Donald Trump watching picture of Joe Biden on large screen

Former U.S. President Donald Trump watches a video of President Joe Biden playing during a rally for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on November 6, 2022 in Miami, Florida.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

What the 2024 Election Could Mean for NATO and the Future of US-European Relations

While Biden is an old-fashioned Cold Warrior representing the military-industrial-complex faction of the “Democratic” party, Trump is a dangerous wild card.

Even as U.S. Presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden have sought to pivot to Asia to prevent China from playing the leading role in shaping the 21st century’s global order, the U.S. remains mired in a Central European war, as well as in Gaza and across the Middle East. The reason lies in the foundation of the U.S imperium, which seems set to be seriously impacted by the outcome of November’s presidential election.

In his book The Grand Chessboard, Zbigniew Brzezinski—who served as former President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser and before that led the Trilateral Commission—argued that for decades—now for more than a century—the U.S. has been engaged in an imperial project. He failed to focus on the disastrous human consequences of that “project.” Instead, drawing on geopolitical traditions, he was clear that whoever dominates or controls the Eurasian heartland will be the world’s dominant power. With the United States being an island nation, not unlike Britain, Brzezinski argued that to be dominant in Eurasia, the U.S. needed to have three strategic toeholds on Eurasia’s periphery: Western Europe, Eurasia’s southern underbelly, and the West Pacific/East Asia.

Since the end of World War II and the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949, NATO has served as the foundation of the U.S. toehold in Europe, reinforced by formations like the G7 and others. Lord Hastings Lionel Ismay, NATO’s first general secretary, put it bluntly when he said that NATO’s purpose is to keep Russia out, Germany down, and the U.S. in. Over time, this has required the deepening integration of European elites—including Britain—into the United States’ imperial project. Think in terms of Prime Ministers John Major’s and Tony Blair’s roles in this century’s Iraq wars and NATO’s Afghanistan War to reinforce U.S. and Western hegemony across Eurasia’s soft underbelly. Refusing to take necessary lessons from history—consider Russia’s suffering and resistance in response to Napoleon’s, the Kaiser’s, and Hitler’s invasions—NATO has recklessly expanded to Russia’s borders. And this has been reinforced by U.S.- European economic, technological, and military integration in the face of Russian resistance and of China’s rise.

Mid the wars and uncertainties, even as they fall short of our ambitions, I believe that survival requires winning cease-fires, creating strategic stability, retiring military alliances, and pursuing Common Security diplomacy for a new European strategic order.

Trump—who thinks in terms of unilateral dominance; has no respect for alliances; and admires Russian President Vladimir Putin’s white, Christian, dictatorial rule—is of course the fly in this strategic ointment.

NATO’s 75th anniversary summit next month is being designed to Trump-proof the alliance against the possibility of a Trump November election victory or the possibility that he illegally seizes power. In addition to consolidating the global dimensions of the alliance, see for example the Dutch warship in the Taiwan Strait that was recently and dangerously buzzed by Chinese jet fighters, the summit will attempt to consolidate and reinforce Western support for Ukraine. While refusing to formally welcome Ukraine into the alliance, whose Article Five would trigger a catastrophic NATO-Russia—and potentially nuclear—war, U.S. and other recent bilateral security agreements with Kyiv will be celebrated; commitments will be made to advance military interoperability; and there will be accelerated coordination with Sweden and Finland, NATO’s newest members. Pledges will also be made to further increase military spending, for joint weapons production, and technological collaborations. The summit will also be a stage for Biden’s reelection campaign.

The recent U.S. congressional battle that ended with $61 billion for Ukraine, for what is envisioned as its long war with Russia, underlines the uncertainties and profound impacts that November’s elections will have for NATO, Europe, and the world disorder. These are sorry days in the life of the American republic. Tragically, U.S. voters face a choice between on one hand the “Republican” racist, rapist, Putin-infatuated, and would-be dictator Trump—who among other things plans to deport 20 million immigrants from the U.S.—and the Cold War military-industrial-complex faction of the “Democratic” party represented by Biden on the other. With the U.S. increasingly resembling a banana republic, we cannot assume fairness in the election. There are parallels to Weimar Germany with right-wing militias who could deliver the presidency to Trump. Building from the failed 2020 coup, Trump predicts a “bloodbath” if he loses the election. And having learned from their 2020 failures, we should expect MAGA post-election day shenanigans and the possibility that the disgraced right-wing Supreme Court will bestow the presidency on the tyrant.

