‘Why Trump, Ukraine and Europe could define Starmer’s time in power’

Ed Owen
© Stratos Brilakis / Shutterstock.com

Liz Truss was at least right about one thing in her embarrassingly obsequious speech to the gathering of the Trumpian vanguard at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held just outside Washington DC last week.

It is that the Western alliance and the values of freedom and democracy that underpin it are under the greatest threat they have faced for more than a generation.

Yet her self-serving 15-minute moan to the MAGA faithful (she blamed the woke left lurking within the British state, corporate boardrooms and Conservative Party for her calamitous, 49-day tenure in Downing Street) was extraordinary in that she failed to mention once the issue that remains the single, greatest demonstration of that threat, namely, the war in Ukraine.

There is a threat to freedom and democracy – the war in Ukraine

This omission by a recent British Prime Minister, on the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion, was as telling as it was shocking. It represented the conscious appeasement of a dangerous but confident political movement around Donald Trump that is not just ambivalent about Ukraine’s fate but seemingly determined to aid and abet the political and territorial ambitions of Vladimir Putin.

It is more than eight months until the US Presidential elections but Donald Trump is already having a profound effect on this war. His instruction to Republicans in Congress to stall President Biden’s $60 billion funding support for Ukraine is already being felt on the frontline with a shortage of essential weaponry and munitions one factor in explaining recent Russian advances.

What’s more, Trump sent a chill down the spine of every NATO member when, in a campaign speech earlier this month, he said he would encourage Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to any country that fails to meet the alliance’s 2% national spending target on defence.

There is serious concern over financial support for the war effort

Little wonder then that the mood last week among European attendees at the annual Munich Security Conference, which brings together diplomats and security experts from across the globe, was grim.

A “stench of appeasement” hung over the event, according to Federick Kempe, the president of the widely respected US think tank, the Atlantic Council, with “more than a few European leaders making comparisons to September 1938 when a very different Munich meeting placated a murderous dictator—with disastrous consequences.”

There is certainly less talk of Ukraine winning the war and a serious concern that the lack of financial support from the US could tilt the military balance significantly in Russia’s favour in the coming months.

The threat of a 2nd Trump presidency looms

The fear of what will follow from a reduced US commitment to NATO and European defence as a result of a Trump Presidency next year has felt a lot more real too.

Radek Sikorski, the Foreign Minister of Poland, a country with particular geographical and historical reasons to fear a Moscow regime that makes no secret of its ambitions to restore the power and reach of the Soviet Union, told the Munich conference: “We are at a dramatic moment, one of terrible foreboding.”


This is the potential crisis that may hit Keir Starmer like an express train if and when he takes office in the UK later this year – and one that could shape not just the next Labour government but the future security of Europe too.

If stripped of a reliable American partner and facing an aggressive and unchecked Russian dictator, Europe will have to take on far greater responsibility for its own defence – and the UK, as the continent’s foremost military power, will need to play a leading role.

Replacing US military capacity is an enormous task

Replacing US military capacity would be a huge task and, while European defence spending and industrial production is on the rise, there will need to be a sea-change in attitude and resource if Europe is to achieve the scale and capabilities it would require.

For all his lack of experience in office, particularly in foreign and security affairs, Starmer – newly elected as the head of a stable government and in charge of the UK’s wide range of diplomatic, military and economic assets – could be in a unique position to help steer Europe along this difficult path.

A Labour administration would certainly need significantly to increase spending on defence – an unpopular move for some who would expect a new Labour government to prioritise fixing our crumbling public services – and its promised defence and security review would need to identify those gaps in military capability that require early attention.

Labour is indicating it’s ready to hit the ground running

Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey’s speech setting out plans to improve Britain’s military readiness and improve defence procurement arrangements demonstrates a clear sign that, while he cannot make any spending commitments this side of an election, he is ready to hit the ground running on this task.

Whether there is a Trump Presidency or not, a commitment to increasing Europe’s defence capability means that a Labour government also needs urgently to build a new relationship with the European Union and its key members, particularly Germany and France.

While Starmer and his shadow David Lammy have talked of a new security pact between the UK and EU (first proposed by Theresa May but later dropped by Boris Johnson), the scale of the challenges ahead will require a much more ambitious approach.

Trump would put more pressure and responsibility on a Labour government

“Do you think Keir understands that he may well be the leader of the free world by the end of the year?” was a serious question recently put to me by a leading Democrat strategist pondering the implications of a second Trump Presidency.

It is a mantle that Starmer is unlikely to wish upon himself. But it reflects the desperately challenging current global security environment that a future Labour government will operate in.

Of course, there may still be a way found for Congress to unblock US funding to Ukraine to take the fight to the Russian army this year, and continued US support for NATO and European defence would come with President Biden’s re-election.

We would be wise not to bank on either though, and the forces that got us here are not going away any time soon. The challenges to the future of the Western alliance are real and current and, while it is an outcome unlikely to be welcomed by Liz Truss or the MAGA faithful at CPAC, it may fall to a Labour Government with a clearer understanding of the importance of Britain’s relationship with Europe, the US and the world to address them.

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