Washington matters, but Kyiv matters more

The US presidential election in 2024 could go either way. While scenario building is sensible, endless speculation about future events in Washington and their impact on the war in Ukraine should not impede Europe from continuing to adopt the kind of decisive role that history demands of it anyway.

President Joe Biden meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the sidelines of the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, Sunday, May 21, 2023.President Joe Biden meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the sidelines of the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, Sunday, May 21, 2023. (Source: AP/Susan Walsh)

If you’re intent on having a nervous breakdown, follow every Biden-Trump opinion poll from now until the US presidential election on November 5, 2024. So far, most have been giving President Biden a small lead. But, with many voters concerned the octogenarian incumbent is simply too old, a Washington Post-ABC News poll published on May 7 gave Trump 44 percent to Biden’s 38 percent. Digging deeper into its findings, while giving Biden the edge in terms of honesty and trustworthiness – 41 percent to 33 percent –, the president lost out badly on questions related to his age. In terms of the “mental sharpness it takes to serve effectively as president”, Trump, on 54 percent, was 22 percentage points ahead. On the matter of whether they are “in good enough physical health to serve effectively as president”, the news was even worse for President Biden who scored just 33 percent to 64 percent for Trump.

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Watching the FOX News coverage of that poll, one contributor opined that Biden was not just 80, but “an old 80”. The bad news for the Biden camp is that many Democrats agree. In an election that, as it always does these days, will come down to the tiniest of margins in a handful of swing states, voter turnout will prove decisive. In a nutshell, Democrats are being asked to vote for a president that they do not believe is fit for office. Some will stay home. Trump could win.

Then again, there are 18 months to go. Anything could happen, including Trump being disowned by leading members of his own party, or significant numbers of Republican voters, due to the outcomes of on-going and prospective legal cases against him. While it is sensible, therefore, to build the possibility of a return to power of President Trump into our calculus of risk – including his pledge to solve the Ukraine crisis in “24 hours” by striking a deal with President Putin – there is a danger of Europeans obsessing over events in the United States which are in any case uncertain and over which they have no control. Instead, European nations and institutions need to focus on making the European pillar of the Transatlantic alliance as robust and resilient as possible regardless of what happens in America. With the Ukraine crisis top of mind, there are reasons to be optimistic.

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First, it is already happening. Sweden and Finland did not abandon decades of neutrality in favour of NATO membership because Washington told them to do so. They responded to the greatest security challenge on the European continent since World War II with a decisive strategic shift based on their own national security interests, and those of the region in which they are located.

More broadly, European nations have drastically accelerated defence spending. According to The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI): “Military expenditure by states in Central and Western Europe totalled $345 billion in 2022. In real terms, spending by these states for the first time surpassed that in 1989, as the cold war was ending, and was 30 percent higher than in 2013.” That is a long way from a US defence budget of $877 billion, but it still dwarfs Russia’s 2022 defence expenditure estimated by SIPRI to be $86.4 billion.

There has also been remarkable unity of purpose, a unity that has largely transcended both economic downturn and long-standing disagreements and differences of emphasis among European nations over Russia in particular and geo-politics in general. Most significantly of all, in that regard, Britain has definitively refuted the hopes of Vladimir Putin and the concerns of continental allies that Brexit would herald a retreat into “little England” isolationism. On the contrary, Britain has taken a leading role in confronting Russian aggression. Strategically, at least, it remains at the heart of Europe.

Of course, there is a risk that European unity fragments, particularly if events on the battlefield do not go in Ukraine’s favour and the prospect of an endless stalemate prompts calls in some quarters to reach a negotiated settlement with Moscow, while others prefer to stay the course. But that is not a purely European problem. Under a stalemate scenario, the United States too will face pressure to reconsider its position, regardless of who sits in the White House. For one thing, America has matters other than Ukraine to consider. Should the situation deteriorate in the Taiwan Strait, on the Korean Peninsula or in Iran, Ukraine could quickly get pushed down the list of priorities. Also, just like politicians in Europe, President Biden and his Democratic partners in Congress ultimately answer to voters. They may feel their taxes could be better spent at home. The longer the war goes on without a decisive Ukrainian breakthrough, the tougher it will become to keep the people on side, whether they are American people or European people.

There is, moreover, another people to consider – the people of Ukraine. It is true that Vladimir Putin’s horrific war has ramifications throughout the world and across a range of fundamentally important issues from the rules-based international order to the future of democracy itself. Yet no-one knows this better, nor experiences it more vividly, than the residents of the cities, towns and villages in the country that Putin invaded.

If the war in Ukraine gets to a point where it is no longer worth fighting, and negotiations seem the only sensible way forward, whether Ukraine has in fact made a decisive breakthrough or whether the lack of one makes the situation more complex, the Ukrainians will know it first. Europe’s guiding star in this war, therefore, is not Washington, it is Kyiv.

This is not to be too cute. Clearly, US leadership has been crucial. In the early days of the war especially, President Biden’s resolute stance combined with his administration’s ability to work with allies prevented a bad situation from turning immeasurably worse. But at some point it was always going to be the case that the European allies would take on more and more responsibility, and ultimately the lion’s share.

By the time the same US president or a new US president is inaugurated in January 2025 more time will have elapsed from now until then than has elapsed since the beginning of the war and today. That may be construed as an artificial window, but it’s as good as any to help concentrate minds.

Europe’s best response to the ebb and flow of US politics is not to ignore it, but to accelerate a trend towards European leadership that history demands of it anyway.

Robin Shepherd is Executive Director, North America of GLOBSEC – central and eastern Europe’s pre-eminent public policy organization dedicated to freedom, democracy, and security

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