There is great uncertainty and risk for Europeans in the US presidential election. and they should prepare.

Traditionally, the European approach to any new US presidential administration, is to scramble to establish contacts with the personnel of the new administration. In a desperate attempt to mitigate the cost of a political transition to a President Trump, European diplomats may be tempted to rush to find common ground with the new masters filtering out the uncomfortable messages. Instead, Europeans needs to listen closely to US foreign policy debates and believe what the candidates say.

The war in Ukraine is a case in point. Despite the growing opposition to US involvement in Ukraine among the Republicans, too many decision-makers in Europe continue to dismiss the trends in the Republican party as limited to fringe groups. European leaders still tend to interpret the positions among the congressional elite as representative of the party and the next Republican administration.

European leaders need particularly to prepare for shifts in other areas of US foreign policy that a new Republican administration may bring about, even beyond Ukraine. These include the abandonment of international cooperation on climate action and renewable energy; disdain for international institutions and the liberal democratic order; lower tolerance for shortcomings in European military capabilities and strategy; greater affection for European populist conservatives and a more transactional approach towards traditional allies in Europe that will result in higher levels of coercion and stronger linkages between policy areas.

A continuation of the Biden administration would, by definition, mean much less change in US policy towards Europe, but it would still present challenges. The foreign policy debates within the Democratic party will have less of an immediate effect on a second Biden term, but over time they could weigh on a Democratic president. Voices will grow stronger if the war in Ukraine continues to take resources away from other more pressing priorities, particularly a possible contingency in Taiwan.

Responding to these challenges will be difficult for European states that are so dependent on America. The US, with its strong relationships with most European countries, retains a much greater capacity to divide the EU than Russia or China do. If the bitter splits over the role of the US in Europe persist, none of the other strategies to protect European interests will work. Any US administration will simply use these divisions to ensure its policy preferences are protected. As with almost any element of European foreign policy, an essential requirement is achieving greater unity not only to deal with a potentially more distant or disruptive America, but also to confront an increasingly assertive China.

Beyond those core approaches, European leaders may want to consider the following strategies:

  1. Build climate coalitions and leverage European power in trade. In contending with a Republican administration, the EU should seek to impose costs on the US for non-cooperation on climate goals. Building coalitions around the EU’s carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM) could be an effective way to incentivize a Republican administration into cooperation on climate goals. This could be done first by strengthening climate diplomacy with like-minded countries (such as Canada, Japan, and South Korea), as well as with countries such as China, India, and Brazil, which account for a substantial part of global emissions and global trade. Together with these nations, the EU could form a “global climate club” that would rely on economic incentives and regulations such as the CBAM to coerce the US into returning to cooperation. At the same time, the EU could proactively engage the US business community, industry associations, and state governments to build a coalition of supporters for global climate goals and highlight the economic benefits of climate action. The ultimate aim would, of course, be to bring the US into that climate coalition eventually.
  2. Move towards a more autonomous European defense capability. The war in Ukraine and Hamas-Israel conflict, security challenges in the Middle East, and the US disengagement from less relevant theatres to focus on China all mean that the EU needs to quickly mature into a sovereign foreign and security policy actor, capable of acting independently in security and defense affairs. The case becomes even more compelling if Trump wins the election. Trump is likely to regard the current levels of assistance to Ukraine as conflicting directly with domestic priorities or the goal of deterring a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. In such a scenario, Europeans would be expected to take the lead in dealing with Russia, and would find themselves left to support Ukraine on their own. In a second Biden term, by contrast, the administration would want to achieve the pivot to Asia that the war in Ukraine slowed down and may be amenable to accepting greater European autonomy. Biden has argued for “the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense” as a benefit to overall transatlantic security. If Europeans were to develop more independent capabilities, Biden, under increased pressure within the Democratic party, might be inclined to support them. Under any circumstances, a militarily dependent Europe will be more vulnerable to US pressure to align with America’s dictates in other critical fields.
  3. Develop an independent capacity to support Ukraine in the long war. As part of that autonomous capability, Europeans need to hedge against a reduction in US support to Ukraine. The idea that the wealthy nations of Europe cannot take the lead in countering aggression on their own continent, when all EU members (except possibly Hungary) agree that such an effort is necessary, is a startling testament to Europe’s strategic inadequacy. A plan to support Ukraine should contain four essential elements: long-term military assistance through a new security compact; security assurances in the case of various conceivable Russian escalations; economic security efforts that would provide financial assistance and begin the long reconstruction process as part of a “partnership for enlargement”; and energy security measures that would integrate Ukraine more tightly into EU energy infrastructure. The EU, its member states, and the United Kingdom should pursue these measures and work together to achieve them.
  4. Manage US disengagement in the Middle East and North Africa. Europeans will also need to pick up the pieces in the Middle East as America retrenches. The US risks leaving behind a region home to armed conflicts, political instability, failed or weak states, and waves of refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe. The Europeans will be increasingly responsible for protecting their own core interests there – whether on peace and security, energy security, migration, or counterterrorism. This will require a more integrated and coordinated foreign policy and enhanced military capabilities, and a more strategic approach to engaging with the regional powers that are increasingly turning towards China and Russia.
  5. Find a voice in strategic economic policy through a geo-economic NATO. The US-China rivalry puts Europeans in a difficult position. The US expects Europe to align with its geo-economic efforts aimed at China – whether on export controls, investment screening, or strategic industrial policy. Recent debates over 5G and green technology subsidies show that the struggle with China will penetrate deeply into the Western domestic sphere and will securitize questions that heretofore have been purely economic. Indeed, in the coming competition between the China and the West, the geo-economic realm will likely become the central front. If Europeans wish to preserve a voice on these questions, they will need a forum in which the US and Europeans can jointly consider the geostrategic implications of economic issues such as industrial policy. A ‘geo-economic NATO’, would allow the transatlantic partners to think strategically about geo-economic issues and decide jointly on foreign economic policy, rather than Europeans just accepting US decisions.
  6. Build multilateral coalitions to address real world problems. A Republican administration is likely to be hostile to various international institutions that are important to the EU, including the World Trade Organization and the World Bank. A second Biden administration would take a less ideological approach, but nonetheless would increasingly demand more effective action from international institutions as the price of its continued support. Given the EU’s investment in the multilateral system, the bloc needs to hedge against the worst and prepare to capitalize on the best by seeking new coalitions within international institutions that can address real world problems that matter to both Americans and Europeans: international trade, migration, human rights, and the multilateral regulation of new technologies. These coalitions would usually include the US but might in some cases need to operate without American participation.