As David Sanger of TheNew York Times has written, Joe Biden is an old-fashioned Cold Warrior. Today, rather than press for a cease-fire and negotiations leading to a secure and neutral Ukraine, he and the U.S. military are committed to the fantasy of Russia’s “strategic defeat,” which is to say regime change in Moscow. Biden supports Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s self-defeating war to regain Crimea and Russian-oriented eastern Ukraine. And we must not forget Biden’s staggering near trillion dollar Pentagon budget, the $1.7 trillion commitment to replace the U.S. nuclear arsenal and its delivery systems, and the recent threat to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

A Biden reelection would reinforce U.S. commitments to NATO with massive shows of force like the Steadfast Defender mobilization and deepening support for Zelenskyy’s futile ambition, for the Baltic nations, and for Poland and Moldova. He will aim to stanch Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s and other European right-wing challenges to the alliance. And new B61-12 nuclear warheads will be deployed to the six European nations that already host U.S. nuclear weapons and possibly to Poland.

Donald Trump is a unilateralist who as early as 1987 bought full-page newspaper advertisements questioning Washington’s European and Asian alliances. Given his heart of darkness, his rages, his opportunistic reverse courses, and his whims, predictions about his second term policies can only be speculation. Recall Trump’s romance with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and how his last minute, unexpected, all-or-nothing disarmament demands sabotaged what was widely expected to be a step-by-step arms reduction agreement.

Trump practices international relations in the tradition of mafia bosses, believing that if other countries “win,” he loses. NATO, the largest and most powerful military alliance in world history, is thus a valuable coercive force that Trump is unlikely to cast aside. However, like Obama and Biden, his military and economic priority will be containing China, Washington’s “peer competitor.”

During this election campaign, Trump has said almost nothing about foreign policy. His most disturbing statements have been blackmail directed at Europe, saying that he would “encourage” Russia to attack any NATO nation that fails to pay its alliance bills, and his genocidal call for Israel to “finish the problem” in Gaza. His neo-fascist Christian nationalist rallies focus on denouncing prosecutors, judges, and witnesses and his racist calls for the deportation as many as 20 million immigrants from the Global South.

For four decades, a Trump priority has been increasing European military spending and burden sharing. His threats to withdraw from NATO during his presidency went unfulfilled but were a central element of his European military fundraising campaign. He celebrated that, saying, “Americans know that a strong alliance of free, sovereign, and independent nations is the best defense for our freedoms and for our interests… [and] billions and billions of dollars more [are] coming in from countries that, in my opinion, would not have been paying so quickly.”

That said, Trump’s alliance commitment does not extend to Ukraine, where he has vowed not to spend a penny. There, his corrupt efforts to undermine Biden’s 2020 presidential election campaign foundered and led to Trump’s first congressional impeachment. Note too that Trump’s threat to encourage Russia to invade countries that do not pay their way includes the implicit signaling of his intention to remain in the alliance.

But the bottom line is that Trump is an extraordinarily dangerous wild card. He has no respect for truth, for previous commitments, or for anyone. Even as it remains probable that he will build on Biden’s ambitions for NATO, it is also possible that in his transactional logic, rage, or the priority he gives to dominating China, he might greatly reduce or eliminate U.S. commitments to the alliance.

Mid the wars and uncertainties, even as they fall short of our ambitions, I believe that survival requires winning cease-fires, creating strategic stability, retiring military alliances, and pursuing Common Security diplomacy for a new European strategic order. Without them disarmament, containing and reversing the climate emergency, and peace will remain unreachable goals.