And if it is Trump again?: How Europe can survive the elections in the USA

During a visit to Kiev, US Senator Lindsey Graham is said to have told President Zelenskyy that aid to Ukraine is “the best money we’ve ever spent,” the best investment the United States has ever made. But that’s not a majority opinion in the Republican Party. Donald Trump, who currently leads the Republican nomination by a wide margin, would almost certainly end support for Ukraine. “One cannot overestimate how much Trump detests Ukraine,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a US foreign policy expert. Shapiro advises the Europeans to make themselves less dependent on the United States, “they will need that in the coming years, especially when dealing with Russia.” The turn of the USA to Europe under President Biden was “just the leap of a dead cat”.

Jeremy Shapiro is Research Director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, he was Special Counsel for Europe at the US State Department.

(Photo: The Republican primaries in the USA will begin in just over six months. Is it already becoming apparent where the key foreign policy differences are between the potential Republican candidates on the one hand and President Biden on the other?

Jeremy Shapiro: The basic similarity is that both sides are trying to use foreign policy to appeal to the white working class. They draw closer to each other on issues such as trade, immigration and support for the local economy. But there are still very big differences on other issues, such as how to deal with allies and in particular in relation to Russia and the war in Ukraine.

Let’s talk about the matches first. In Europe, it is sometimes overlooked that Biden is pursuing a very similar China policy to Trump’s. There hasn’t been much change, has there?

Not quite – there are important differences here from my point of view. However, I would agree that the differences lie more in the instruments than in the political goals. Both Republicans and Democrats see China as the greatest threat to the US on the international stage. They are both determined to counter China with geoeconomic tools, such as strategic export controls.

But the Biden administration has shifted away from tariffs and trade wars and is more focused on technological restraints and not making the US economy overly dependent on China — what they call “de-risking.” I would say that the policies of the Biden administration are far more sophisticated and effective strategically than those of the Trump administration. But it is true that they are moving in the same direction. With perhaps one exception, which might become even clearer in a second Trump term: Trump and Biden may have a similar approach to the geoeconomic dispute with China, but they could have a different view of the geostrategic dispute.

You have to explain that.

Trump isn’t really interested in China wanting to dominate the western Pacific. He is concerned with concluding better trade agreements with China. It’s entirely possible he sees Taiwan as just a bargaining chip to improve trade terms with China — he’s often hinted at that, though it wasn’t part of his policy during his first term in office. Biden, on the other hand, sees the fight with China more as a classic geopolitical confrontation and is determined to counter China in the western Pacific militarily, not just economically, even if that plays the main role.

Since the presidency of Barack Obama, hasn’t the USA been more reticent about military interventions?

I would disagree: Barack Obama did not hold back from military interventions, even though he said so during the election campaign. In the US public there is a mood against military intervention. Nevertheless, the political leadership always manages to organize support for it, at least for a few years. This applies to both parties and has been so for a very long time. With the exception of Afghanistan, every military intervention by the United States over the past thirty years did not initially have broad support – approval was always given later, once the president had convinced the public. In fact, Trump was the only post-Cold War US president who didn’t start a war – with the exception of Biden, whose term is not over yet. Incidentally, George W. Bush also started with the promise not to start any wars.

And Obama?

Obama started the war in Libya, he started the war against the Islamic State and, contrary to what was announced, he did not end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I don’t want to condemn him for that, maybe I would have done the same in his place. The American public, while opposed to war, wants the President to show his strength on the world stage. Democratic presidents in particular often find themselves under pressure to show military strength.

Trump said a year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began that “Putin would never have gone into Ukraine if I had been President,” repeating what he has said before, that he “has a very good relationship with Putin ” have had. Is there a fear that the US will drop its support if Trump becomes president again?

Probably. But “discontinued support” probably doesn’t describe it quite right. I think they would erode. Trump can’t stand Ukraine, he doesn’t think Ukraine is the right side in this war. Ultimately, he would destroy the US-Ukraine alliance, that is his goal. As President, he would have the power to do that. But in Washington and in the leadership of his own party, he is in the minority. The public may not care, but Republican elites care, and neither do Democratic elites. So he’s dealing with a fairly strong consensus among party leaders. It wouldn’t be easy for him to reverse this policy overnight, but I think he could do it. It’s impossible to overestimate how much Trump detests Ukraine. He really feels that this is a country that has turned against him, that has collaborated with his opponent, that has interfered in the US election.

Ukraine interfered in the US election?

Trump claims so, yes.

In which way? Because of that phone call with Zelenskyy in 2019, in which he asked a “favor” from the Ukrainian President and which was later a key reason for the impeachment proceedings against him?

No, Trump’s claims refer to something else. One, the more bizarre, relates to an alleged manipulation of the voting machines, but that is completely unfounded. The second concerns Ukraine’s alleged refusal to disclose the activities of Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son.

What about other possible Republican presidential nominees, Ron DeSantis for example? How does he see the support of Ukraine?

That’s a little harder to decipher. He has said publicly that the US has its own problems and that Russia and Ukraine are not among them. In his opinion, that’s why we shouldn’t be supplying so many arms and ammunition to Ukraine. In the case of DeSantis, however, it’s much more difficult to determine whether he really means it or is just saying it because he thinks that’s what Republican voters want to hear in the primary. When I talk to Republican foreign policy experts, they hope and believe that in the end he will do what they think is right – they all believe that, even if they have very different positions. There’s obviously a suspicion that he doesn’t mean what he’s saying. I don’t know what DeSantis would do as president, but in general I would say that presidents generally keep their campaign promises. So we should take the things he says during the campaign seriously.

You have one with two colleagues Article written about what the presidential elections could mean for Europe. The final section is entitled “How Europeans Can Survive the US Election”. How does that work?

Of course, Europeans can survive the election. But the first thing Europeans need to realize is that they need to prepare. The Biden administration has nurtured transatlantic ties to a degree that has surprised even Europeans. But that was only a result of the Russian war against Ukraine. Europeans need to understand that this is just a dead cat’s leap.

As the saying goes: Even a dead cat will jump if you let it fall far enough.

Europeans must become better and more independent in foreign policy. They will need that in the coming years, especially when dealing with Russia, because the US will firstly be more concerned with itself and secondly concentrate more on the Asia-Pacific region. Under a Democratic president, this evolution will happen slowly and responsibly, likely quickly and irresponsibly under Donald Trump, and somewhere in between under another Republican president. So, no matter what the outcome of this election, Europeans must prepare themselves: they must think about how to organize greater unity among themselves, how to solve the problems they expect America to help with, and how to develop policies which primarily serves its own interests. It’s not about completely decoupling from the United States, on the contrary: In my view, that’s the only way to maintain relations with the United States. The US will only be interested in and work well with a European partner who is capable of contributing to the relationship and is not just a vassal.

The development of an independent foreign policy would be a medium to long-term project, but aid to Ukraine may have to be organized without the US in the near future. Is it even possible for Europe to do this without the US?

It’s definitely possible. It would be difficult and would require a transition period. But why shouldn’t it be possible for a very rich continent with strong military capabilities to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia? Russia is much less rich and much weaker than Europe. Remember what happened last winter. In Europe, it was considered impossible to get away from Russian gas. But then it turned out that Europe could do it in six months. It cost a lot of money and it wasn’t easy, and Europe wouldn’t have done it voluntarily. But when a rich, capable continent like Europe decides something is needed, then a lot more is possible than we think.

Hubertus Volmer spoke to Jeremy Shapiro

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