After leaks published by the US newspaper The Wall Street Journal on 5 June 2020 based on statements by a US government official in which he said that President Donald Trump has ordered the Defense Department to reduce the number of US troops present in Germany by 9,500 soldiers out of a total of 34,500 soldiers stationed there, in mid-June 2020, the US President said that his country will reduce the number of its soldiers stationed in Germany to 25 thousand. He considered that the US presence there incurs enormous costs that are borne by Washington in return for nothing.
This was not the first time that Trump has announced his plans to withdraw some of the US soldiers in Germany. During the visit by Polish President Andrzej Duda to Washington in 2019, President Trump announced his intention to transfer US troops from Germany to Poland, especially that there is an agreement with the latter to refurbish a military base there. Poland has pledged to allocate nearly 2 billion dollars as a contribution to finance the construction of a US military base on its soil. During the meeting between the US President and President Duda during the latter’s visit to Washington on 24 June 2020, Trump underlined that the US troops will move from Germany to Poland which will be one of several destinations in Europe for those troops. Trump’s National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien mentioned in an article he wrote in The Wall Street Journal on 22 June 2020 that the details of this operation are still under discussion, and that no official announcement has yet been made regarding the reduction of troops as both the Secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are striving to provide the President with options to carry out the US withdrawal plan.
Nature of the US military presence in Germany
In the aftermath of World War II, and within the framework of the rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the US deployed a part of its troops in Germany as a geopolitically pivotal country. Those troops constituted the backbone of the main defence force of Washington and NATO to counter the Soviet influence at that time.
Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US military presence in Germany remained important according to the US strategic assessment. Indeed, that presence continued to increase in light of attempts by the Russian President Vladimir Putin to restore the glory of the Soviet Union, the global growth of Moscow’s military power and political influence, and Putin’s rejection of Russia’s uncomfortable position in the existing international order.
Currently, nearly 34,500 US soldiers are stationed in Germany. The total is nearly 50 thousand, including the civilian administrative staff in the US military bases on German soil which were used by the US to move soldiers and equipment during external US military interventions, including the Ramstein airbase, which is the largest US military base outside the US. It is used to launch US military operations in the Near and Middle East and control the drones used by Washington to target terrorist organizations in the Middle East and Africa.
The German city of Stuttgart houses the headquarters of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) which runs the US military operations in Africa. It also houses the United States European Command (EUCOM) which is tasked with commanding the military bases and units in European countries, and the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (LRMC) to which hundreds of US soldiers injured during the US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan had been lifted. NATO’s largest training site is located in Grafenwoehr, and an F-16 fighter squadron is positioned in Rhinedahlem.
The US military troops in Germany contribute to projecting the US influence and military power globally in addition to providing protection to European allies under the US commitment in the aftermath of World War II to protect European security and stability.
Reasons for the US decision
President Donald Trump has attributed his decision to withdraw US troops from Germany to three main reasons: first, the default by Berlin in meeting its financial obligations due to NATO, estimated at 2 percent of Germany’s total Gross Domestic Product (GDP). While Germany is considered the world’s fourth largest economy, it spends only 1.4 percent of GDP on its defence, as opposed to the US which spends 3.4 percent of GDP.
The second reason relates to the dissatisfaction by the US President with the trade relations between the two countries. Trump indicated that Germany treats the US “very badly on trade”. Besides, he is also dissatisfied with the agreement that Berlin wants to sign with Washington in the trade domain.
The third of those reasons relates to Germany’s insistence on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project with Russia despite opposition to the project by many European countries and the US. The US opposition to this project is attributed to the fact that while Berlin pays billions of dollars to Moscow in return for energy, Washington is committed to protecting Berlin against Russia. Within this framework, Trump wants Berlin to purchase natural gas from Washington instead of Moscow, an option which is considered costly by Germany due to the geographical distance and the quality of US gas.
In addition to the above reasons, in an article published in The Wall Street Journal, the US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien attributed Trump’s decision to the fact that the 2017 US National Security Strategy is focused on superpower rivalry between the US on one hand and Russia and China on the other. Both Russia and China are revisionist powers in the international order, seeking to bring about changes in that order which was founded by the US in the aftermath of World War II essentially to serve US interests, so that it would be more expressive of the two countries’ authoritarian values and regional and global interests. Therefore, the US needs to withdraw some of its troops in Berlin to re-deploy them within the framework of the US strategy to counter Beijing and Moscow.
