What Europe Fears

In early April, a crowd of diplomats and dignitaries gathered in the Flemish countryside to toast the most powerful military alliance in the history of the world, and convince themselves it wasn’t about to collapse.

They arrived in a convoy of town cars that snaked down a private driveway and deposited them outside Truman Hall, a white-brick house set on 27 acres of gardens and hazelnut groves. Originally built by a Belgian chocolatier, the estate was sold to the American government at a discount—a thank-you gift for liberating Europe—and became the residence of the U.S. ambassador to NATO. Tonight, Julianne Smith, the inexhaustibly cheerful diplomat who currently holds the job, was stationed at the front door, greeting each guest.

The reception was part of a two-day onslaught of ceremonial activity ostensibly organized to celebrate the 75th anniversary of NATO. There were photo ops and triumphant speeches. The original copy of NATO’s founding charter was brought from Washington, D.C., for display, left open to the most important lines in the treaty, Article 5: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all …” Officials ate cake, and declared the alliance stronger than ever.

At Truman Hall, every effort was made to keep the mood festive despite a storm looming outside. Beneath a backyard tent, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke, followed by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

A photo-illustration of the secretary general of NATO Jens Stoltenberg.
Jens Stoltenberg (Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Omar Havana / Getty.)

Stoltenberg, lean and unrumpled, decided to do something diplomatically unorthodox: acknowledge reality. Anxiety about America’s commitment to the alliance had been omnipresent and unspoken; now Stoltenberg was directly addressing the dangers of a potential U.S. withdrawal from the world.

“The United States left Europe after the First World War,” he said, adding, with a measure of Scandinavian understatement, “That was not a big success.”

The wind was picking up outside, pounding the flaps of the tent and making it difficult to hear. Stoltenberg raised his voice. “Ever since the alliance was established,” he said, “it has been a great success, preserving peace, preventing war, and enabling economic prosperity—”

A strong gust hit the tent, rattling the light trusses above. Guests glanced around nervously.

Stoltenberg stumbled. “The great success has been, uh, enabled or has happened not least because of U.S. leadership—”

Another gust, and the large chandelier hanging over the crowd began to swing. Murmurs rippled through the audience. Stoltenberg, perhaps aware of the unfortunate symbolism that would result from a NATO tent collapse, got quickly to the point.

“I cannot tell you exactly what the next crisis or the next conflict or the next war will be,” he said, but “as long as we stand together, no one can threaten us. We are safe.”

Stoltenberg would tell me weeks later that the speech was intended as a rallying cry. That night, it sounded more like a plea.

The undercurrent of dread at Truman Hall was not unique. I encountered it in nearly every conversation I had while traveling through Europe this spring. In capitals across the continent—from Brussels to Berlin, Warsaw to Tallinn—leaders and diplomats expressed a sense of alarm bordering on panic at the prospect of Donald Trump’s reelection.

“We’re in a very precarious place,” one senior NATO official told me. He wasn’t supposed to talk about such things on the record, but it was hardly a secret. The largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II was grinding into its third year. The Ukrainian counteroffensive had failed, and Russia was gaining momentum. Sixty billion dollars in desperately needed military aid for Ukraine had been stalled for months in the dysfunctional U.S. Congress. And, perhaps most ominous, America—the country with by far the biggest military in NATO—appeared on the verge of reelecting a president who has repeatedly threatened to withdraw the U.S. from the alliance.

Fear of losing Europe’s most powerful ally has translated into a pathologically intense fixation on the U.S. presidential race. European officials can explain the Electoral College in granular detail and cite polling data from battleground states. Thomas Bagger, the state secretary in the German foreign ministry, told me that in a year when billions of people in dozens of countries around the world will get the chance to vote, “the only election all Europeans are interested in is the American election.” Almost every official I spoke with believed that Trump is going to win.

