It is February 2021. A few months after his re-election as president of the United States, Donald Trump declares that NATO has become obsolete and the United States withdraws from the alliance. All U.S. forces — military personnel and equipment — including nuclear and missile defense assets will be withdrawn from Europe as soon as possible.

This nightmare scenario has been on the mind of many security policy officials, and experts, ever since the New York Times reported in January 2019 that Trump discussed several times over the course of 2018 wanting to withdraw from the alliance. Congress has acted and passed the NATO Support Act, which prohibits the use of funds to withdraw the United States from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Yet the possibility of such a move cannot entirely be excluded.

Trump’s musings about a NATO withdrawal have served as a wake-up call for some in Europe that Europeans urgently need to assume greater responsibility for their own security. This realization is one of the reasons why closer defense cooperation and a greater degree of strategic autonomy are high on the European Union’s agenda. But are Europeans able to defend themselves? How would they think about their defense without the United States?

policy game prepared by Körber-Stiftung and the International Institute for Strategic Studies sought to answer these questions this summer in Berlin. Five country teams with experts from France, Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States addressed a fictional scenario that involved a U.S. withdrawal from NATO, followed by crises in a NATO member state in the western Balkans and across Eastern Europe. How would Europeans react to such a scenario? What are the red lines, interests, and priorities of the respective actors? How might Europeans organize their defense if the United States withdraws from NATO, and what role could the United States play in European security after the withdrawal?

The results of the game were sobering, with no clear upside for any of the participating teams. While a one-time simulation exercise, it provided valuable insights into the interests and preferences of European member states.

At the beginning of the policy game, most European teams adopted a “wait-and-see” approach focused on persuading the United States to return to NATO, offering concessions that were unthinkable before (from trade to energy). The unfortunate message for transatlantic relations seems to be that a threat to abandon NATO might actually yield some results.

Europeans started to take proactive steps only once the security situation in the scenario deteriorated significantly, and when it became clear that the U.S. withdrawal decision — at least in this simulation — was irreversible. Faced with a crisis in a NATO member state in the western Balkans (in the scenario, a pro-Russian coup d’état with Russian warships blocking access to the Mediterranean Sea), most teams anticipated that remaining NATO members would struggle to agree to invoke the principle of collective defense under Article 5 in this grey-zone scenario. Instead, the invocation of Article 4 — which involves only consultations in case the security or independence of a NATO member state is threatened — paired with sanctions on Russia and a robust response within ad-hoc coalitions were the preferred means of action. Without U.S. security guarantees, it seems, the credibility of Article 5 and the mutual defense commitment are questionable.

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