Reports that President Trump intends to reduce the number of U.S. troops stationed in Germany has elicited extensive protest. Influential editorials on the Right and the Left have rejected the move in dismissive tones, citing the supposed hypothetical impact on relations with Germany or the military competition with Russia.
Such predictive approaches reflect the predisposition in opinion-making circles simply to stake out positions against the White House, no matter what those positions may be: if the president is for something, these voices reliably declare their opposition.
It would be more useful to recognize the proposal as well as the resistance to it as an inflection point in larger debates over American foreign policy.
Awareness of this looming debate is all the more urgent because, to date, foreign policy largely has been absent from the developing contest between the president and former Vice President Joe Biden heading into the November election. The differences over the size and character of force posture overseas can shed light on foreign policy fault lines and the larger debates the nation really needs.
The current controversy represents at least the third time that Trump has pursued a reduction of the overseas military footprint. His aspiration to end the war in Afghanistan has never been a secret, while the efforts to reduce U.S. involvement in Syria came more abruptly. Nevertheless, they were cut from the same cloth.
So is Trump’s Germany initiative. His consistent predisposition is toward a less expansive military presence around the world. Most of his current critics have taken the Germany decision in isolation rather than addressing this clear pattern.
Strong Defense Is Smart Defense
This president surely is not opposed to a strong defense policy, as seen with his large Pentagon outlays as well as the establishment of the Space Force. Clearly, however, Trump is skeptical of the establishment view that American national security is best served by a seemingly unlimited archipelago of military stationings around the world.
Afghanistan, Syria, and Germany are of course three very different cases—each overdetermined by complicated histories—and no one should suggest that extricating American presence from any of them would be easy. On the other hand, the security arguments opposing the troop reduction plan for Germany seem particularly weak.
The notion that our presence in Europe deters Russia was disproven in Crimea and eastern Ukraine: U.S. troops far away in Western Europe did not stop Russian troops in the east. In addition, Moscow has shifted toward reliance on forms of hybrid warfare and disinformation not particularly impeded by the sort of large troop presence under discussion in Germany. In order to deter the new forms of Russian warfare, we need cyber and communication capabilities which would not even necessarily be located physically overseas.
Trump’s critics argue that our presence in Germany enables the United States to project power into the Middle East. This logistical role is certainly valid, but the focus on the instrumental significance of the troop presence in Germany should not be grounds to avoid the underlying strategic question: What, after all, is the goal of that power projection in general or, more polemically, exactly which Middle East wars has the United States won thanks to the troop presence in Germany?
U.S. troops in Germany are instead a legacy feature of the post-World War II occupation and especially the Cold War, when West Germany was a frontline state facing the Iron Curtain and the Warsaw Pact. Russian tanks rolling through the Fulda Gap into western Europe were a credible threat, and the U.S. military was positioned to deter precisely such an attack.
All that is history now, and the eastern flank of NATO no longer runs through a divided Germany but instead from the Baltic states in the north—previously occupied by the Soviet Union—through the string of former Russian satellites, now free nations, from Poland to Bulgaria. If the American goal is to deter potential Russian military aggression, then troop deployments should follow the front and be moved out of Germany to Poland or elsewhere in Central Europe.
Exactly such a move has been under public discussion for quite some time, so the journalistic insinuation that the president’s directive was a capricious response to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent declining to attend the proposed G-7 meeting is uninformed at best.
Competing Priorities, Different Threats
There are certainly arguments against redeployment from Germany to Poland, including the transaction costs of building new infrastructure. Yet an honest debate would measure such problems against the possible military advantage of a repositioning or even the political opportunity to pressure Russia with the prospect of such a move.
We could, for example, propose a move into Poland unless Russia were to agree to reduce its capacity in its own western district. Instead what we are witnessing now is the foreign policy establishment rallying around unquestioned Atlanticist assumptions from a past era, as well as a Pentagon deeply resistant to change and quite adept at relying on its bureaucratic inertia to subvert civilian leadership, especially leadership on the part of this disruptive president.
At this point, we do not yet know the destination of the troops who may leave Germany. As noted, it could be plausible to expect some increases in redeployments into the allied countries to the east of Germany.. There is, however, simultaneously a grander strategic vision that points toward a different answer—that the greater threat to the U.S. role in the world is not Russia—which, after all, is ultimately a declining power albeit with revanchist aspirations—but rather China, which under Xi Jinping hopes to become the new hegemon.