A photo-illustration of the NATO Headquarters with a fist tearing the photo apart.
Illustration by Chantal Jahchan. Sources: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP / Getty; Oliver F. Atkins / Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

The irony of Europe’s obsession with the upcoming election is that the people who will decide its outcome aren’t thinking about Europe much at all. In part, that’s because many Americans haven’t seen the need for NATO in their lifetime (despite the fact that the September 11 terrorist attacks were the only time Article 5 has been invoked). As one journalist in Brussels put it to me, the alliance has for decades been a “solution in search of a problem.” Now, with Russia waging war dangerously close to NATO territory, there’s a large problem. Throughout my conversations, one word came up again and again when I asked European officials about the stakes of the American election: existential.

“The anxiety is massive,” Victoria Nuland, who served until recently as undersecretary for political affairs at the State Department, told me. Like other diplomats in the Biden administration, she has spent the three-plus years since Trump unwillingly left office working to restabilize America’s relationship with its allies.

“Foreign counterparts would say it to me straight up,” Nuland recalled. “‘The first Trump election—maybe people didn’t understand who he was, or it was an accident. A second election of Trump? We’ll never trust you again.’”


BERLIN, GERMANY

To understand why European governments are so worried about Trump’s return, you could study his erratic behavior at international summits, his fraught relationship with Ukraine’s president and open admiration for Russia’s, his general aversion to the liberal international order. Or you could look at the exceedingly irregular tenure of Trump’s ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell.

Four years after he left Berlin, people in the city’s political class still speak of Grenell as if they’re processing some unresolved trauma. The mere mention of his name elicits heavy sighs and mirthless chuckles and brief, frozen stares into the middle distance. For them, Grenell’s ambassadorship remains a bitter reminder of what working with the Trump administration was like—and what Trump’s return would mean.

Often, people will tell you about the parties.

Hosting social functions is part of an ambassador’s job. But the parties Grenell threw were more eclectic than a typical embassy reception. The guest lists were light on German political elites—many of whom Grenell made a sport of publicly tormenting—and featured instead a mix of far-right politicians, semi-canceled intellectuals, devout Christians, gay Trump fans, and sundry other friends and hangers-on. Standard social etiquette was at times disregarded; so was good taste. When Grenell hosted a superhero-themed Halloween party at the ambassador’s residence in 2019, one male guest came dressed in a burka, while another wore a “suicide bomber” costume. Photos from the party circulated privately among mystified German journalists. “It was a freak show,” recalled one Berlin-based reporter who saw the pictures and who, like others I spoke with, requested anonymity to speak candidly about the former ambassador. (Grenell declined my request for an interview.)

The scandalized reaction to Grenell’s parties was emblematic of his broader reception in Berlin. A right-wing foreign-policy pundit and Twitter troll—he once posted that Rachel Maddow should “take a breath and put on a necklace” and talked about Michelle Obama “sweating on the East Room’s carpet”—he arrived in Germany in May 2018 at a moment of growing geopolitical anxiety. Despite efforts by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to develop a normal working relationship with Trump, the new president seemed intent on antagonizing Europe—hitting allies with tariffs, abruptly withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, and constantly questioning the need for NATO. Another ambassador might have seen it as his job to ease tensions. But Grenell was not just any ambassador.

He was belligerent and uncouth, less a diplomat than a partisan operative. He was “a special animal,” Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the U.S., told me. “He did not play by the rules.”

Hours after starting the job, Grenell tweeted a terse warning that “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.” A few weeks later, he invited a Breitbart News reporter to his residence and said he planned to use his position to “empower other conservatives throughout Europe”—a comment widely interpreted as a political endorsement of European far-right parties, and one he later had to walk back.

A photo illustration of former Ambassador of the United States of America in Germany Richard Grenell
Richard Grenell (Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Bernd von Jutrczenka / Picture Alliance / Getty.)

Grenell wasn’t any more tactful in private. In his first meeting with the German foreign ministry, according to a former diplomatic official in Berlin who was briefed on the encounter, Grenell announced, “I’m here to implement the American president’s interests.” The officials, taken aback by his audacity, tried politely to correct him: No, he was there to lobby for America’s interests. But Grenell didn’t seem to see the difference.

He hung a giant oil painting of Trump in the entryway of the ambassador’s residence, and made a party trick out of flaunting his access to the White House. He would call the Oval Office “for fun” just to show that “he had a direct line to the U.S. president,” recalled Julian Reichelt, a friend of Grenell’s who was then the editor of the right-leaning German tabloid Bild.

