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Why ‘America First’ Means Pro-European Union

by John Jefferson
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Donald Trump hasn’t yet commented on the stunning election results in France, but it’s a good bet he was disappointed that the Rassemblement National underperformed, coming in third place behind the far-left and centrist blocs.. Trump and Marine Le Pen, the face of the right-populist party, have long supported one another. And Euroskeptic leaders outside France also feel an affinity with the 45th president, whose hostility to the European Union and forceful defense of nationalism they admire.

But while Trump and the MAGA Republicans have a natural affinity with European right-populists, the two groups are not, upon closer examination, natural allies. Trump wants the U.S. to start disengaging militarily from Europe, but that’s less likely to happen if the continent is torn apart by petit nationalisme. To convert his America-First rhetoric into reality in a second term, Trump will need Europe to unify as a great power on the world stage—and pro-EU centrists, not anti-EU right-populists, are the ones pushing for unification.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron has led the charge in advancing what he calls “Power Europe,” while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and outgoing foreign policy chief Josep Borrell have been pushing to turbocharge Europe’s defense industrial capacity. These leaders, widely despised by right-populists the world over, are responding rationally and strategically to global developments. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has made the unthinkable—high-intensity war on the continent—a grim reality again. And with the rise of China and the dawn of multipolarity, Washington’s attention is being diverted away from Europe to the Asia-Pacific.

But the surge of right-populism across Europe could slow, if not reverse, European integration in the security sphere. Reactionary nationalism threatens to hobble the formation of pan-European identity. More prosaically, if right-populists take over the EU, they will return the powers of Brussels to the capitals of member nations, complicating efforts to centralize strategic planning and coordinate weapons procurement. The liberal center is holding, for now, but a sharp right-populist turn would drag Europe toward geopolitical disunity—which is precisely where MAGA Republicans should not want it to go.

Trump supporters who favor a more restrained US foreign policy, or who see China and not Russia as America’s adversary, say Europe should shoulder a greater defense burden in its region. Senator J.D. Vance (R-OH), a possible Trump running mate, is one of MAGA-world’s most eloquent spokesmen for this view. In an op-ed for the Financial Times entitled “Europe Must Stand on Its Own Two Feet on Defense,” Vance wrote that Europe’s deep cuts in military spending since the Cold War have amounted to “an implied tax on the American people to allow for the security of Europe.” The Ohio senator continued: “The question each European nation needs to ask itself is this: are you prepared to defend yourself? And the question the U.S. must ask is: if our European allies can’t even defend themselves, are they allies, or clients?”

Vance’s perspective follows in an American tradition tracing back to the Founding. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson warned of entangling alliances that outlive their utility. James Monroe, in proclaiming his namesake doctrine, not only warned European powers to cease interference in the western hemisphere but foreswore American involvement in European affairs. The Jacksonian variant of this tradition eschews nation-building and missionary liberalism, opposes wars of choice, but supports decisive force to win wars that are in the national interest. In the 20th century, Pat Buchanan took up the mantle of this very American, realist sub-tradition in his campaigns for president and in books like A Republic, Not an Empire. Vance has been called the “heir” of Buchanan, and Trump’s political rhetoric and instincts, if not his policy record, are Buchananite.

Paradoxically, a neo-Buchananite, Trumpist American foreign policy program dovetails with Macronism, not Le Penism, and for two reasons: First, if a withdrawal of American power from Europe ultimately revitalizes intra-European, nationalistic rivalry, the U.S. may be compelled to resume its presence there to calm tensions. Second, while neither France nor Germany nor Italy can be a great power in the 21st century, Europe can be—and only a great power can safeguard the region from Chinese dominance, Russian intimidation, and American dependency. Macron dreams of a sovereign and united Europe, while his right-populist rivals in France, sensing a threat to national sovereignty, seek to thwart his vision.

Macron has a better relationship with President Joe Biden than with Trump, but realism teaches that, in an anarchic international system, individual leaders and their interpersonal bonds matter less than the distribution of military power. While Macron initially welcomed Biden’s presidency, he’s been disappointed by Biden’s pursuit of anti-China policies that have damaged European interests. Meanwhile, Biden’s embrace of the transatlantic alliance, by reassuring European centrists, has dampened their push to become less dependent on America.

Macron should see Trumpism as a blessing in disguise for Europe. The French President’s controversial aim to extend France’s nuclear umbrella over the continent will attract more support if doubts grow about the reliability of America’s own umbrella. More generally, Trump’s antipathy to NATO helps Macron make the case for European strategic autonomy. Macron will need more than pretty speeches to convince his European compatriots to build a robust security community—he’ll need precisely the structural incentives that a second Trump presidency would make stronger and more salient.

Trump, for his part, instead of mocking Macron and casting the European Union as a “foe,” should praise European integration as being in America’s national interest. And rather than simply disparaging NATO’s over-reliance on America, Trump should offer an alternative vision: a “dormant NATO” that sees EU nations take the lead in Europe while the U.S. waits in the wings, ready to act, if needed, as an offshore balancer.

During the Cold War, Europe relied on the U.S. to contain the Soviet Union. Afterwards, it was content to let the reing superpower continue subsidizing its defense. Today, amid the rise of China and resurgence of Russia, if Europe doesn’t take responsibility for its own security, either the U.S. will become badly over-stretched or American support will be wrenched away before Europe is ready. 

Trump, not Biden, is pushing Europe to stop being an American protectorate and become a legitimate world power, so that America can devote scarce resources elsewhere. And since European right-populism undermines this project, “America First” means pro–European Union, however paradoxical that may seem.



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