What Happens to Europe If America Withdraws?
If the United States turns its back on its best allies, Europe will face the Russian threat alone.
THE UNITED STATES IS ON THE VERGE of making one of the most—if not the most—self-defeating foreign policy decisions in its history. After more than 75 years leading NATO, there is a good chance that in the coming months or years the United States will diminish or even withdraw from the alliance, which has provided the United States with its most reliable partners, much of its international influence, and a degree of security that few states in history could have dared to dream about. This self-destructive crusade is led, of course, by Donald Trump, the Pied Piper of American decline, and supported by his “America First” faction within the Republican party.
If the United States is stupid enough to neuter NATO, it would begin a spiral of events in Europe that too few have carefully thought through. Because of NATO, Europe over the past 75 years has outsourced to the United States not only much of its military capacity, including its heavy industry, but also its intellectual capacity for heavy thinking about strategy and security. This has only accelerated in the decades since the end of the Cold War. Being left to fend for itself for the first time since World War II would be traumatic. European states would have to react quickly to protect their security—not something that they have been inclined to do since 1945.
The issue that would drive European states to act, and put them under immense strain, would be the war in Ukraine. In the United States, the war in Ukraine has become the subject of yet another congressional meltdown, with MAGA Republicans posturing about the need to cut aid, and supporters of Ukraine in both parties stressing the imperative to defend a democracy. It’s not clear, though, how much either side views Ukraine as a top priority. Things are very different in Europe, particularly in the countries close to the Russian border.
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While the United States has been dithering over Ukraine and NATO, many European peoples and governments have come to understand just how much is at stake in the largest war on their continent since 1945. (Russia’s invasion is often labelled the largest land war since 1945, but it is more than that—Russia and Ukraine are also fighting at sea, in the air, in cyberspace, in the domains of economics and commerce, and for international support and global public opinion.) If Russia were to win—or even be handed significant chunks of Ukrainian territory in some “peace” deal—it would call into question the independence and territorial integrity of Russia’s other neighbors. In acknowledging Russian conquest of even part of Ukraine, Europe would be conceding that legally recognized borders are mere suggestions, and that Russia can take parts of what used to be the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire by military force.
THE DESIRE FOR RUSSIA TO GAIN NOTHING from its invasion of Ukraine is different from the ability to do something about it. After American de jure or de facto withdrawal, the issue Europe would face—and, if Congress doesn’t approve more support for Ukraine soon, will face in the coming months—is how to help Ukraine fight back and defeat Russia without American help. It would be an extraordinary challenge for states (and societies) that have not had to contemplate a fight like this for generations.
The immediate concern would be to get Ukraine the weapons and ammunition it needs to hold the front line and continue to degrade Russian power. Europe is slowly ramping up artillery production—in 2024, it looks likely to finally provide Ukraine with a million shells, which, if politicians had reacted faster to Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, Ukraine already would have by now. Even that might not be enough. European states would have to basically empty their stocks to keep Ukraine in the fight. Doing so would mean risking their future security on the bet that Ukraine can endure now. Some European states agreed to hand Ukraine significant parts of their stockpiles in 2022 and 2023 because the United States was a backstop and promised (or strongly signalled) that it would help them refill their magazines. If the United States is no longer committed to European security and ambivalent about NATO, that gamble becomes much riskier.
European countries would also have to abandon their squeamishness about the kinds of weapons that they are willing to give Ukraine. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has seemingly been mirroring the Biden administration’s policy of helping Ukraine to defend itself—but not quite to the point that Ukraine can win. (It’s also possible the Biden administration is following Scholz’s lead.) Like the Biden administration, the Scholz government has provided significant military aid to Ukraine, but it has been overwhelmingly defensive (such as anti-air weaponry) or geared to relatively short-range battlefield fighting (armored fighting vehicles, etc.). Both governments have deliberately not given Ukraine the longer-range capabilities, like Taurus missiles, the Ukrainians need to liberate all of their territory, in particular the strategic peninsula of Crimea. (The British and French have armed Ukraine with longer-range cruise missiles, and neither London nor Paris lies in smoldering, irradiated ruins.)
Germany’s hesitation is only possible because of the United States. On the one hand, the enormous potential of American military capabilities—only a small fraction of which have been devoted to helping Ukraine—takes some of the onus off Germany. On the other hand, the slowness of the Biden administration’s decision-making about how and when to help Ukraine provides cover for Germany’s indecision, and vice versa. If the United States were interested in moving faster itself, it would add to the pressure on Germany, but that seems unlikely given the present state of American politics. In the more likely scenario, with the United States largely disengaged from Europe, Germany might face more pressure from the British and French to do more for Ukraine faster.
This all assumes that Germany—and, for that matter, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain, and the rest of Europe—can do more for Ukraine if they have the political will that America apparently lacks. And this is the ultimate point. If the United States does abandon Ukraine and Europe, Europe will have to decide whether it can bear the cost the of remilitarizing in a very short time. It will have to give Ukraine what it needs to fight on in the short term, even if that is politically and militarily painful, and it will have to invest a great deal of money to rebuild its military industrial base. It will have to set up protected supply chains, establish new industrial plants, and coordinate efforts across the continent. In short, Europe will have to take war seriously.
The good news is that Europe, like the United States, is easily rich enough to do this if it has the political will. It dwarfs Russia economically and has a thriving aerospace sector and important cyber and maritime assets. If it was serious, Europe alone could give Ukraine the kind of military force that could enable a Ukrainian victory—and if they move fast, they might be able to do it before the war is over. A recent report from the Estonian Ministry of Defense—a welcome counterexample to Europeans outsourcing their hard thinking about security to America—makes clear that Europe can recapitalize its armed forces and help Ukraine win with relatively modest expenditures. “Effectively, committing merely 0.25% of GDP annually towards military assistance to Ukraine would provide approximately €120 billion [$130 billion]—more than sufficient resources to implement” the strategy the report recommends. With the United States out of the picture, that figure would be higher, but still not fiscally unbearable.
IF EUROPEAN STATES LACK SUFFICIENT UNITY and determination, the result will be chaos. The nightmare scenario would be that the states close to Russia double down on aid to Ukraine while those farther west decide to force a deal on Putin’s terms. Then Europe itself could fracture. If some states in Europe feel that others are willing to sacrifice their long-term security to a dictatorial, mass-murdering Russia, it would be devastating for the very idea of a united Europe.
In such a scenario, it’s not difficult to imagine that Europe would start to break apart institutionally, which would have untold implications for the war in Ukraine. If states like Poland and the Baltics feel Western Europeans have sacrificed Ukraine (and, by implication, the security of every Central/Eastern European state), they might decide to aid Ukraine on their own—precisely when the Russian Army has been weakened. This might guarantee a Ukrainian victory, but it also might leave NATO’s eastern front vulnerable and cause a crisis within the EU and European NATO.
The ultimate guarantor of the independence and territorial integrity of NATO members has been the threat of nuclear weapons. The United States maintains by far the world’s most powerful nuclear stockpile, but with the U.S. out of the mix, the French and British, with their much smaller arsenals, would be Europe’s only nuclear deterrent. But if Central/Eastern Europe felt abandoned by those powers, it’s not hard to imagine a Polish or even a Ukrainian nuclear program.
NATO has been a success precisely because it has strengthened both Europe and the United States and provided guarantees—i.e., certainty—to its members. If the United States pulls out from Europe, the states on the continent will face the difficult choice of committing together to Ukrainian victory and making the necessary sacrifices to see that happen, or fracturing into camps. Best of all, of course, would be if the United States didn’t force them to make the choice at all. Best for Europe—and best for the United States.