As Trump escalated his crusade against the European political establishment—publicly rooting for Merkel’s right-wing opponents and identifying the European Union as a “foe”—Grenell seemed eager to join in. After the president hijacked a NATO summit in July 2018 to deliver a tirade against countries that weren’t spending enough on defense, Grenell did his best to replicate the performance in Berlin.

The ambassador quickly became a villain in the German press. The magazine Der Spiegel nicknamed him “Little Trump.” German politicians publicly called on the U.S. to recall Grenell. One member of the Bundestag compared him to a “far-right colonial officer”; another was quoted as saying that he acted like “the representative of a hostile power.”

Some observers would later speculate that the bad press was the product of a leak campaign by Merkel’s government to isolate Grenell. Others believed that he deliberately courted outrage. “He didn’t care a bit about his reputation here,” Christoph Heusgen, the chair of the Munich Security Conference, told me. “He cared about offending the Germans and making headlines because he knew his boss would love that.” Soon enough, the president was referring to Grenell as “my beautiful Ric” and reportedly telling advisers that his man in Berlin “gets it.”

Grenell’s defenders would later argue that his hardball tactics got results. Take, for example, his vociferous opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The U.S. had long objected to its construction, which would dramatically increase Germany’s reliance on Russian energy. But Grenell pressed the issue much harder than his predecessors had—sending letters threatening sanctions against companies that worked on the project, and successfully lobbying Berlin to import American liquefied natural gas. After Russia invaded Ukraine, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier admitted that clinging to Nord Stream 2 had been a “mistake.”

To Grenell’s admirers, it was his effectiveness that made him unpopular in Berlin. “The ideal U.S. ambassador for your average German government,” Reichelt told me, “just talks nicely about, like, the American dream and transatlantic relations and blah blah and freedom blah blah and what we can learn from each other.” Grenell refused to be a mascot. “He was doing politics—he was actually driving policies,” Reichelt said. (Reichelt was fired from Bild in 2021 after The New York Times reported on a sexual relationship he’d had with a subordinate; Reichelt denied abusing his authority.)

But by the time Grenell left Berlin, the mutual disdain between the ambassador and the political class was so thick that some wondered if he’d kept an enemies list. Grenell, who briefly served as Trump’s acting director of national intelligence, is reportedly on the shortlist for secretary of state or national security adviser in a second Trump administration, which means he’d be in a position to make life difficult for political leaders he disfavors. “I know many of these ministers, and they would be afraid,” one prominent German journalist told me. “I think he’s a guy who doesn’t forget.”

The Germans are bracing for Trump’s return in other ways. Inside the foreign ministry, officials have mapped out a range of policy areas likely to be destabilized by his reelection—NATO, Ukraine, tariffs, climate change—and are writing detailed proposals for how to deal with the fallout, multiple people told me. Can Trump’s moods be predicted? Who are his confidants, and how can the government get close to them?

The Germans have a contingency plan for President Joe Biden’s reelection too, but few seem to think they’ll need it. They’re preparing for a third scenario as well: a period of sustained uncertainty about the election’s outcome, accompanied by widespread political violence in the U.S. Nuland, the recently departed State Department official, told me that, based on her conversations with foreign counterparts, Germany isn’t alone in planning for this possibility. “If you are an adversary of the United States, whether you’re talking about Putin, Iran, or others, it would be a perfect opportunity to exploit the fact that we’re distracted,” she said.

René Pfister, Der Spiegel’s Washington bureau chief, told me that the first Trump administration left Germany struggling with difficult questions about its relationship with the U.S. Was America still interested in being the leader of the free world, or would it be governed by ruthless self-interest like China and Russia? Could it be counted on to defend its allies if Trump were reelected? “The Germans always had the impression that, regardless of the political affiliation of the president, you can rely, on the big questions, on the United States,” Pfister told me. “I think this confidence is totally shaken.”


BRUSSELS, BELGIUM

One afternoon in early April, I listened in as Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador who’d hosted the event at Truman Hall, conducted a virtual press briefing from NATO headquarters. Journalists had called in from across Europe, and their questions reflected the unease on the continent. A reporter from Portugal asked about the prospect of NATO countries reinstating military conscription in light of the Russian threat. Another, from Bulgaria, asked Smith to respond to politicians there pushing to withdraw from the alliance. A TV-news correspondent from North Macedonia asked whether Smith thought Russia would take the Balkans next if Ukraine fell.

