Commentary / World

U.S.-Germany crisis goes deeper than Trump’s planned troop cuts

by Hal Brands

Bloomberg

Not every American troop withdrawal from foreign bases is a catastrophe. U.S. military assets are finite, after all, and so repositioning them from time to time can make good sense. Yet reports that U.S. President Donald Trump plans to withdraw 9,500 of the roughly 34,000 U.S. troops stationed in Germany have caused a great deal of dismay on both sides of the Atlantic. That’s because the move is strategically nonsensical, reflects some of the pettiest and most destructive impulses of Trumpism, and reveals the deepening rot in America’s most important European relationship.

Trump’s decision didn’t come out of nowhere. The Pentagon has been studying the possibility of redeploying U.S. troops in Europe for some time. The administration has discussed shifting part of its permanent European presence to Poland, and in 2019 moved 1,000 troops there from Western Europe. Yet this doesn’t mean that the matter was well thought out, because it is hard to discern any meaningful strategic rationale behind Trump’s choice.

This isn't like the U.S. decision, in the early 2000s, to remove some of its troops from South Korea. That shift was part of a broad, deliberate global realignment of U.S. forces during the war on terrorism. It came in concert with a repositioning of the remaining forces in South Korea to make them more survivable in case of war, and thus more valuable to the South Koreans. Nor is it akin to withdrawing troops from a war zone in which they are taking heavy casualties to no good strategic end — the sort of pullback that can serve a country’s national interests.

This time around, the shift threatens to work against the major U.S. military priority in Europe: Strengthening NATO's eastern flank against potential Russian aggression. It comes at a time when uncertainty about the U.S. commitment to the continent is running high. Moreover, the move was taken in Trump’s typically abrupt fashion: There was reportedly no meaningful consultation or even forewarning to the Germans or other NATO allies. (Or, reportedly, to Pentagon officials as well.)

It is possible that some unknown portion of the 9,500 troops will be redeployed to Poland, mitigating the impact on America's European presence. But it will take years, and a great deal of money, to turn Poland into anywhere near as reliable a hub for U.S. forces as Germany is. This is largely because there isn’t much existing infrastructure in that country for hosting a large American contingent.

And even if the goal is just to cut the costs of overseas U.S. deployments — one of the president’s stated objectives — the withdrawal probably won't pay off. As U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, a leading Republican thinker on foreign policy, tweeted, “Troops leaving Germany will have to go somewhere, and wherever they go, they won't have the benefit of German financial support.”

Indeed, Germany provides some of the most generous host-nation support that the United States currently receives from its allies — around $1 billion per year in cash and in-kind payments. There is no guarantee that Poland, a significantly less wealthy nation, would provide equivalent or greater support per American soldier.

If the policy thus seems incoherent, that’s because something else is probably going on here. The withdrawal decision came just days after Trump’s most recent spat with Berlin, this one involving Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision not to attend an in-person meeting of the Group of Seven in the U.S. this month — and her resistance to inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin to join the group.

Given that Trump has long seen Merkel more as an antagonist than an ally, and given how often the president has used foreign policy to pursue his own grievances, it is all too plausible that the primary issue here is Trump’s effort to punish an uncooperative foreign leader. And if that’s troubling enough, even more worrying is what this episode shows about the decaying state of the U.S.-German relationship.

For all the mythology that surrounds the U.S.-U.K. relationship, it is arguably the U.S.-German relationship that has held the key to European peace and cooperation since World War II. During the Cold War, America sheltered West Germany from intimidation and aggression by the Warsaw Pact, and provided the climate of security in which the country could recover economically without terrifying its neighbors. The U.S. committed to building a prosperous, democratic Germany that would no longer pursue aggression born of autocracy.

The Germans, in return, served as an anchor for American power in Europe, hosting the lion’s share of U.S. troops on the continent. After the Cold War, Berlin actively discouraged an American withdrawal, because the Germans understood that Europe still required Washington’s presence and engagement, lest it lapse back into the darker patterns of its past. If the story of post-1945 Europe has been its near-miraculous delivery from a long history of violent strife, the U.S.-German alliance sits at the center of that story.

Yet that relationship is now in crisis, and there is blame to go around. The Germans, in American eyes, have been subpar allies for years. They have dragged their feet in building a military even minimally capable of helping defend Berlin's eastern neighbors, a lethargy that is particularly galling given all that West Germany's NATO allies did to defend it during the Cold War.

Germany's massive trade surplus has been a cause of friction within Europe and with the U.S. And although Merkel has helped hold economic sanctions against Moscow in place for several years, Germany’s support for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline threatens to make Europe more dependent on Russian energy.

What is most remarkable, however, is the level of minimally disguised hostility Trump has shown for Merkel and Germany since even before he was elected. The president has continually violated an unwritten rule of alliance politics by insulting Merkel personally and publicly attacking her politically. He dispatched an ambassador to Germany who seems to have viewed his mission as empowering the country’s illiberal populists and fracturing the EU.

When it comes to policy, the president has repeatedly called into question the U.S. commitment to NATO, which is the critical underpinning of the U.S.-German relationship. Not least, Trump has governed so erratically, and shown such contempt for norms of coordination and consultation with allies, that Merkel seems to have decided simply to keep her distance and see what happens in November.

For most of the postwar era, it would have been unthinkable that an American president would derisively toss candy at the German chancellor — and even more remarkable that a German chancellor would tune out an American president. But that’s where we are now, and that’s why the planned troop withdrawal is generating such consternation.

In a single move, Trump has once again exposed the capricious and vindictive nature of U.S. policy, qualities that are particularly worrying in a superpower. He has confirmed that he still doesn’t understand that the U.S. maintains large peacetime military deployments overseas not as a favor to other countries but as a favor to itself. Not least, he has given us a glimpse of just how badly one of America’s most critical alliances has deteriorated, at a time when an increasingly disordered world can afford it least.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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