Maybe the USA just won’t be there in the fall

Europe urgently needs to take its defense into its own hands. Very soon the sums required could eclipse everything we are used to.

The new Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk didn’t hold back much on Thursday: “Dear Republican Senators of America,” wrote Tusk, a conservative by the way, on the short message service X, “Ronald Reagan, who helped millions of us, our freedom and independence “To win back, you must be turning in your grave today. Shame on you.” Previously, a compromise between Democrats and Republicans on further arms deliveries and financial aid from the Americans to Ukraine had failed once again in the US Congress.

This means that the situation for the fighting Ukrainians is becoming ever more dire; according to all available information, their army’s ammunition stocks are becoming dangerously empty, and the Russian attackers are gaining the upper hand in important places in the east of the country. What is already a question of life and death for the Ukrainians is at least a question of will and credibility for the West: Do Europe and the USA still want to help Ukraine or are they secretly hoping to somehow wriggle out of this conflict in Eastern Europe? to be able to?

Quite apart from the question of whether it is particularly wise for a European head of government to adopt such a tone towards US Republicans now: Tusk’s intervention gives a foretaste of what is likely to happen to Europe in the coming weeks – months before the US -Americans will elect a new president in early November.

Europe has to cope on its own

The USA is unable to act for the time being and is no longer able to fulfill its promise of aid and security to Ukraine. Neither Ukrainians nor Europeans should rely on the fact that Biden’s military and aid package will still come (after all, it will be voted on again). And what will become of NATO’s obligation to provide assistance and the Americans’ protective umbrella over Europe in the long term will probably be negotiated with the new US president after the election. Depending on who sits in the White House, the Europeans probably shouldn’t expect much.

The well-known US economist Kenneth Rogoff said in an interview with Capital at the end of January: “Europe has not yet really realized that it now has to take care of its own defense.” Weapons stocks were running low, and the USA only had limited capacity to supply supplies – if it delivered anything at all. “Europe can no longer hide behind the USA. Maybe they just won’t be there from autumn onwards.”

In this respect, it was certainly no coincidence that Chancellor Olaf Scholz boarded a government plane this week and flew to Washington without further ado. He probably just wanted to take a look at the White House himself to see if anyone was still there – and how much further planning could be done with Joe Biden. What was to be discussed at the meeting was still unclear on Friday afternoon. But one can assume that the question was how Europe could possibly close the gaps left by the foreseeable lack of US military aid in the Ukrainian arms depots. Security expert Christian Mölling from the Berlin think tank DGAP is already calling for a “certain creativity” – it is conceivable, for example, that Europe or at least a selection of European states will provide the budget with which Ukraine can then buy the weapons it needs in the USA so urgently needed.

Defense spending will increase massively

This signals a turnaround for Europe that is likely to overshadow everything we have discussed in the last three years since the pandemic and the attack on Ukraine two years ago: the Corona reconstruction fund, for example, or the tentative attempts at a European one Defense policy. Because in the short term it may be about weapons packages and aid worth another 40 to 60 billion dollars, which the Europeans could perhaps put together with a lot of good will – if necessary even an alliance of the willing from Northern and Eastern Europe.

But that would probably only be the start – and from the point of view of Trump and his Republicans, it would even be a very attractive blueprint for the period after a possible election victory. Their calculation goes like this: Let’s give the Europeans a choice – either we say goodbye to NATO and the Europeans will have to organize their own defense in the future (including their own nuclear weapons) or the Europeans will pay for American soldiers and nuclear missiles on the old continent. Jan Kallmorgen, an excellent expert on transatlantic relations and recently a partner in strategy and transaction consulting at EY with a focus on geopolitics, puts it this way: “Trump is unlikely to be willing to pay for the American protective shield in the future,” says Kallmorgen, “then “We are no longer talking about two percent of GDP for defense spending, but perhaps five to six percent.” Per year, per country.

But Germany will only achieve the two percent – around 70 billion euros – this year only with a lot of effort and with the help of the famous turnaround special fund. But it will soon be used up. And five to six percent, that would correspond to an amount of at least 175 billion euros. As I said, only for Germany and every year.

A reconfiguration of the federal budget is necessary

Such sums are a shock, but perhaps also an instructive one, especially for us Germans, who still like to ignore the new reality out there in the world with our typical make-a-wish debates about citizens’ benefit, basic child support, job tickets and climate money. This shock seems downright desirable in view of the politicians’ substitute actions in the traffic light coalition, such as the recent dispute between Robert Habeck and Christian Lindner over the complete abolition of the solidarity surcharge or a reduction in regular taxes on corporate profits. As long as both of you don’t really want to talk about financing and counter-financing, you can do without it – as urgent and important as both would be.

Doubling or tripling military spending is not possible in the short term without new debt, but in the medium and long term it requires a complete reconfiguration of the federal budget. This applies to expenses as well as income. Scholz probably had this foreseeable turnaround in mind when he presented the latest budget compromise after the debt judgment from Karlsruhe: If the situation in Ukraine continued to deteriorate, this could justify suspending the debt brake this year, Scholz had announced . It’s quite possible that we’ll get there quicker than we thought.