When President Biden set about filling diplomatic posts after his election, he made reassuring rattled allies a top priority. Smith fit the mold of a model ambassador—a career foreign-policy wonk with deep government experience and comfortingly conventional views on America’s role in the world. She also brings a boundless Leslie Knopeian energy to the job, and has been well schooled in the finer points of diplomat-speak: She scarcely mentions a country or region without first establishing friendship—“our friends in the Middle East,” “our friends in Portugal”—and she does not talk to these friends; she only “engages” them (as in “I went to the Vatican quite a while ago to engage them on the war.”).

A photo illustration of the United States Permanent Representative to NATO Julianne Smith.
Julianne Smith (Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Omar Havana / Getty.)

Listening to the press briefing, I thought Smith did well—she sounded calm and confident and relentlessly optimistic. But when the briefing ended, I was ushered into a hallway to await my scheduled interview with the ambassador, and I overheard her fretting to an aide about how she’d handled a question about recent Ukrainian strikes on energy infrastructure inside Russia. American officials, worried about escalation, were reportedly urging Ukraine to stop the attacks, and Smith had responded that the U.S. was “not particularly supportive of” Ukraine going after targets on Russian soil. Now she was second-guessing herself. Maybe she should have said that the U.S. doesn’t “encourage” the attacks, or that the attacks don’t have America’s “blessing.” (Last week, the Biden administration gave Ukraine permission to use American weapons to attack Russian targets in limited circumstances.)

“Maybe I’m splitting hairs,” I heard Smith say. “Just with my lack of sleep, I didn’t have my game face on. I didn’t nail it.” She sounded exhausted.

During our interview, I asked Smith if the job was what she’d expected. She laughed: “No, no, no.” Part of what had appealed to her about the NATO post was the potential for a 9-to-5 lifestyle. Her kids were still young, and she’d been looking forward to some work-life balance. Then, six weeks after she moved to Brussels, Russia invaded Ukraine, and all of a sudden she was at the center of a geopolitical crisis.

Smith told me her ambassadorial role is unique in that she doesn’t have just one host country to worry about when she makes public statements. She’s speaking to audiences in dozens of countries, and each one needs to hear something different from her. “You have to sit down and understand: ‘What is it that’s keeping you awake at night?’” she said. Maybe it’s an errant Russian missile entering their airspace. Or a destabilizing wave of refugees. Or a cyberattack. Or tanks crossing their borders. “They’re obviously looking to hear time and time again that the U.S. commitment to the alliance, and particularly Article 5, is ironclad and unwavering.”

Smith has developed an arsenal of sanguine talking points to convey this message. She cites U.S. opinion polls showing strong support for NATO. She rehearses America’s long, bipartisan history of standing by its European allies. “For over seven decades,” she told me, “American presidents of all political stripes have supported this alliance.”

I encountered the same performative positivity in meetings with American diplomats throughout Europe. In Warsaw, Ambassador Mark Brzezinski sat in the airy living room of his residence and talked about the “economic efficiencies” America has enjoyed as a result of its alliance with Poland. “The Poles are spending billions of dollars to protect themselves, mostly buying from U.S. defense contractors,” he said. In Berlin, Ambassador Amy Gutmann met me in an embassy room overlooking the Brandenburg Gate and recounted the heroic role America had played in the massive airlift that broke the 1949 Soviet blockade of West Berlin. “Before I came here,” Gutmann told me, “President Biden said, ‘Make sure you tell every person you meet in Germany how important the U.S.-German relationship is.’ And I’ve done that.”

But sentimental rhetoric and gestures of goodwill only go so far. George Kent, the U.S. ambassador to Estonia, told me about an Earth Day photo op he’d taken part in earlier this year. The plan was to plant a tree at the Park of Friendship in central Estonia. Upon arrival, he was greeted by a kindly septuagenarian gardener who’d been participating in the tradition for decades. Kent tried to make small talk about horticulture, but the gardener had other things on his mind: “Can we talk about the vote in Congress?” He wanted the latest news on the Ukraine aid package.

