A Trump Foreign Policy: Time to Get Real?

Among the many provocative statements by Donald Trump, it’s no surprise that his recent remarks about NATO – encouraging aggressors “to do whatever the hell they want” to Allies who don’t pay their way – has led to a particularly strong and alarmed reaction. Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron described it, almost diplomatically, as “not a sensible approach”. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer clearly directed his comment at Trump without mentioning him by name: “We must rebuild, renew, and resource, not divide and threaten. Bad faith politics risks our security”. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg took a similar line: “Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the US, and puts American and European soldiers at increased risk.”

While this all looks very grown-up, is it wise? And does it understand the reality underlying Trump’s intemperate remarks?

Arguably not on either count. First, there’s no doubt (just look at the numbers), when it comes to defence, Europe needs the US more than the US needs Europe. These remarks, while entirely in tune with European thinking (and a certain part of US thinking too), are likely to convince those at whom they are directed that they were right in the first place to dismiss the Europeans as underperforming – and ungrateful. Hardly good diplomacy, however politely it’s delivered.

More importantly, it would be a mistake to interpret Trump’s words on European defence as reflecting the maverick politics of an isolated extreme. If we interpret Trump’s words as we probably should – seriously, but not literally – they reflect a very widely held view in the US, going well beyond MAGA Republicans. Just as Trump’s hard line on China has to a significant extent morphed into a bipartisan consensus, exasperation with Europe’s lack of commitment to NATO (excluding the UK and France) goes back decades and has been expressed in recent years, admittedly in more diplomatic language, by both Presidents Obama and Biden. The world is changing, the US has pivoted to Asia and generationally Europe has increasingly to earn its place in American attention.

To understand the substantial arguments behind the aggressive rhetoric, we can now look at a scholarly and engaging new book The Last Best Hope: A History of American Realism (2024) by the geopolitical analyst John Hulsman. Full of examples of turning points in US history, he argues for what he describes as an “ethical realism”, an approach to foreign policy based on the use of intervention only when absolutely necessary and in support of tangible US interests rather than vague concepts of “values” or the “international order”. He argues that this is ethical because intervention is only justified against the most obvious of threats, such as that posed by Hitler. In most other cases, the US will do more good through example as a prosperous and successful democratic republic than by aggressive intervention in what Donald Trump describes as “stupid wars”. In this respect, Hulsman’s ethical realism is in contrast both to the philosophy of the neocons under President George W Bush and the Wilsonian liberal interventionism which has defined the foreign policy of post-Cold War Europe. If nothing else, this book is worth reading as the product of a man who could end up in a senior position in a future Republican Administration. But there’s another reason to read it: Europeans need to know that serious thought is going into a radical post-Cold War reorientation of US foreign policy, which is harder to dismiss and more enduring than Trump’s explosive language.

Hulsman clearly sets out a realist US agenda. First, the US’ top geopolitical priority is China and therefore the Asia-Pacific. Secondly, European security is now primarily the business of the Europeans: the US cannot be more concerned about European security than the Europeans are themselves. He does not propose the US withdraw from NATO, but continued US support must be in US interests and not merely to fill gaps left by European negligence. Hulsman also questions the breathless talk of a Russian attack on Europe: if Putin can’t even control all of Eastern Ukraine, still less Kyiv, can he really march on Europe?

Although Hulsman’s approach is not US policy, and may not become so, many of the trends behind it are already a reality: a new and more dangerous geopolitical climate; the recognition that China is the main threat to the US; and a declining willingness to bail out what is seen as a “decadent” Europe especially when the US faces major domestic as well as foreign policy challenges of its own.   

What does this mean for the UK, particularly (as now seems probable) under a new Labour Government by the end of the year?

There’s increasing consensus that the UK as well as other European allies will have to contribute more effective defence capabilities to the Alliance. The UK hits the 2% target, but only just – and the gaps in UK capability are increasingly glaring. There’s plenty of enthusiastic commentary in favour of more defence spending, but the challenge only starts there. It’s unlikely that any political party will indicate before an election where significant extra resources for defence will be found. Equally, it isn’t just about money: radical reform is needed if more good money is not to follow bad into skewed priorities and failed procurements. The good PR from raising spending won’t last if it doesn’t translate into real improvements.

Following on from that recognition, it’s essential to understand that the increased emphasis on defence is a response to significant threats. Resources will remain limited and need to be focused on these threats, not on an outdated approach that any development around the world that doesn’t reflect our “values” is fair game for intervention. Since the end of the Cold War, buoyed up by the support of the US in a unipolar world, the foreign policy industry has become adept at arguing that “everything is connected” and that “something must be done” about almost any problem in the world. We’re no longer in a unipolar world and have instead to prioritise.   

At the same time, while accepting our limitations, we should recognise that the UK still has a major political role as one of the two fully capable European NATO Allies. We should, primarily by example rather than exhortation, encourage others to increase their performance. Working with like-minded Allies, such as the Netherlands and Poland, we should focus on strengthening NATO rather than building a separate European defence identity which would duplicate resources and waste political effort on EU structures at the expense of increasing readiness as quickly as possible. To be blunt, we need more troops and more ammunition, in short more technology not more EU “comitology”. If we want to retain the support of an increasingly sceptical (Republican or Democrat) Washington, the sight of Europeans focusing on structures, top jobs and carve-outs for neutrals is not the way to go about it. Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy has called for an EU-UK security agreement. There’s plenty that the UK and EU should be able to agree on, and working with the EU’s only serious military power, France, must be a key part of that. But we shouldn’t squander the bigger prize just to be seen in Brussels (or at home) as “pro-European”.  Defence is too important to trade for a bit of regulatory relief.

Last but not least, despite the pressures in Europe, the UK must continue its commitment to AUKUS – as Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey has already done. Not only is AUKUS very much in the UK’s strategic and commercial interest, demonstrating that the UK still matters globally, it is a strong sign of UK commitment to the preeminent US strategic priority and an excellent opportunity to work closely with Australia. Supporting the US on AUKUS strengthens the UK’s ability to work – even post-Brexit – as an important transatlantic bridge, supporting a US priority in exchange for leveraging ongoing US support for Europe.

Donald Trump may be infuriating – or worse. But, with him or without, the world is changing and it would be a grave error to miss the vital signals amid the noise of a slanging match which both sides, sadly, sometimes seem rather to enjoy. Some sober realism is called for.  

David Landsman

David Landman is a Senior Advisor at BFPG.