The Good and The Bad of Trump’s Troop Withdrawal From Germany
When Americans complain about freeloading NATO allies, we mostly mean the Germans. Let’s be honest, nobody cares about the Slovakian or Albanian defense budget, but we do care about the Germans.
The reason why is rather simple. A Germany that provides a competent military force can be of great use to the alliance. A Germany that provides an inadequate force, makes NATO look weak. Other major European allies like Britain and France are steady allies who can and have routinely operated alongside U.S. forces. The Germans, not so much.
Naturally, when the Pentagon announced President Trump’s decision to withdraw 12,000 troops from Germany proved controversial. On one hand, the move will be seen by some as long overdue. If Berlin is unwilling to fund it’s own defense, why should we? On the other, U.S. troop presence in Germany has been a symbol of U.S. commitment to the continent and could be interpreted by the powers that be in Moscow and Beijing as a signal that the American commitments are not ironclad and therefore weaken American national security both in Europe and elsewhere.
Neither of these is accurate, but in 2020, when everyone’s opinion of what is good or bad revolves around Trump, it is to be expected.
First the problem with those who say this is Trump, once again, giving a massive gift to Putin are prone to hyperbole. The idea that around 36,000 U.S. troops in Germany was preventing World War III, but around 25,000 risks it or is Putin’s dream come true, is a bit silly. Furthermore, of the 12,000 troops leaving Germany, about 5,400 are staying in Europe, so the reality of the situation is not as bad as the attention grabbing headlines.
Some troops will be relocated to Belgium in order to place the U.S. European Command and NATO HQ in the same place, while others, including a squadron of F-16s will deploy to Italy. Both moves make sense, especially the redeployment of air forces to NATO’s southern flank given Washington grows concerned about Russian air units in Libya.
Now, to critique Trump and supporters of the move.
It can be said that throughout the course of the last decade, every branch of the German military has embarrassed itself in one way or another. The army in 2014 had to use broomsticks as substitutes form machine guns at a NATO exercise, in 2017 the navy had to return it’s new Baden-Wurttemberg class frigate to the shipyards after it rolled off the production line with a built in starboard list, and in 2018 it was reported that only four of the air force’s 128 Typhoon fighters where combat effective.
Say, what you will about Italy and Belgium being worse than Germany on defense spending, but at least their not that bad. Worse still, despite this Germany laments U.S. withdrawal not only from Germany, but elsewhere, while doing providing no troops of its own and hiding behind history to justify itself.
Still, the decision to withdraw, from an optics perspective, just looks petty. Washington has plenty of reasons to be upset at Berlin, but it still needs it. The United States and Germany are allies. Sometimes the NATO alliance is compared to a family and families sometimes bicker, but at the end of the day, they are still a family.
It is one thing to relocate troops in Europe and argue that it is 2020 and not 1985, but what is the justification for bringing the rest back to the U.S.? As annoyingly self-righteous as Angela Merkel can be, the United States still needs Germany as much as Germany needs the U.S.
For years, more traditionally-minded members of the administration have tried get the Europeans to join us in confronting China, but the Europeans appeared to resent Washington telling them that “it’s us or them.” That appears to have changed. Britain has banned Huawei, France has phased it out which is tantamount to a de-facto ban, only Germany emains among the major European countries.
Beijing has shot itself in the foot many times over the past several months with their mismanagement of the pandemic and constant bullying of Europeans. Sending some troops back to the U.S. against the wishes of Berlin creates needless inter-alliance tension just as the alliance was coming together to get it to do something that both Republicans and Democrats were urging it to do.
Trump decision to withdraw troops from Germany won’t make America great again, but it also won’t risk starting World War III.