In interviews, State Department officials in Washington, who requested anonymity so they could speak candidly, acknowledged that efforts to “reassure” European allies are largely futile now. What exactly can a U.S. diplomat say, after all, about the fact that the Republican presidential nominee has said he would encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to NATO countries that he considers freeloaders?

“There’s not really anything we can do,” one U.S. official told me. European leaders “are smart, thoughtful people. The secretary isn’t going to get them in a room and say, ‘Hey, guys, it’s going to be okay, the election is a lock.’ That’s not something he can promise.”


WARSAW, POLAND

“What the fuck is happening in the United States?”

Agnieszka Homańska, seemingly startled by her own outburst, slowly placed her hands on the table as if to calm herself. “Sorry for being so frank.” We were sitting in a crowded bistro in downtown Warsaw with retro pop art on the walls and American Top 40 playing from the speakers. Homańska, a 25-year-old grad student and government worker who wore sneakers and a T-shirt that said BE BRAVE, was trying to explain how Poles her age felt about this year’s U.S. election.

Homańska exhibited none of the casual contempt for America often associated with young people in other European capitals. In the history she grew up learning, Americans were the good guys—defeating the Nazi occupiers, tearing down the Iron Curtain. Surveys consistently find that Poland is the most pro-America country in Europe, and one of the few where public opinion doesn’t change based on which party controls the White House. Ronald Reagan is a hero to many here; so is George H. W. Bush. In Poland, the mythology of America—vanquisher of tyrants, keeper of the democratic flame—persists. The U.S. is still a city on a hill.

But the Trump era punctured Homańska’s image of America, as it did for many younger Poles. Trump’s refusal to concede the 2020 election was jarring to those who saw the U.S. as an aspirational democracy. The storming of the Capitol on January 6 “was broadcast on every television,” she told me. Trump’s criminal charges—and his recent conviction on 34 felony counts in a Manhattan court—have made the news here too. “People don’t understand why Trump can still run for president.” (Like others I spoke with, Homańska was also confused by the fact that Joe Biden, who struck her as feeble and out of touch, is running again—were these really the best options America could muster? I told her she wasn’t alone in wondering about this.)

Many Poles see Trump through the prism of their own country’s recent politics. The right-wing nationalist Law and Justice party came to power in Poland a year before Trump’s election, and spent the next eight years co-opting democratic institutions, from the courts to the civil service to the public media. The government maintained a cozy relationship with Trump—President Andrzej Duda famously proposed naming an American military base in Poland after him—and he is still popular among conservative Poles. But last year, an intense electoral backlash to Law and Justice produced the largest voter turnout in Poland’s post-Soviet history, driven by young people. The new government, a coalition spanning from the center-left to the center-right, is focused on repairing Poland’s democracy.

After the election, Homańska decided to postpone her planned studies in Canada so she could help rebuild her country. When I asked her which countries she looked to as democratic role models, she mentioned Finland and Estonia, another former Soviet country that has successfully modernized. “Maybe there is something about the maturity of French democracy,” she added.

And America? I asked.

Homańska hesitated. “I don’t think that people my age would perceive America as an ideal way to create a democratic society,” she replied. She seemed almost apologetic.

An illustration of NATO nation flags with the USA flag scribbled out.
Illustration by Chantal Jahchan. Source: NATO Archives Online.

Many of the Poles I met were especially perplexed by one recent display of U.S. political dysfunction: the struggle to pass a military-aid package for Ukraine earlier this year. Polls showed that a majority of Americans supported the funding. Reporting suggested that most members of Congress favored it too. But somehow, because Trump opposed it, a minority of Republicans in the House had succeeded in holding up the bill for months while Ukraine was forced to ration bullets and let Russian missiles level buildings. Although the aid package finally passed in late April, some Western officials worry that the battlefield advances Russia made during the delay will be difficult to reverse.

