European statecraft toward the United States is predicated on a toxic mix of sanctimony and free-riding. This is continuing to push the U.S. foreign policy establishment into doubling down on a failed grand strategy that is leading to insolvency.
“To the continent’s eternal shame, as one senior British official told me, the apparently divided, dysfunctional, and declining power of the U.S. has still managed to send drastically more lethal aid to save European democracy than any other NATO power,” wrote Tom McTague in his recent piece for The Atlantic. “The depth of America’s military-industrial complex and the scale of its imperial bureaucracy mean that they are simply too heavy for a single president or Congress to remove in one go.”
Many Europeans have long considered American decline an inevitability and have looked to prepare themselves for such an eventuality. … But then Russia invaded Ukraine, and everything changed. Suddenly, Europe’s grand strategy was in tatters, and American strength seemed to reassert itself. Europe discovered it had not become more independent from the U.S. but more dependent on it.
This is a comforting fantasy, but it overlooks another, much simpler hypothesis with a lot more explanatory power. It’s that European free-riding is continuing, boosted by flattery.
The nationalist ascendency that elevated Donald Trump once again risks being co-opted by the establishment edifice, couched in the language of nationalism and foreign policy realism, while advocating for boilerplate globalist policies. Volodymyr Zelensky T-shirts are being sold bearing the phrase, “America First.”
Unlimited foreign aid continues, with America functionally running the government of Ukraine and its tax dollars filling the coffers of Ukrainian lobby groups to spend on Vogue photoshoots. Inflation runs high, as U.S. spending on low-energy policies and foreign aid increases. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization just added two more rich countries, with American troop presence increasing in Europe, at a time Russia is incapable of conquering one-third of the most corrupt country in the region.
European condescension exemplifies why the time is now for the nationalist right to argue for a detached foreign policy in Europe, in order to focus more on America’s borders and the rise of China. In a few months, the United States has racked up a bill in the billions engaging in a proxy war with no end in sight. U.S. weaponry is unaccounted for, and troop presence in the European theater increased significantly.
No one in the U.S. Department of Defense, White House, or Congress seems to know how or when the conflict ends, in what sounds eerily similar to previous American engagements in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. There too, tax dollars were funneled to a class of bureaucrats, NGOs, and lobby groups in the name of “safeguarding” the liberal world order. Of all the internal foreign policy debates on the right, the question of Europe is the most prominent and perhaps the easiest to address.
Those who are arguably most worried about America’s decline in Europe are the same people who would like the United States to overstretch to the point of insolvency and collapse. It is an old European tendency that American conservatives of an older pre-World War generation instinctively understood.
It seems counterintuitive at first but makes perfect sense if you’re a realist. Europe is a rich continent that is perfectly capable of solving its own problems: financially and militarily supporting its continental frontiers, and balancing against a decrepit Russia incapable of conquest. European faux concern about American decline alongside European inaction, and Europe’s coaxing and flattering America into further overstretching, all while Europe lectures sanctimoniously about American dysfunction and democratic decline, are not separate issues. They are interrelated and evident to any rational observer.
There are a few notable outliers. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., was the only senator to oppose the mindless NATO expansion. That earned him the mantle of the only true-blue America First senator. Eighteen Republican members of Congress also opposed it, and not a single Democrat.
Yet 11 Republican senators and 57 Republican members of Congress opposed the $40 billion emergency aid package to Ukraine, a rare public refusal to rubberstamp reckless beltway foreign policy dogma at a time of crippling inflation and relentless southern border breaches. The opposition to continuous aid to Ukraine was only among Republicans. This all confirms once more that true nationalist conservatism, as well as a minimal foreign policy realism, is only to be found on the right.
The success of the nationalist right is dependent not just on numbers and answers, but on policies and debates. At a time everyone claims the mantle of America First, the question of Europe helps us understand who truly is a nationalist and a realist.
The latest primary results for House and Senate seats put some foreign policy realist candidates on the ballot going into the midterms, an encouraging indicator of the growing coalition. But size only matters insofar as policy exists to support it.
The main task in front of the nationalist right isn’t just to win internal debates, or even primaries, but to put their positions boldly in front of the American people. A renewed debate about further commitment and burden in the European theater is the easiest place to start.