by Michael C. Davies
Moe: ‘Oh ho, an English boy, eh? You know we saved your ass in World War Two.’
Hugh: ‘Yeah, well, we saved your ass in World War Three.’
– ‘Lisa’s Wedding,’ The Simpsons, S6E19.
In the past few weeks, U.S. President Donald J. Trump, and the Republican Party more generally, have made it clear they are willing to do anything to remain in power in the aftermath of the 2020 election, including possibly starting a civil war. Both Trump himself and numerous Republican Party elected officials and apparatchiks have stated they will neither acknowledge the outcome of the election if they lose, an election Trump already decries as illegitimate, nor participate in it fairly. Even more concerning is that a contested result could light a spark many on the American right are hoping for. White supremacists groups have grown exponentially during his Administration, and declare any event other than a Trump victory to be grounds to start the Boogaloo—the white supremacists’ slang term for a second American civil war. The question therefore becomes, what will Europe do if America fractures? Should this happen, Europe, broadly, will have four options to consider.
The roots of a possible second American civil war have been identifiable since the end of the first civil war in 1865. While the Confederacy was military and politically defeated in 1865, it re-emerged soon after and took back control of the South, imposed Jim Crow laws and social regulations, and expanded into the West. Certainly not for the last time, the United States chose white supremacy and strategic failure rather than engaging in effective state-building to achieve a new birth of freedom. This time, with forty years of free-market fundamentalism having stolen $50 trillion from the American people and collapsing the American middle class, the lack of quality health care and student loans collapsing birth rates, and decades of sectarian media blaming it all on ‘others,’ a large percentage of the American populous is armed, ready, and willing to wash the country in a genocidal and politicidal cleansing fire, just as the Confederacy did during the Civil War.
In Donald Trump, the Confederate element of American society has found their saviour. Trump’s approval rating has rarely moved regardless of how many more failures pile up exactly because he treats politics as his favourite movie, Bloodsport. He antagonizes large swathes of the populous because they refuse to love him and treat him with the respect he believes he deserves. After all, this was the man who did not really care about the number of COVID-19 deaths until the virus started affecting ‘his’ people—citizens in Republican-leaning states. 225,000+ dead, ever-rising, and he is more than happy to say it ‘affected virtually nobody.’ To Trump, he is only the President of those who love him. And a pox on all others—now, literally.
It is precisely because far right-wing groups praise him that Trump has allowed them to flourish under his Administration and reach the mainstream. Individually and collectively, they all pine for the Boogaloo. Groups like the Oath Keepers, the Boogaloo Boys, the Proud Boys, and now, the incredible rise of the mind-melting QAnon conspiracy, together with the ever-present militia movements that all have their basis in white supremacist violence, give form to the battle lines being drawn. Their goal, broadly, is to impose a right-wing anarcho-capitalist white supremacist state in America using extreme mass violence. Their intentions are so clear even establishment centrists who bemoan any act of revolt against these groups and their political handmaidens have finally begun to see the writing is on the wall.
The question therefore remains, what will Europe do should conflict break out? During the last US Civil War, because of America’s distance and Europe’s own problems, it largely left the war alone, preferring to see who emerged on top. This time, distance and impact are meaningless. Should the US divide into a years-long brawl, Europe’s own security blanket—conventional and nuclear via the NATO alliance—will be torn asunder with it. European states, individually and collectively, therefore have a direct stake in the outcome. The closeness of Trump to Russia, after all, regardless of the causation, is a daily worry for those who share a border with Russia and rely on NATO, especially American, military forces for deterrence. Without it, RAND estimates, they will last barely 60 hours.
Under the worst scenario of a breakout of a new civil war, Europe has four basic options: First, Do nothing. As scholar Edward Luttwak previously suggested, the option always exists to just ‘give war a chance’ and see what happens and adapt to the new circumstances at the end. Second, Lend Lease. As the US did during the Second World War before it engaged, it provided material for the war effort. Third, volunteers. Like the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, Eagle Squadrons of the Second World War, The Crippled Eagles in Rhodesia, or more recently as the ISIS and anti-ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria, Europe could allow its citizens to fight in America. Whether it would allow fighters for both sides is another question altogether, however.
Or, finally, would the satirical epigraph at the start of this post prove prescient—would Europe mobilize to defeat this new Confederacy? Would it make a stand on its own values and strategic interests? Suffering under a long history of continual strategic failure, with Iraq and Afghanistan only being the latest examples, it would take a significant shift in elite, military, and popular imaginations to make this happen. Regardless of what choice could be made, each option comes with its own risks and rewards. But with greater risk comes greater reward. And choosing the lesser options can mean Europe will further erode its ability to secure itself, and perhaps fall (further) into its own pit of darkness once more.
As Cathal Nolan made clear in his estimable history of battle, ‘moral and material attrition’ are the ‘main determinants of outcome in wars among the Great Powers.’ Simply, those who mobilise the most usually win. Without a doubt, the right-wing in the US, both government and non-government, remains the most ready, willing, and able to engage in large-scale violence. But they are also the smallest demographically, weakest economically, and the obedience of large parts of the US Government to Trump can no longer be counted on, let alone in the event of a full outbreak of violence. Thus, the choices Europe makes early on matters. And the decision, to reverse Churchill’s hope, for the Old World to ‘step forth to the rescue and the liberation of the [new]’ might be required if it is to avoid conflagration on its own soil.
Michael C. Davies is a Ph.D. candidate in Defence Studies at King’s College London, focusing on the theory and practice of victory. He previously conducted lessons learned research at the U.S. National Defense University where he co-authored three books on the Wars of 9/11 and is one of the progenitors of the Human Domain doctrinal concept. He is also the Coordinating Editor with the Strife Journal.