The Russian threat is no abstract matter in Poland, where Prime Minister Donald Tusk has talked about living in a “prewar era” and regularly urges citizens to prepare for a conflict. I heard stories about people stocking up on gold and looking for apartments with basements that could double as bomb shelters. Schools are running duck-and-cover drills, and shooting ranges have become more popular as people realize they might soon need to know how to handle a gun. One Polish woman told me about a phone call she’d received from her aunt, who was wondering if she should restain her wood floors or save her money because her house might be destroyed soon anyway.

In Warsaw, Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radek Sikorski (who is married to the Atlantic writer Anne Applebaum) told me, “you will feel the physical vulnerability.” Travel 200 miles north and you reach Kaliningrad, where Russia is said to house nuclear weapons; go 200 miles east, and you hit the Ukrainian border. “It concentrates the mind.”

Poland has recently increased defense spending to 4 percent of its GDP—well beyond the standard of 2 percent set by NATO, and higher even than in the U.S. But officials know they’ll never be able to fend off a hostile Russia alone.

“It’s an existential threat,” Aleksandra Wiśniewska, who was elected to Poland’s Parliament last year, told me. Like other Polish politicians I spoke with, Wiśniewska—a 30-year-old former humanitarian aid worker who now sits on the foreign-affairs committee—was reluctant to say anything that might alienate the former, and perhaps future, American president. But she wanted me to understand that the choice American voters make this fall will reverberate beyond U.S. borders.

“I fear that the old United States that we all almost revere,” Wiśniewska told me, is “now sort of self-sabotaging. And by consequence, it will jeopardize the safety and security of the entire global order.”


FRANKENBERG, GERMANY

The U.S. Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment left Vilseck, Germany, before dawn on April 9 in a convoy of camouflaged jeeps, fuel tankers, armored vehicles, and trucks packed with soldiers and ammunition. They rumbled past windmills and pastoral villages, stopping only for fuel. Speed was essential: The road march to Bemowo Piskie, Poland, was more than 800 miles, and the fate of the Western world was—at least hypothetically—at stake.

The regiment was training for a long-dreaded crisis scenario: a Russian invasion of the Suwałki Gap. The 60-mile stretch of Polish farmland is sparsely populated but strategically important. If Russian forces annexed the territory, they could effectively seal off Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia from the rest of NATO. To save the Baltic states, allies in Northern Europe would have to mobilize quickly.

During a refueling stop at a German barracks in Frankenberg, U.S. Army officers rattled off facts to me about the Stryker, a lightweight armored vehicle that looks like a tank but can drive up to 60 miles an hour, and demonstrated a language-translation app they’d developed to facilitate communication among allied troops. The drill they were conducting that day was part of a monthslong NATO military exercise—the largest since the end of the Cold War—involving all 32 allied countries; more than 1,000 combat vehicles; dozens of aircraft carriers, frigates, and battleships; and 90,000 troops. Although NATO officials have been careful not to single out Russia by name, the intended audience for the war games was clear. “Are exercises like this designed to send a message? They are, absolutely,” Colonel Martin O’Donnell told me as soldiers in fatigues milled around nearby. “The message is that we’re here. We’re ready. We have the capability to work with our allies and partners and meet you, potential adversary, wherever you may be.”

But the demonstration in Frankenberg sent another, perhaps less convenient, message as well. The convoy rushing to confront a theoretical Russian invasion was composed almost entirely of U.S. soldiers driving U.S. vehicles filled with U.S.-made guns and bullets and missiles. They’d link up with military units from other NATO countries eventually. But if America were removed from the equation, would the battle group in Bemowo Piskie stand a chance?

Whether Trump wins or not, there’s a growing consensus in Europe that the strain of American politics he represents—a throwback to the hard-edged isolationism of the 1920s and ’30s—isn’t going away. It’s become common in the past year for politicians to talk about the need for European “defense autonomy.”

“We can’t just flip a coin every four years and hope that Michigan voters will vote in the right direction,” Benjamin Haddad, a member of France’s National Assembly, said at an event earlier this year. “We have to take matters in our own hand.”

What exactly that would look like is a subject of intense debate. Italy’s foreign minister recently proposed forming a European Union army (an idea that’s been raised and rejected many times in the past). Others have suggested diverting resources from NATO to a separate European defense alliance (though European countries are not immune to the kind of populist nationalism that could make such alliances dysfunctional). Replacing the so-called nuclear umbrella provided by the U.S. arsenal would require countries such as Germany and Poland to develop their own nuclear stockpiles, to supplement the small ones France and the United Kingdom already have.

