For seventy-five years, the US has maintained a significant military presence in Germany. These troops are a vestige of the force that defeated Nazism and held Soviet expansion in check during the Cold War. Today, they symbolize America’s enduring commitment to European peace and stability, and help project Washington’s power worldwide. But that could be about to change.
US Troop Reduction in Germany
Consistent with his pledge to dial down US military deployments overseas, US President Donald Trump is on the cusp of recalling almost a third of America’s German garrison, reports suggest. This would see upwards of 9,000 troops based in the central European country either returned home or redeployed elsewhere.
Money, it seems, is the critical factor. Germany, like many of Europe’s NATO states, is failing to meet the defense bloc’s requisite military expenditure, 2% of GDP. Indeed, spending just 1.4% of national income on arms, the government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel is among the group’s most miserly members.
Should this frugality be punished with military withdrawal, however? It’s a question that has Washington divided.
Proponents of Trump’s approach point to the nation’s changing geostrategic priorities. No longer is a bulwark needed to ward off Soviet encroachment from the East, an omnipresent danger that dissipated with the end of the Cold War.
Republicans Oppose Trump’s Move
But for those on the other side of the argument, the threat from Russia remains potent enough to merit an armed presence in Germany.
“[Withdrawing troops] would significantly damage US national security as well as strengthen the position of Russia to our detriment,” wrote 22 Republican lawmakers in a letter to the White House, adding: “We believe that signs of a weakened US commitment to NATO will encourage further Russian aggression and opportunism.”
Containing the Kremlin’s expansionist instincts is but one function of America’s German garrison. From the Ramstein Air Base outside of Mannheim — a city in the country’s southwest — operations in Africa and the Middle East are launched and coordinated. Likewise, the neighboring Landstuhl medical center cares for US service personnel injured in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
Downsizing these facilities would be a blow both to America’s projection of global power and to Germany itself, which has always welcomed the stabilizing presence of US troops. Russia, critics say, would be the only winner from Trump’s proposed military withdrawal.
Russia Welcomes Trump’s Decision
Little surprise, then, that Moscow’s foreign ministry welcomed the news with enthusiasm. “We would welcome any steps by Washington to scale down its military presence in Europe,” said spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. “Such steps would undoubtedly help reduce confrontational potential and ease military and political tensions in the Euro-Atlantic region.”
But for Russia, there could be a sting in the tail. Rumours in Washington suggest that soldiers siphoned from German garrisons could be redeployed to Poland, bolstering an ever growing US military presence in the Eastern European state. For officials in Warsaw – which meet NATO’s 2% defense spending benchmark — this is promising news.
“If you look at the strategic needs of the alliance, it’s obvious that we should have more troops and more defensive capabilities on the eastern flank,” said Pawel Jablonski, Poland’s deputy foreign minister.
Moscow, unsurprisingly, has strongly warned against such action, branding it flagrant provocation by the West. This rebuke ought to worry the German government, which has invested a huge amount of time, effort, and capital into the Nordstream 2 project, a gas pipeline that runs from Russia into Europe via the Baltic Sea. Fraying East-West relations threaten to put the brakes on the scheme, which is months away from completion.
The Growing Rift Between Europe and the US
Fearing the consequences of Moscow’s deepening energy dominance of Europe, Washington has fiercely opposed the scheme. The dispute is emblematic of a widen foreign policy rift between NATO’s historic allies. Be it with the US’s crippling sanctions regime against Iran — which European nations, including Germany, France, and Britain, are working to sidestep — or America’s showdown with Chinese firm Huawei (which much of Europe continues to do business with), it’s clear that both sides of the Atlantic are not singing from the same hymn sheet.
With an election approaching, this matters more to Trump than ever before. In 2016, he struck gold with a simple message: why should American taxpayers subsidize the security of parsimonious partners? If he can do that again — starting with Germany’s US troop contingent — he’ll likely come out a winner once again.