Written by Jim Welsink
This article looks ahead to the possible re-election of Donald Trump as President of the United States (US). While it is still uncertain whether he will be re-elected and what his second term will look like policy-wise, the EU needs to consider his return. Therefore, this article outlines what a second Trump term could look like, focusing on his foreign policy prospects. Additionally, this paper explores the consequences for the EU of these potential policy prospects. The potential shift towards a more isolationist US under Trump is highlighted, potentially leaving the EU more on its own on the geopolitical world stage.
As the United States gears up for a presidential election year, the prospect of a 2020 rematch between former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden is likely. Moreover, recent polls suggest a growing likelihood of a Trump return to the Oval Office. This could impact domestic and international politics as Trump aims to continue (and expand) his first term’s ‘America First’ policy. This scenario could reshape international politics, presenting the EU with challenges in navigating its transatlantic relations as there are major concerns about the US commitment to global alliances and institutions (Kaminski, 2022).
This article focuses on this relationship between the EU and the US, with the prospect of a potential second Trump presidency and the possibility of an end to strong transatlantic ties. First, a possible second Trump term will be examined, considering the indications that suggest an even more radical period focused on isolationism and disintegration from the rest of the world. Subsequently, the focus shifts towards the EU and the potential challenges (and opportunities) coming from an even more assertive Trump. Finally, some suggestions of a possible EU response to a Trump term are stated.
Defining Trump 2.0
A potential Trump re-election could result in a term (2025-2029) characterised by increased extremism and even more chaos than his first term (Drezner, 2023). A renewed term is anticipated to be a revenge term, as is evident in his new slogan, “I am your retribution.” which sets a more confrontational tone, as opposed to his 2016 slogan, “I am your voice.”
Domestically, he intends to open the offence on his enemies and initiate war on any individuals or institutions threatening his plans (Smith, 2023). Once in office, Trump will likely introduce the return of the “Schedule F” plan, which refers to an executive order signed by Trump in October 2020 (Swan, 2022). This plan expresses his desire to ‘dismantle the deep state’ by reshaping the federal government: Central to this plan is to remove career civil servants deemed disloyal and replace them with ideological loyalists who align with the Trump agenda, creating a conservative establishment. Potentially, this could lead to the sacking of thousands of career government officials (civil servants) without providing any resources for appeal.
His inner circle of policy and political advisors would likely only consist of hard-line Trump supporters, as he no longer accepts conflicting influences. Advisors from his first term who, to varying extents, supported the Trump agenda while also recognizing the importance of adhering to the law and Constitution have either distanced themselves from Trump or have become pariahs (Karl, 2023). His new team would likely only consist of personal loyalists and those supporting his “stop the steel” agenda, with the January 6th capitol attacks as a focal point. Overall, if Trump returns in 2025, there will be fewer people around to stop radical plans that might undermine the law or the Constitution. As Drezner (2023) puts it, “There will no longer be any adults in the room.”
Foreseeing Trump’s foreign policy
Like his domestic strategy, his foreign team would only consist of hard-line Trump loyalists, potentially lacking individuals with a significant record in either diplomacy or the military (Drezner, 2023). A lack of coherence in Trump’s foreign policy plans makes it hard for Europe to foresee what it would face should Trump be re-elected (Ruge & Shapiro, 2023). Therefore, Trump’s foreign policy may be shaped by those surrounding him – individuals who either share his aversion to American security alliances and Western international institutions or have limited knowledge about them and do not care (Applebaum, 2023).
One thing is almost certain: Trump will persist with his first-term isolationist ‘America First’ policy, further distancing the US from its allies. Additionally, he will continue asserting that the US has too many security commitments abroad and has been taken advantage of by its allies (Ruge & Shapiro, 2023). Regarding NATO, he is likely to persist in emphasising his message of ‘Burden sharing’ or may even escalate to “Burden shifting” or potentially abandoning NATO altogether. While institutionally and even politically, abandoning NATO would be very difficult, the most critical source is America’s commitment to NATO (and Article 5). Deterrence comes from the conviction that the US believes in collective defence and that the White House is committed to acting if collective security is threatened (Applebaum, 2o23). So, only the intention of backing down from NATO would leave the institution de facto ‘brain dead’.
