National Security & Defense

Trump’s Ill-Considered Germany Troop Cut

President Donald Trump speaks during a bilateral meeting with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel at the sidelines of a NATO summit in Watford, England, December 4, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Last week, President Trump confirmed that the United States will be cutting forces in Germany by a third, reducing the number of American service members there to no more than 25,000.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this. In terms of the defense of Europe, the important question is whether we have forces with the capability to surge to the right places in the event of Russian aggression, with the necessary range and firepower to counter Russian military systems. How many are based in Germany is really beside the point. Nonetheless, this particular draw-down decision is literally ill-considered — poorly coordinated with our allies and lacking a clear strategic rationale.

If it is being undertaken to punish Germany for its trade policies and defense spending, as Trump has said, it’s unlikely to bring results. Trump was right to call Germany “delinquent” for consistently failing to spend at least 2 percent of its GDP on defense, the NATO target. Germany’s disregard for its commitments to the transatlantic alliance is disgraceful, but unfortunately, unlikely to fundamentally change, notwithstanding a minor increase in defense spending last year. Germany has also pressed ahead with Nord Stream 2, a natural-gas pipeline that will run between Russia, and Germany and render our allies beholden to the Kremlin for their energy needs.

Regardless, the reason to keep our forces in Germany isn’t as a favor to Berlin, but because it serves our interest in a stable Europe. And there are better ways, including economic measures, to thwart EU–Russia collaboration.

If it is being undertaken as a slap at Chancellor Angela Merkel for saying that she would not attend a G-7 meeting Trump had wanted to host in Washington this month, it constitutes a substitution of personal pique for military strategy. (Administration officials have claimed that the withdrawal announcement had been in the works for months.)

If it is being undertaken to save money, as some have suggested, it’s not going to work because it will also cost money to house the troops removed from Germany in, say, Texas.

It’s worth remembering why we are in Germany in the first place. During the Cold War, American soldiers based there were a key piece of the deterrent against a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. America’s defense posture allowed its allies to develop prosperous economies and resilient democracies.

The United States has benefited from this arrangement, too. U.S. troops in Germany kept the Soviets at bay until the end of the Cold War. With 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the country served as an important military hub. In the fight against al-Qaeda, where would we have been without Ramstein Air Base and Landstuhl Regional Medical Center?

The Cold War is over, but the Russian threat is not, as its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 attests. In response, the United States — including the Trump administration — has worked to strengthen Europe against the Russian threat, prodding NATO countries to increase their defense spending, sending lethal defensive aid to Ukraine, and upping the number of U.S. troops stationed in Norway and Poland. Germany is an important node connecting these endeavors.

There’s always a chance Trump’s announced move could be reversed. We hope it is. There’s a case for reimagining our security posture in Europe, but not like this.

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