Within NATO, the immediate priority is “Trump-proofing” the alliance. In the past 18 months, Finland and Sweden have joined, each bringing relatively capable and high-tech militaries. Secretary-General Stoltenberg has also proposed shifting responsibility for Ukrainian arms deliveries from the U.S. to NATO in case the next administration decides to abandon the war.

Most notably, allied countries have dramatically increased their own military spending. I spoke with several officials who grudgingly credited Trump for this development—something NATO officials and U.S. presidents had spent decades advocating for unsuccessfully. In 2017, when Trump took office, only three allies, plus the U.S., were spending at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. This year, that number is expected to rise to at least 18. Trump’s criticism of paltry defense budgets was not only effective, Stoltenberg told me, but fair. “European allies have not spent enough for many years,” he said. (No doubt Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also factored into the increased spending.)

Even with the funding influx, many officials believe Europe still has a long way to go before it could defend itself alone. The U.S. has some 85,000 troops currently stationed in Europe—more than the entire militaries of Belgium, Sweden, and Portugal combined—and provides essential intelligence gathering, ballistic-missile defense, and air-force capabilities. “Dreaming about strategic autonomy for Europe is a wonderful vision for maybe the next 50 years,” Ischinger, the former German ambassador, told me. “But right now, we need America more than ever.”

That reality has left politicians and diplomats across Europe honing their theories of Trump-ego management ahead of the U.S. election. To some, the former president’s emotional volatility represents a grave threat. The former diplomatic official in Berlin told me that in May 2020, Merkel called Trump to inform him that she wouldn’t be traveling to Washington for the G7 summit out of concern for COVID. Trump was enraged, according to the diplomat, who requested anonymity to describe a private conversation, and the call grew heated. A week later, Trump announced plans to permanently withdraw nearly 10,000 U.S. troops from Germany—a move seen within Merkel’s government as a petty act of revenge. (Biden later reversed the order; a spokesperson for the Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)

Others think Trump’s ego could make him easier to manipulate. “He’s very transactional, and he’s very narcissistic,” the senior NATO official, who’s met Trump multiple times, told me. “And if you combine the two, then you can sell him—” the official paused. He recited an expression in his native language. Roughly translated, it meant “You can sell him turnips as if they’re lemons.”

What’s striking about these calculations is how thoroughly allies have already adjusted their perception of the U.S. relationship. I noticed a certain pattern in my conversations with European political leaders and diplomats: At some point in almost every interview, the European would begin pitching me on how much the U.S. benefits economically from the alliance. Preserving peace in Europe has sustained decades of lucrative trade for U.S. companies. A broader Russian war on the continent would be felt in the average American’s pocketbook. I later learned that these talking points were being encouraged by NATO officials as well as the U.S. State Department. The thinking behind the strategy is that Americans need to hear why supporting European allies is in their self-interest.

“They keep telling us how important it is to go and convince the housewives in Wisconsin and the farmers in Iowa,” a senior official from an allied country grumbled to me. “How many Americans are going to the housewives of southern Estonia or … the countryside in France to tell why Europe should stand by the United States?” He noted that the alliance protects the U.S. as well.

The more I listened to prime ministers and parliamentarians deliver the same earnest spiel, the more dispiriting I found it. At its most idealistic, the transatlantic alliance has always been about a shared commitment to democratic values. Now Europeans are bracing for an America that behaves like any other transactional superpower. Several officials expressed fears that Trump would turn America’s NATO membership into a kind of protection racket, threatening to abandon Europe unless this ally offers better trade terms, or that ally helps investigate a political enemy.

“We are exposed,” Bagger, the German state secretary, told me. Europe’s alliance with America, he said, “has served as our life insurance for the last 70 years.”

And with Vladimir Putin seizing territory in Europe and trying to unravel NATO, what choice would these countries have but to accept Trump’s terms?


