President Donald Trump’s decision in June 2020 to reduce the number of troops stationed in Germany to 25,000 from 34,500[i]blindsided not only the host country, but also the officials in Pentagon and NATO. The move indicative of the fraying relations between the two partners, ranging from disagreements over trade, climate change, the Iran nuclear deal and more importantly on defence spending, where President Trump has called Germany ‘delinquent[ii]’ in its payments to NATO. The decision also points to larger [mis]understandings in the Trump administration regarding the strategic relevance of Europe for America and undermines not only US national security, but also its threat perception and strategic posturing in Europe.
The American troops have been stationed in Germany since the end of the Second World War. Over the years, their numbers have reduced from 72,000 stationed in 2006 to 33,250 in 2018[iii], as the US responded to the shifting global security situation. However, since 2014, the US increased its number of troops in Europe due to the perceived threat from Russian aggression.
The question then is – why did the Trump administration decided on reducing the number of troops. The move points to the larger imbalance in the relations between the two nations in recent years. President Trump has been very vocal about the trade surplus that Germany enjoys with the US. US’ trade deficit with Germany was 47 billion euros in 2019.[iv] President Trump has long held the view that trade surplus not in favour of the US is a sign of a country taking advantage of it. He has not differentiated between partners and competitors while expressing his views. This has been aggravated by the Nord Stream II project which is expected to double Russia’s energy export in the region. The EU supports the project and has decided to buy energy from Russia despite the US’ views to the contrary. As a result, in December 2019, the US put sanctions on the companies involved in the construction of this pipeline. This was called as “severe intervention in German and European internal affairs.”[v]
However, the Secretary of Defence Mark Esper justified the troops’ reduction on the basis of larger plan to reposition US forces in the region. During a press briefing, he said that it was a “major strategic and positive shift that would unquestionably achieve the core principles of enhancing US and NATO deterrence of Russia”[vi]. He said the decision was based on strategic reorientation in the region and was not an act of retribution as it has been called. He added that the move – which include deployment of some forces closer to the Russian border – was designed to enhance deterrence against Moscow and to strengthen US alliances.
Nonetheless, the main point of contention in the relations appears to be German defence spending. The German failure to meet the required NATO defence commitment of 2% of GDP on defence has been the source of ire for President Trump. Although, the demand for more financial commitment from other member states is a demand that is not unique to the Trump administration, but has been raised during Barack Obama and G.W. Bush’s presidencies as well. However, differences have become more pronounced in the past few years. At the Wales Summit in 2014, NATO allies had agreed to commit at least 2% of their GDP for defence purposes by 2024. However, by 2019 only seven countries have been able to do so. Germany, so far, has only committed 1.36% with Chancellor Merkel saying in 2018 that “Germany would not be able to meet its NATO spending obligation until well after 2024.”[vii] While announcing the troop reduction, President Trump was very clear that “Germany is paying a very small fraction of what they’re supposed to be paying,” and accused Berlin of “tremendous delinquency.”[viii]
Implications of the Decision
The reduction in the number of troops is expected to have major implications for the US. This is so because Germany houses five of the seven US garrisons in Europe and two (EUCOM and AFRICOM) of the eleven unified commands. These commands and garrisons are significant for their support to launch military operations across Asia and Africa. Washington’s aerial drone operations based in Ramstein base would also be affected. The Ramstein Air Base is the largest base outside of the US and is one of the primary logistical hubs for its operations in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. The US has invested billions of dollars to establish Landstuhl Medical Centre, largest US hospital outside the continental US and Grafenwohr training area which boasts high-tech training installations. By ordering the reduction of troops, President Trump has failed to take into account that this move virtually reduces the US’ capacity and capability of deploying forces to the hotspots in Africa and Middle East. In short, the troops in Germany are first and foremost for serving the national interests of the US. Their presence provides the US military brass with the flexibility to respond to crises in Europe as well as the European periphery.
Similarly, it has several implications for Germany and on the larger debate on European security. A key implication is the rising questions on the Trump administration’s commitment to the transatlantic ties. The US troops have been deployed in Germany since 1945 to deter any kind of external aggression, to coordinate with allies and facilitate troop deployment. Therefore, the troop reduction might provide Germany an opportunity to relook its defence relations with the US and to recalibrate it for the 21st century. Also, Germany is committed to achieving its 2% of GDP on defence spending by 2031, and has consistently increased its budget to push for enhanced capacity development.The current situation provides an opportunity for the German administration to forge ties with Russia independent of the US views. This is so because most of the German policymakers favour engagement with Russia and are of the view that European security cannot be defined “as against” Russia. There are already signs of increased cooperation between the two countries especially the unwavering German support the Nord Stream pipeline project, despite US sanctions.