Trump also would likely stop supporting Ukraine, leaving the EU and its partners responsible for the country defending itself against Russia. However, it would take much work for the EU to replace the US support for Ukraine, especially in the case of Trump also abandoning NATO, which may force European countries to keep their military resources at home and become more protective.
More generally, Trump’s return would probably end liberal institutionalism, leaving its allies uncertain. For Europe, this would mean that they will no longer be a central feature of America’s foreign and security policy and are more or less on their own (Belin et al., 2023). In this multi-polar world order, countries such as China and Russia will highly anticipate a Trump return, leaving global dynamics open for even more anti-western sentiment.
EU’s position in an unpredictable future
Trump’s first term marked an unprecedented low point in the transatlantic relationship as it was characterised by an attitude of openly criticising the ideas, policies, and institutions that formed the core of US postwar foreign policy (Riddervold & Newsome, 2022). For the EU, the Biden administration that followed ensured more or less a return to ‘normality’ after four chaotic years with Trump (Drezner, 2023). However, looking forward to a possible Trump return, the stakes are undeniably higher now than four years ago. Therefore, the EU and its allies must anticipate and prepare for a potential Trump return in 2025 and take his foreign policy prospects seriously.
First, the debate of European strategic autonomy has become a buzzword over the last few years, as the EU realised it cannot rely on global markets to determine its allies and partners (Torreblanca, 2023). While this mainly applies to countries such as China and Russia, the US is essential to European strategic autonomy, especially when the US becomes more isolationistic under Trump. However, while the EU needs to become considerably more independent from the US regarding defence, full autonomy appears elusive in the medium term (Tenzer, 2023). While a second Trump term could enhance the speed and intent of European strategic autonomy, there may need to be more time.
On the other hand, a Trump return also offers possibilities for the EU as it may create momentum for further integration and, as motioned, enhance strategic autonomy (de Wijk, 2020). Additionally, it presents the EU with the opportunity to emerge as an even more significant geopolitical player in this increasingly multipolar world, especially in the context of the US being less present. Nevertheless, this may be wishful thinking, as not all European leaders fear a Trump return. More nationalistic countries like Hungary would be delighted with Trump potentially enhancing their ties to the US. Consequently, European autonomy and integration may even decline. Especially when the US reduces its security commitments, leaving some countries feeling unable to resist the dangers posed by threats such as Russia and China and see no other way than to embrace these countries (Tenzer, 2023).
Overall, the 2024 elections and the possibility of a Trump return leave the EU with a lot of uncertainty and risks. While the EU cannot vote in the US elections, they can prepare for the worst scenarios (Belin et al., 2023). They should focus on more autonomous defence capabilities, more unity within the Union, and possibly enhance the speed of enlargement. They should also utilise the time that Biden is still in office. Hereby, they should, for example, think about accelerating Ukraine’s accession process to NATO (Drezner, 2023). Additionally, Biden could institutionalise as much of the current foreign policy as possible to give some assurance to America’s allies.
A second Trump term would pressure the strong transatlantic relationship and leave the EU alone. This is guided by the signs that his second term will be more extreme, domestically and internationally. He will surround himself with loyalists and ideologists who will support him no matter what. For his foreign policy, this likely means that he will continue and expand on a track of isolationism and disintegration, which he started in his first term. This may include the US turning its back on its allies by, for example, abandoning NATO, stopping support for Ukraine, and withdrawing from key international agreements. For the EU, this means that they will not be a central feature in the US foreign policy, potentially leaving it alone in navigating geopolitical challenges such as an assertive Russia and China. Therefore, for the EU, it is most important to take the potential re-election seriously, ensuring they are better prepared than in 2016. First and foremost, this means acknowledging that a Trump return is highly likely and mapping the potential dangers and challenges that come with it.
Furthermore, they should intensify their efforts towards integration and strategic autonomy as the only answer against a Trump presidency is a united Europe. Although this may be very hard, especially considering the current sentiment is not anticipating a Trump return, and some countries within the Union favour this prospect. It should be high on the EU’s agenda, as they cannot be overwhelmed by a second Trump presidency and should embrace the challenges and opportunities it offers. Overall, a potential second Trump term would be a more significant turning point in the history of transatlantic relations than his first term was and would put the future of the EU under pressure.
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