None of these policy interventions is easy – they all entail difficult internal European negotiations and painful compromises. The EU, like most complex democracies, has never excelled at long-term planning or strategic hedging. So, it seems that the most likely response to the US presidential election is to worry quietly and hope loudly. Hope, alas, is not a strategy. The two parties and the various tribes within them present very distinct problems for Europeans. Europeans need to prepare for the best as well as for the worst.

Policy Camps on the Republican side:

Policy Camp 1 in the party advocates strength at home and restraint in deploying and using military force abroad. Some support fewer commitments for the U.S. abroad and disentanglements from US alliances, including NATO. They advocate reducing US assistance to Ukraine. They are currently a minority within the Republican party elite, but their positions reflect the views of the American base that it is not America’s job to defend wealthy European nations from Putin, and that US tax dollars would be better spent on building a wall to stanch the “spiraling tsunami” of immigrants at the United States’ southern border. Policy Group 1 camp foreign policy discourse is shaped by current and former allies of Trump who they like to consider one of their own. However, during his presidential term, Trump demonstrated only a fickle adherence to Policy Group 1 camp. At times, he declared he would withdraw US forces from Syria and Afghanistan, and even end US membership of NATO before failing to do any of these things, while at times threatening interventions in Iran and North Korea.  On Ukraine, he has insisted that Biden is leading the US into world war three and declared that once back in the White House he would end the conflict within 24 hours.

Policy Camp 2 :  They want to maintain a forward presence in the world, the key split is over the priority to give to China. They see the strategic challenge that China presents to the US as profound and existential. Like Policy Group 1 camp, they emphasize that US resources are limited, but they feel the Chinese threat requires a forward response on a par with the American effort against the Soviet Union. They worry that US attention and resources devoted to other, less critical theatres such as Europe an the Middle East will sap US strength for the coming battle with China. They see the intensity of the US competition with China over Taiwan as producing tow inevitabilities: A military confrontation with China over Taiwan and a US withdrawal from Europe and the Middle East. The insist that the scale of the China challenge means that that the US does not have a two-war military capacity. Some in Policy Camp 2 voted against NATO membership for Sweden and Finland as well as continued military support for Ukraine, arguing that American is overstretched and unable to defend it more important ally Taiwan.

Policy Camp 3: They believe that Washington can and must maintain US leadership and military presence worldwide. This camp includes individuals and establishment figures who all joined the Trump bandwagon and served in his administration. They were against the withdrawal from Afghanistan. They see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a direct consequence of that withdrawal, which they believed signaled American weakness. They thus argue that the US must stay engaged and maintain a strong deterrent posture not only in Asia but also in Europe and the Middle East. They do not accept the idea that the US lacks the resources to maintain global leadership, but they do acknowledge that doing so will require America’s allies, particularly in Europe and East Asia to contribute more to security challenges.

Recommended Steps to be initiated by the EU and EU Member States


  1. Establish contacts with Republican counterparts in the House and Senate at all levels.
  2. Focus on subnational diplomacy to promote municipal and other regional engagement.
  3. Strengthen local-level ties to broaden ties with the US beyond those formed among national governments and armed forces.  
  4. Establish extensive personal networks where candid opinions can be exchanged with lawmakers. Form strong ties with Congress and bolster relations with both Democrats and Republicans.
  5. Build up relations with the US while shielding themselves from the vagaries of its politics.
  6. Build firewalls and take other measures on military preparedness, the European Union’s decision-making processes, institutionalizing ties between transatlantic stakeholders and guarding against a potential drift away from the US to safeguard their relationship.
  7. Fund Ukrainian assistance from outside the EU budget, either through national contributions or debt guarantees from member countries.
  8. Commit to increasing spending in NATO and refocus on greater self-sufficiency when it comes to military equipment.
  9. Improve the institutionalization of the transatlantic relationship and push U.S. President Joe Biden’s to a 21st century transatlantic partnership and to commit to achieving this goal by 2030.
  10. Reconstitute the Transatlantic Business Dialogue and other related stakeholder dialogues in order to make it politically harder for a future American administration to unravel transatlantic ties.


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