NARVA, ESTONIA

The city of Narva sits on Estonia’s eastern border, separated from Russia by a river and a heavily guarded bridge. Some experts believe that if World War III breaks out in the coming years, this is where it will begin. The city is overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Russians, many of whom don’t speak Estonian and are therefore ineligible for citizenship. Western officials fear Putin might try to use the same playbook he developed in Crimea—enlisting Russian separatists to stoke unrest and create a pretense for annexing the city. Such a move would effectively dare the West to go to war with a nuclear power over a small Estonian city, or else watch the credibility of their vaunted alliance collapse. NATO calls this “the Narva scenario.”

On a cold spring morning, I drove two hours from the Estonian capital of Tallinn and arrived at the border-crossing station, a red-brick box of a building on the edge of the Narva River. There I met Aleksandr Kazmin, a border guard with close-cropped hair and a friendly face who spoke broken English with a thick Russian accent. He wore a patch on his coat that said Politsei and a gun on his hip.

The border checkpoint once saw a steady stream of commuters and tourists traveling back and forth between Russia and Estonia—at its peak, Kazmin told me, the station processed 27,000 people in a single day. But travel dropped dramatically once the war in Ukraine started. In the months following the invasion, many of the people coming across the Narva border were refugees. Then, earlier this year, Russia closed its side of the road for “renovations,” meaning that the only way to cross the bridge now is by foot. On the morning I visited, I saw a thin trickle of travelers—moms pushing strollers, young people with backpacks—shuffle in and out of the station.

Kazmin told me that the war had divided Narva, as it had the wider Russian diaspora. Those who are “already integrated in Estonian society” generally oppose Putin’s aggression, he said, but some “don’t want to integrate—they are living in Russian-media world.” He rolled his eyes before muttering in resignation, “Nothing to do. It’s their choice.”

I asked Kazmin if I could walk to the actual border, and he obliged. As we made our way across the bridge, passing a tangle of barbed wire that had been pushed to the side, he warned me that we might see a Russian border guard filming us from the checkpoint on the other side. Kazmin didn’t know exactly why the Russians did this—he guessed it was some kind of intelligence-gathering tactic—but it often happened when he brought a visitor to the bridge.

Sure enough, as we got closer, a guard appeared in the distance. He didn’t seem to have a camera, so I asked Kazmin if I could wave at him. Kazmin cautioned against it. Communication between the two sides, even for benign logistical coordination, is strictly regulated: Only specially trained officials at the station are allowed to talk to the Russians, and they do so using a Cold War–era crank phone.

We stopped when we reached the middle of the bridge. Kazmin told me this was the closest we would get to Russia, explaining that there was no permanent, official border; it was understood that the deepest point of the river was what technically separated the two countries, and that shifts over time. The spot was strangely beautiful. Below us, a current of water rushed toward the Baltic Sea; above us, a flurry of snow fell from the gray sky. Two imposing medieval fortresses faced each other from either side of the river, one built by the occupying Danes in the 13th century, the other by a Muscovite prince two centuries later—twin relics of conquests past. As I took in the view, Kazmin bounced up and down to keep warm, stealing glances at his Russian counterpart.

I thought about how much more precarious the world must feel to those living in a place like this, doing a job like his. The day before my visit to Narva, I had interviewed Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, who talked about the stakes of preserving the transatlantic alliance. Her country has a population of 1.3 million and is roughly the size of Vermont. She recalled sitting in a meeting with other world leaders shortly after her election where they discussed the Russian threat. “I made a note in my notebook: ‘For some countries here, talking about security and defense is a nice intellectual discussion,’” Kallas told me. “‘For us, it’s existential.’”

After dozens of interviews, I’d become desensitized to politicians using this word. But walking back across the bridge, I thought I understood what she meant.

Kazmin pointed to a tall flagpole perched beside the Narva station. At the top, the Estonian flag waved in the wind; beneath it, a navy-blue flag with the NATO seal. He said that flag had been installed only a few months earlier. I asked him if he thought the day would ever come when he saw Russian tanks rolling across the bridge. Kazmin got quiet for a moment. He said Russia’s government has long promised that it would not attack the Baltics—but that Putin had said the same thing about Ukraine.

“When they tell us they will not do something,” he said, “it means for us that they can do it—or will do it.”

The Atlantic

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