Chinese military ambitions in the South China Sea and more broadly in the Indo-Pacific necessitate enhanced U.S. presence. It is there that the United States should be directing its limited military resources, rather than in safe and secure western Germany. At least that would be a worthwhile debate—choosing between giving greater priority to our Atlantic or to our Pacific character.
A similar calculation could pertain to U.S. military presence in West Africa, where we participate in counterterrorist engagements in former French colonies. Questioning the scope of that engagement is not an argument to cease our cooperation with France peremptorily—nor has Trump proposed a complete withdrawal from Germany. To the contrary, some 25,000 troops will remain. Yet as European leaders increasingly have come to acknowledge, they have to take more responsibility for their own defense and security in their immediate neighborhoods.
Both Merkel and Macron have stated that Europe must do more, but they have yet to identify necessary budgetary increases. This is hardly surprising. As long as the United States provides unconditioned security support, European leaders will feel entitled to it. A gradual U.S. drawdown would force Europe to come to grips with its own security needs.
So, the resources reduced in Germany could be shifted to the defense of Poland and its neighbors, or they might be moved to the Indo-Pacific, or some combination of both shifts could be arranged. That is the discussion we should be having, a function of the relative threat assessments of Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China.
There is a third option we should consider: just bring the troops home.
The bipartisan foreign policy assumption that it is in the U.S. national interest to maintain the current level of military presence is a very costly one, just as it regularly puts servicemen and women at risk.
Must this stance continue and, if so, must it continue in the same way? These are two separate questions. The former asks whether a Pax Americana is really in America’s interest. A de facto national—populist?—bipartisan majority supports the idea that nation-building at home should take precedence over nation-building abroad. The second question asks whether contemporary security strategy requires the same type of presence that prevailed in the past, as the nature of warfare and international competition changes.
Technology, especially but not limited to artificial intelligence (AI), is a major variable in this calculation, but so are communications and social media. Russia and China operate extensively through disinformation, soft power, and elite capture. American society has immense soft power potential and communicative resources, but these are not being used strategically by the Pentagon in the great power competition.
Unfortunately, these wider-ranging questions concerning American force posture are ignored in the short-sighted attacks on Trump’s decision regarding troop levels in Germany.
The German View
Yet there are also some very specific German angles on the matter. Anyone in Berlin—let alone journalists in New York or Washington—who claims to be surprised by the proposed reduction is either lying or comatose. The Trump administration repeatedly signaled that the U.S. commitment to European defense and NATO, and to Germany in particular, would be conditioned on evidence that Europe—and again, Germany in particular, as the largest economy in the region by far—would carry a fair share of the costs. That share has been widely defined in terms of meeting the Wales Pledge, the 2014 decision by NATO nations to commit 2 percent of their GDP to defense.
Some of the smaller Central European countries have taken the laudable step of meeting that goal—they understand the threat from Russia, much more so than countries further to the West and further away from Russia—or they are at least on track to meet that level by the target date of 2024.
Germany, on the other hand, has not taken the necessary steps; indeed, the percentage of its GDP slated for defense is predicted to decline. The next general election in Germany is scheduled for 2021. Merkel has made it clear that she will not seek an additional term. Especially without Merkel as chancellor candidate, the governing coalition will change, and every plausible outcome—likely with the Greens, potentially with the Left Party as well—will be less conservative, less Atlanticist, and more anti-American.
That outcome will hardly produce an auspicious environment for American military assets, to say the least.
Yet an argument to recognize the logic in the troop redeployment does not need to rely on such futurist speculations about Germany after Merkel; significant components of the policies of the Merkel government itself already point to differences with Washington on a scale that warrant serious reconsideration of the security cooperation. These involve Berlin’s predisposition to cultivate cozy relationships with precisely those two countries that the 2017 National Security Strategy recognized as systemic rivals, Russia and China. One might call this fraternizing with the enemy.
Despite clear objections, not only from the current American administration but also previously from the Obama Administration, Berlin has proceeded with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, increasing its susceptibility to energy blackmail by Moscow. Because the project intentionally bypasses Central Europe, it is also viewed in the region as an attempt to establish a collaboration between Russia and Germany over the objections of some of Germany’s neighbors. Germany nonetheless has proceeded with the pipeline, despite its standard rhetoric of multilateralism and European solidarity.
Given Germany’s commitment to an energy policy that will considerably strengthen Russia’s hand in Europe, the expectation that the United States should continue to pay for German security becomes less and less tenable.
