NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg participates in panel at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 17, 2024.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg participates in panel at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 17, 2024. (NATO)

MUNICH — By the time the senator from Ohio took center stage at the Munich Security Conference, some headliners were on their way home and the hall at Hotel Bayerischer Hof looked half-empty.

For two days, U.S. and European officials had warned of the threat from Russia and touted enduring transatlantic solidarity, even as Republican lawmakers held up roughly $60 billion in aid for Ukraine.

Now, with hours to go, a lone emissary from Trump country, Sen. J.D. Vance (R), was suggesting that the next U.S. administration could work with Russian President Vladimir Putin and pullback from Europe.

The audience looked rapt — and worried.

With aid for Ukraine stalled and a U.S. election on the horizon, European leaders, officials and diplomats are increasingly aware of the need to engage former president Donald Trump and his allies on security, but they are struggling, mightily, to do so.

For months now, much of Europe has been watching U.S. politics with numb dread, seeing President Biden’s weakness at the polls and fearing a return to the years when Trump threatened the international order that left them prosperous and cozy under the U.S. military’s security blanket.

With the largest European land war since World War II raging, Trump’s flirtation with Russia and loose talk on NATO now feel like less of a warning than an open invitation for invasion. Europe is worried and outraged — but not sure what to do next.

In Munich, the specter of Trump and Trumpism loomed over panels about the war in Ukraine and European Union politics and dominated the behind-the-scenes chatter like never before. Americans tried to ease fears; few seemed sold. The mood grew even darker after the news of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s death in a Siberian prison. His wife, Yulia, was in attendance, as were many of his friends.

European officials in Munich said they were paying closer attention than ever to granular polling numbers — not just matchups of Biden and Trump in swing states, but also sifting through data about the likely outcomes of House and Senate races to try to predict Congress’s inclinations.

What they see in the presidential race does not give them much hope, many of them said. One person asked with concern whether Biden’s health was likely to hold out until November. Another asked about the possibility of a contested Democratic convention. Most worried about the fate of U.S. aid to Ukraine.

Democrats who want to support Ukraine asked European colleagues to talk to Republicans. “I would urge you to put an enormous amount of pressure on every single House Republican who’s here to give us a vote on Ukraine aid, and to make it clear how important it is,” said Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

Some are trying. A range of European officials and diplomats describe what might be considered a two-pronged approach to Trump-proofing: trying to sell MAGA America on the existing world order while also preparing for the possibility that it crumbles.

Senior E.U. diplomats say privately that their embassies are working overtime to try to understand what is happening stateside and what type of comments or concessions might resonate with the Republican base.

On a recent trip to the United States, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg gave a speech at the Trump-friendly Heritage Foundation and visited a Lockheed Martin facility in Troy, Ala., to highlight how much allies buy from American weapons manufacturers.

Estonian Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna recently traveled to Arkansas to tout his country’s U.S. weapons purchases. He saw the trip as a way to explain what Europe is doing to defend itself and to make the case for continued U.S. engagement in NATO. His goal: “to put facts on the table.”

“We have to be practical,” he said.

In private conversations, European officials and diplomats often raise the idea of promising the Americans tougher action on China in return for supporting Ukraine and NATO — though few venture concrete steps.

They will probably need to do more to convince Vance and his colleagues.

“The problem with Europe is that it does not provide enough of a deterrent on its own,” he said Sunday morning in Munich. “I think the American security blanket has allowed European security to atrophy.”

America does not need to pull out of NATO or abandon Europe, he said, but must “pivot” to Asia. And as it does, he argued, Europe must step up.

Though some of Europe’s security establishment might agree with that sentiment, few share his assessment of Russia.

“I do not think that Vladimir Putin is an existential threat to Europe,” Vance said Sunday. “And to the extent that he is,” he continued, it shows that “Europe has to take a more aggressive role in its own security.”

The senator told the crowd in Munich that he is open to working with Putin. “The fact that he is a bad guy does not mean we can’t engage in basic diplomacy and prioritize America’s interests,” he said.

Those words will do little to reassure Europeans who fear that a second Trump presidency would spell the end of NATO. At a campaign rally this month, Trump said he would “encourage” Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to NATO members that don’t spend enough on defense.

“When the former and possibly future leader of the free world says that he would sit back and see how Russia would attack NATO allies, we have to rethink what U.S. commitment towards Europe and Ukraine could look like,” said one European security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations between allies.

“We do have to hope for the best but must prepare for the worst,” the official said, adding that such a scenario would include dropping support for Ukraine and letting Putin destabilize the region.

In the days since Trump’s remarks, European officials have privately discussed building a continentwide complement to NATO, one that would work in concert with U.S. security assurances, but could also serve as a credible alternative if U.S. guarantees are pulled.

For now, those conversations are knotted in familiar disputes. France and Germany can’t agree on who would foot the bill. Eastern Europe doesn’t fully trust Western Europe’s resolve against Russian threats. And it’s not clear how they would build a nuclear shield over the continent — and even if they did, they would fall far short of matching Russia’s arsenal in the worst-case event of nuclear war.

Some wonder whether a Europe that makes itself ready to split from the United States would fuel a self-fulfilling prophecy, supercharging the transatlantic divorce rather than avoiding it.

Some are focusing on how to lock in U.S. commitments ahead of the November elections. Senior U.S. policymakers say that, realistically, there is only so much they can do to curb the foreign policy decision-making of future administrations. But some of the structures they are discussing — such as a long-term military assistance commitment to Ukraine — would call for status reports and other actions that could make it more politically awkward for Trump to completely renege on U.S. promises.

And there is also a sense that, even if Biden prevails, things will change.

Hannah Neumann, a German member of the European Parliament, said there was no question that the Munich crowd preferred Biden, but most understood that the shift in U.S. sentiment goes deeper than Trump and would probably stick around.

“It is clear to everyone: Be it Trump or Biden, the countries in the E.U. must come together and step up their security game,” she said. “That is the homework.”

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