A “Better Deal”? : GMF Experts Weigh in on the U.S. Troop Withdrawal from Germany
The news that the Trump administration will withdraw thousands of U.S. troops from Germany as part of a “strategic” shift of U.S. armed forces in Europe has elicited stark reactions on both sides of the Atlantic—and leaves a crucial aspect of the transatlantic relationship in question. Experts from GMF’s offices in Washington, Berlin, Brussels, and Warsaw weigh in on the decision and what it could spell for the future of U.S.-European security cooperation.
Where is the “Better Deal”?
This announcement is a self-inflicted wound, the result of trying to reverse engineer a presidential grudge against Germany into something that resembles a coherent strategy rooted in national interests. Despite Pentagon planners’ best efforts to make this work, they failed. This rearranging of forces will have a negligible impact on the U.S. ability to meet its military objectives in Europe, such as deterring Russia. And it comes at a much higher cost: whether in terms of American reliability as an alliance leader or in terms of its price tag. This will require billions of additional American taxpayer dollars. Wasn’t the whole point of this to get the U.S. a “better deal”?
Even worse, this decision comes at a time of profound economic crisis at home when the U.S. needs to be looking for greater efficiencies in the defense budget, not adding new, unnecessary requirements. That said, I don’t expect this plan will survive intact; Congress will have its say, and if there is a change in administration in November, this will get reexamined.
– Derek Chollet, Executive Vice President, Washington
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper deployed a word cloud of wonderfully sounding vocabulary to make sense of troop reductions in Germany: “enhance deterrence of Russia”, “strengthen NATO”, “reassure allies”, and “improve U.S. strategic flexibility.” Poor Mark Esper. The man had to engage in an exercise of deliberate disinformation when the whole world knows what the real reason behind the move is. As Esper’s boss has publicly stated in June, it is all about punishing Germany for being, as Donald Trump sees it, delinquent on defense spending.
Since NATO’s Wales Summit in 2014, Germany has increased its defense budget by 40 percent. By 2024, while not quite reaching its stated goal, the country will have added 80 percent. Italy and Belgium, the countries where many of the troops are being redeployed to, are spending less on defense and their increases are nothing like Germany’s. Go figure.
Since 2017, the arsenal of the U.S. president’s tools vis-a-vis Germany, a major ally, have included threats, insults, tariffs, sanctions, and now punishment. What does the White House expect the response of a self-respecting nation to this type of treatment to be?
– Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, Vice President, Berlin Office
The View from Poland
Following Secretary Esper's announcement of withdrawing almost 12,000 US troops from Germany, Friday morning the Polish Minister of Defense Blaszczak announced that Poland and the U.S. have just finalized the long-negotiated Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. The EDCA will outline the exact forces that the U.S. will relocate to Poland, and will also spell out the financial and legal conditions of stationing the troops. The Polish MOD indicated that the EDCA stipulates relocation of additional 1,000 troops and the lead element of the Army's newly established V Corps headquarters, which command the U.S. forces on NATO's eastern flank.
The number of troops to be relocated to Poland was agreed already in September last year, a number of months before Donald Trump made the announcement about pulling the U.S. troops from Germany. Therefore it appears that Poland didn't benefit in bilateral U.S.-Polish terms from the U.S.-Germany conflict. In fact, when visiting Washington DC earlier this month, Polish President Duda asked President Trump not to withdraw U.S. troops from Europe as that would undermined NATO's unity and weaken deterrence also vis-a-vis Russia.
On balance, the U.S. moves over the past months have not been good for Poland's security. On the positive side, Poland will host 1,000 American troops (on top of around 5,000 already here) and will host an element of important U.S. Army command. On the negative side, Poland's security will be diminished by the withdrawal of 6,400 of American troops from Europe, weakening NATO's unity, and by emboldening Russia. Unfortunately the negatives far outweigh the positives.
– Michal Baranowski, Director, Warsaw Office
Tensions Over Energy
In a tweet, President Trump referenced Germany’s energy decisions as one reason for the troop pull-out. Germany supports the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will double the direct natural gas pipeline connection between Russia and Germany, over the opposition of other European countries. The U.S. has maintained consistent opposition to the Nord Stream pipelines since their inception in the 2000s, and it is true that Germany’s support for the pipeline is harmful to Europe. These projects sow distrust between European member states. But the president’s approach cheapens U.S. values and commitments. President Trump presents the question of energy not as a matter of energy security (meaning the ability of Europe to maintain reliable and affordable energy supplies), or of European unity (itself a U.S. interest), but in terms of a quid-pro-quo: The insinuation here is that Germany should buy American rather than Russian gas if it wants U.S. security assistance. U.S. security commitments to Europe should not hinge on commercial deals.
– Kristine Berzina, Senior Fellow, Alliance for Securing Democracy, Brussels
Weighing the Pros and Cons
On the military side, there are pros and cons. The decision is logical if we question the utility of maintaining large, Cold War-style standing armies in an era of special forces and cyber-assisted operations. And while the U.S. is cutting military personnel in Germany, Washington is actually increasing its presence in other parts of Europe, such as the Baltic States and Poland. As a matter of fact, despite the cuts in Germany, the U.S. presence in Europe continues to increase in the past years. However, this decision may impact U.S. military operations in the Levant, Sahel, and Maghreb. Germany is an important command and control center and logistical hub for U.S. missions in those regions. With less staff available, it is possible that the U.S. may be slower to respond to future crises.
From a political perspective it may not be the best timing to push through such decision. U.S.-German relations have been under strain for a while and this may add more pressure on the Washington-Berlin axis.
– Bruno Lete, Senior Fellow, Security and Defense, Brussels
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.