In addition to the Nord Stream problem with Russia, Germany’s insistence on bolstering its robust economic ties with China makes the argument for U.S. support for German security even weaker. Germany will assume the presidency of the EU soon, and one of its primary goals is a summit with Xi Jinping, intended to focus on trade. While the European Union has issued muted criticism of China’s violation of its treaty obligations concerning the status of Hong Kong, Germany appears to want to continue full-speed ahead toward greater business cooperation with China, with apparently only evinces perfunctory concern for human rights and rule of law. Just as Washington has been moving toward a tougher stance and prospective decoupling from Beijing, Berlin is about to deliver the EU to China.
Long-Standing Trans-Atlantic Tensions
These tensions with Germany over both Nord Stream 2 and trade with China are by no means partisan anomalies of the Trump Administration. Congressional opposition to the pipeline has been emphatically bipartisan, particularly in the National Defense Authorization Act passed in December which placed sanctions on the project. Support for Hong Kong is equally bipartisan, as is the broader turn in the China discussion.
Germany is on the wrong side of both of these issues.
These trans-Atlantic security policy differences should also be evaluated in relationship to the discussion around NATO.
Initially, the Trump Administration faced criticism for conditioning support for NATO allies on their willingness to meet their NATO pledge. Yet that stress test ended up demonstrating that U.S. support for NATO is bipartisan and stronger than in many of the other major member nations.
French President Emanuel Macron has denounced NATO as “brain dead” and repeatedly argues for an alternative security architecture. The NATO member with the largest military force, after the United States, is Turkey with its difficult leader Recep Erdogan and with the burden of repressive domestic policies that make the EU members in NATO uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, Germany does not want to pay its defense bills, maintains clearly inadequate military capacities, and—when it does choose to participate in military operations such as in Afghanistan—it cherry-picks the safest assignments for its soldiers. Trump’s insistence that NATO members pay their way is the least of the organization’s problems.
An Anti-War President
Yet Trump’s plan to reduce the size of the American military footprint in Germany also points to an even more significant aspect of his foreign policy inclinations. Not only has he called into question the legacy staffing level of military outposts overseas; he is simply more resistant to military engagement than any of his predecessors have been for decades.
He is, in other words, the most anti-war president in living memory.
To date, he has refrained from entering into any major overseas military entanglement, despite extraordinary provocations, especially from Iran. That is hardly a flaw. President Obama had his Libya episode, George W. Bush went into Afghanistan and Iraq, Bill Clinton attacked the former Yugoslavia, George H. W. Bush led the war against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and Ronald Reagan sent forces into Grenada and Lebanon. One has to reach all the way back to the Jimmy Carter years to find a president who did not deploy American troops into action (and even he sent U.S. Special Forces to Iran on the ill-fated mission to rescue U.S. hostages in Tehran).
Recollecting Carter in today’s context seems incongruous. In terms of temperament and values, Carter and Trump surely could not be further apart. Nor can one imagine any reciprocal admiration between them. Yet Carter avoided becoming a wartime president, as has Trump, at least so far. In addition, Carter’s notorious agonizing over a national malaise finds a distant echo, albeit in a different rhetorical register, in Trump’s vision of retrieving greatness: Similar diagnoses perhaps, but with very different prescriptions.
It is worth following the logic of this unexpected analogy one step further. Carter, the president without a war, was a one-term president. This might suggest that presidents who wage war, at least limited wars, have an electoral bonus and that therefore Trump, without a war to call his own, may find himself at a disadvantage in November. That is a grim conclusion indeed because it suggests that to gain support from the globalist foreign policy establishment, a president has to send troops into battle. It might also suggest that the electorate, at least on the margins, can be mobilized to vote by the news of violent conflicts and the prospects of victory.
But can avoiding wars win elections?
Of course, foreign policy is hardly the only factor in a presidential election, and certainly it is not the most important one. In any case, it is difficult at this point to evaluate the choice we will face in November since Biden has maintained silence on his foreign policy plans. Dove or hawk on China? Another Obama-style “reset” with Russia despite everything Putin has done? Return or not to the Iran deal? More talks with North Korea or not? What about Cuba and Venezuela?
At this point, we have no way to know: Biden’s foreign policy is still a black box.
Nonetheless, the anti-Trump foreign policy establishment is sure to fall in line behind Biden, whatever he proposes. In that case, however, the electorate will face an unanticipated choice, between a Biden who, during his years in the Senate, voted for the Bosnian interventions, the bombing of Serbia and the 2002 invasion of Iraq, and Donald Trump, the president who has kept us out of war so far.