks at NATO and the G7, he sees a protection racket, not an American order in which power implies responsibility.
Privately, as the NATO official I spoke with admitted, Europeans are already in a depressed state of panic over a possible second term for Trump, which many of them now consider as inevitable. If his first term and the direction of policy since leaving office bear witness to this, there is no need for melodramatically worrying in Europe. During his tenure, NATO did not collapse and the American presence in Europe even increased. His cajoling, threats and insults, however crude and undiplomatic, created a sense of urgency among European leaders that forced them to address his concerns. Strategically, however, Europe has not changed course. Germany and France continued to press for separate relations with Russia and China, and greater European autonomy from America. What really changed things was not Trump, but Putin’s megalomania.
And on this point, it is important to recognize that Trump was not an oracle. In 2018, as he closed the NATO summit in Brussels, he declared himself happy, but fired a warning shot aimed at Germany over its gas pipeline with Russia. “Honestly,” he said, “maybe everyone is going to have good relations with Russia, so there will be a lot less problems with the pipeline.”
Trump may not be a brandy-drinking statesman like Churchill and Roosevelt, but does anyone seriously think that just because much of the Western world has become more to his liking, does he no longer aspire to sit like those great figures in a room with Putin and Xi Jinping, deciding things alone, away from America’s pesky allies? For Trump, Europe may become less annoying, but the West is not the world he wants to rule.