In addition, President Trump’s decision can also be attributed to the recurrent differences between himself and Chancellor Angela Merkel regarding many European and international crises, the lack of chemistry between them during the meetings that brought the two together, the refusal by Merkel to attend the G7 summit which President Trump called for to discuss the means of countering the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effect of Richard Grenell, the pro-Trump former US ambassador to Berlin, despite his statements in which he downplayed his role in the adoption of this decision, who had underlined that preparations for the reduction of US troops in Germany have been on the table since 2019.
Implications of the reduction of US troops in Germany
The attempts by the US administration to reduce the size of US troops in Germany were opposed by nearly 20 Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee as well as six members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Republican opposition to this decision stemmed from the fact that it serves the interests of Russia as it would encourage Russia to adopt more hostile behaviours targeting European security, especially after Moscow became certain that the US has given up its obligations to NATO.
Some people think that while the US strategy focuses on countering its strategic adversaries (Russia and China), the US, by not consulting its western allies regarding the potential reduction decision, risks dismantling the western alliance supportive of its policies and actions at the international level. This would allow adversaries to utilize this approach and the resultant effects and rifts to enhance their partnerships with European countries that would look for an alternative after increasing doubts in European capitals regarding the credibility of the US security umbrella for Europe. This would force those capitals to rely on themselves militarily and to largely re-formulate the European security policy.
While the declared US goal from the reduction of troops is to force Germany to increase its military spending, there are fears among many people regarding the feasibility of the decision in convincing Berlin to spend more on defence, particularly with the rise in Merkel’s popularity at home after its government’s effective response to coronavirus epidemic both nationally and globally. In addition, the withdrawal of part of the US troops from the country might strengthen the influence of the German current that is opposed to integration into NATO, which, in the last analysis, would endanger the US strategic interests.
Lastly, opponents of the decision by the Trump administration to reduce the US military presence in Germany believe that the decision, in addition to depriving the US of the capability to deal with many international crises, negatively reflecting on the power balance in Europe, affecting how the world sees the US power and its role in the world since such a step would confirm the relative decline in some of its power indicators, would limit the US capability to mobilize the international community to support its external moves.
Germany’s positions and options
The US President’s decision has raised criticisms by many German officials, mainly Chancellor Merkel who indicated that the US presence in Germany does not merely protect Berlin and the European countries, but also the US interests themselves. Some German politicians indicated that the US decision did not come as a surprise. However, what disturbed them was that it was taken without discussion or prior consultation with the German government or involving the US NATO partners in taking such an important decision. They underlined that the US decision would damage the relations between Washington and Berlin and shake intra-NATO relations. Some have even called for the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from German territories.
In view of the reduction by the US of its security obligations towards its European allies and NATO, Germany would have two options; first, to wait for the Democratic candidate Joe Biden to win the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for 3 November 2020 and subsequently announce the reversal of President Trump’s decision and restoration of US-European relations to their earlier state. Indeed, the former Vice President has frequently underlined that in case of his election, he will work on enhancing US alliances.
The second option is for Berlin to take over the leadership of countries of the European Union (EU), urge them to assume greater responsibility for their defence, strengthen European integration in security and defence affairs, enhance cooperation between EU countries in the field of research and development in the domain of technology and military equipment, and maintain the European alliance with the US and NATO.
President Trump’s decision to reduce the size of US troops in Germany comes within his approach of reducing US security commitments towards its traditional allies around the world and the need for those allies to bear the cost of US protection. The US administration has often threatened to withdraw its troops from countries such as South Korea and Japan on the pretext of the high cost born by Washington in protecting them.
Nevertheless, it is unlikely that President Trump shall proceed to implement his decision to reduce the US military presence in Germany for several reasons: first, many US military officials oppose this decision because it overlooks the fact that the US troops are not present in Germany mainly to defend Berlin, rather they are part of the US contribution to maintain the stability of Europe and protect it against external threats; second, the US military presence and military bases in Germany are not secondary, rather they are essential in the US map of external US actions and greatly contribute to enhancing the US power globally.
Thirdly, since he was sworn in on 20 January 2017, Trump has more than once undertaken to withdraw his country’s troops from Syria and Afghanistan but he would soon retract his promise in view of the impact of executing such a withdrawal on the US security and national interest.
Lastly, the fourth reason relates to the lack of readiness by the countries alternative to Germany in which the troops to be withdrawn from Berlin would be re-deployed since those countries lack the necessary infrastructure that would render the US troops capable of exercising their tasks efficiently in addition to the new and high costs of building facilities for those troops in those countries at a time when the US is facing an economic crisis and significant financial losses due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic both in the US and globally.
* Researcher in US Affairs.
EPC | 23 Jun 2020
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