This Time, Not the Politicians

July 05, 2024
The first US presidential debate did nothing to shore up support for the transatlantic alliance, a cornerstone of American security. Europeans need to step in.

For US allies concerned about the outcome of November’s presidential election, the first Biden-Trump debate provided more reasons for worry than relief. The more Europe-friendly candidate, Joe Biden, is weaker after performing poorly while Donald Trump appears unwilling to kiss and make up with allies across the Atlantic. If the debate showed one thing, it is that Trump is increasingly eager to pursue a strongman foreign policy. For allies that “pay their bills”, this could mean increased US commitment. But for others, such as Ukraine, the former president’s remarks are harbingers of great challenges.

Still, Europe need not be dour about the future. Both presidential candidates want what Europe has started to deliver: more investment in defense, greater fighting capability, and a more robust stance against adversaries, including China. Europe’s challenge is no longer about policy but about broadcasting its accomplishments.

Despite criticism of a perceived “self-deterrence”, or lack of ambition, in US foreign policy, Biden has forcefully advocated for maintaining traditional American commitments to allies and for helping Ukraine. In the debate, Biden drew on his conviction that the American people feel a responsibility to “step up when needed” and argued that “right now, we’re needed. We’re needed to protect the world because our own safety is at stake.”

His remarks, however, brought little comfort. Biden’s European friends saw their most natural partner in Washington severely weakened, lacking the energy many expected after his State of the Union address earlier this year. Trump’s forcefulness stood in stark contrast.

The former president has a tumultuous relationship with America’s closest allies. The debate showed that he still aims his wrath at Europe’s trade policies for “their cars, their food, their everything, their agriculture”. His perception of a Europe unwilling to pay for its global commitments is also unchanged. Trump inaccurately claimed that after his threats to withdraw US protection “billions and billions of dollars came flowing in the next day and the next months. But now, we’re in the same position. We’re paying everybody’s bills.”

No such backsliding has occurred. Instead, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced in June that an unprecedented 23 of 32 NATO allies are paying more than 2% of their GDP for defense. A year ago, only 11 countries met that target.

On Ukraine, Trump also got his numbers wrong. He claimed in the debate that “European nations together have spent $100 billion or maybe more than that, less than us” on Ukraine. The data says the opposite. Europe has spent more than $81 billion more than the United States. Trump also insisted grimly that “Ukraine’s not winning that war.”

Trump’s inaccuracies matter. They show that he is disregarding developments in European defense and security policy despite his recent visits with Polish and Hungarian leaders. He may see political value in misrepresenting Europe’s contributions.

In their Across America and Whistlestops for Ukraine tours, GMF staff meet with Americans in heartland communities to discuss foreign policy. We find Americans sympathetic to Ukraine and Europe, and disapproving of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression. But they expect Europe’s help in confronting Russia, and they, like Trump, are not up to date on Europe’s progress in that effort. 

Europe needs its leaders, businesses, musicians, and even sports stars to tell the continent’s story to Americans directly. Next week, at NATO’s 75th anniversary summit, European government heads will share their reinvigorated commitment to defense. Few in the United States will notice. It would matter more if those outside government spoke about the changes to Europe’s sense of threat and the actions it is taking. In this regard, Europeans should take advantage of three areas of transatlantic cooperation that resonate with the American public: economic investment and job creation, culture and heritage, and a history of joint military operations. 

US trade with Europe creates jobs, as do European investments in the United States. European business leaders should note this and its link to the larger strategic transatlantic relationship. They should overcome any hesitancy to wade into this political issue and become more comfortable acting as informal ambassadors. German business representatives in particular should become conversant on their country’s defense policy “Zeitenwende” (turning point) and highlight the ties among transatlantic business, investment, and the need to confront global challenges to democracy.

Cultural and heritage ties can also be exploited. Teenagers in Illinois, say, follow European soccer, especially during this year’s European Cup. They would likely be impressed by European soccer stars explaining that they are linked to US fans not only through sports but also through NATO principles and goals in the defense of democracy. 

Lastly, European veterans who served alongside US forces in recent Middle East wars should cross the Atlantic to speak publicly about their service, countering the narrative of a European “free ride”. GMF’s heartland tours have revealed that members of the US military have not forgotten European sacrifices. Other Americans need to be told or reminded of them.

Such an invigorated whole-of-society engagement is the best approach to ensuring that the transatlantic partnership and, in particular, NATO, as it marks a milestone in its history, thrives and continues to provide the foundation for security and prosperity.