The announcement was received with mixed reactions. The Republican lawmakers expressed grave concerns in an open letter to President Trump stating that “In Europe, the threats posed by Russia have not lessened, and we believe that signs of a weakened US commitment to NATO will encourage further Russian aggression and opportunism…We believe that such steps would significantly damage the United States’ national security and strengthen Russia’s position to our detriment”.[ix] The opinion in Germany ranged from Christian Democratic Union calling the move regrettable, to being welcomed by Left-wing party Die Linke, which said that “The federal government should accept it with gratitude and promptly start preparing for the complete withdrawal of US soldiers with the Trump administration.”[x]
With the US trying to bolster its Indo-Pacific Command to counter the rising threats from China, it was earlier predicted that the troops from Germany would be redeployed in the Indo-Pacific Region. This was very much evident from various statements that were released by the top leaders. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo while explaining troops cut from Germany had stated that “Washington looked at how the military and intelligence resources should be allocated around the world given the current nature of conflicts…We are going to make sure that we are going to be postured appropriately to counter them, the PLA."[xi] Similarly in an op-ed in Wall Street Journal titled ‘Why the U.S. Is Moving Troops out of Germany’, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien wrote that “Several thousand troops currently assigned to Germany may be reassigned to other countries in Europe. Thousands may expect to redeploy to the Indo-Pacific, where the US maintains a military presence in Guam, Hawaii, Alaska and Japan, as well as deployments in locations like Australia”[xii] However, on 29 July 2020, contrary to the expectations, US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper announced the structure of the troop’s reduction in which 6,400 will head home but will be redeployed back to Europe on a rotational basis, while 5,400 will be sent to other European countries including Italy, Belgium and Poland. Under the re-structuring, the 5th Corps headquarters would move to Poland and an F-16 squadron would shift to Italy. The EUCOM and Special Operations Command Europe would also be moved from Stuttgart in Germany to Belgium.
One of the critical issues that need to be kept in mind is that the argument provided for troop’s reduction was primarily that Germany has failed to adhere to defence spending of 2% of GDP. However, out the countries chosen by US for re-deployment - Italy, Poland and Belgium – only Poland fits the criteria as Italy’s defence spending is 1.3% of GDP and Belgium spends 0.9% of GDP on defence[xiii]. The decision points to a larger imbalance in EU-US relations on one hand and Germany-US relations on the other. With Germany, as stated earlier, problems have ranged from trade deficits, Nord Stream pipeline, and defence spending, which have led President Trump to be extremely critical of Germany. Similarly, during the Trump Presidency, the strategic relevance of Europe has decreased due to factors like increased US-China tensions; growing disagreement over issues ranging from climate change, NATO, Iran, and Russia; and US’ strategic rebalancing which has shifted the focus from Atlantic to Pacific. The decision also points to the need for Europe to take proactive and pragmatic measures to take care of its own security. On the positive side, this decision can provide an opportunity for a renewed focus on enhancing defence capability and capacity building within Europe. There is already a momentum building for fostering the EU’s capacity as a security provider[xiv] with France and Germany pushing the Union to boost joint defence capabilities of the EU, independent of the US. This is crucial because if left unaddressed, Europe’s inadequate military capabilities can further jeopardise the transatlantic relations.
Dr. Ankita Dutta is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal
[i] This is one of the largest troop deployments by US outside its borders after Japan.
[ii]The Hill, 24 June 2020, https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/504406-trump-signals-us-will-move-troops-from-germany-to-poland, Accessed on 27 June 2020
[iii]DW, 16 June 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/us-military-in-germany-what-you-need-to-know/a-49998340, Accessed on 26 June 2020
[iv]Reuters, 12 February 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-trade/germany-is-not-safe-despite-smaller-trade-surplus-with-us-trade-experts-idUSKBN2061QS, Accessed on 26 June 2020
[v]DW, 21 December 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/germany-eu-decry-us-nord-stream-sanctions/a-51759319, Accessed on 26 June 2020
[vii]DW, 15 June 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/merkel-says-germany-wont-make-nato-spending-target-until-after-2024/a-44242342, Accessed on 27 June 2020
[viii]The Hill, 24 June 2020, https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/504406-trump-signals-us-will-move-troops-from-germany-to-poland, Accessed on 27 June 2020
[ix] Armed Services Committee, Congress of the United States, 9 June 2020, https://republicans-armedservices.house.gov/sites/republicans.armedservices.house.gov/files/US%20Troops%20Withrdrawal%20from%20Germany.pdf, Accessed on 28 June 2020
[x]The Guardian, 6 June 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/06/regrettable-germany-reacts-to-trump-plan-to-withdraw-us-troops, Accessed on 28 June 2020
[xi]Livemint, 26 June 2020, https://www.livemint.com/news/india/us-shifting-military-to-india-southeast-asia-to-counter-chinese-army-pompeo-11593128749955.html, Accessed on 4 August 2020
[xii]Wall Street Journal, 21 June 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-the-u-s-is-moving-troops-out-of-germany-11592757552, Accessed on 4 August 2020
[xiii] Military Expenditures, World Bank Data, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/MS.MIL.XPND.GD.ZS, Accessed on 4 August 2020
[xiv]Bloomberg, 15 June 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-15/germany-france-push-for-tighter-eu-defense-amid-u-s-tension, Accessed on 28 June 2020