Withdrawing U.S. Troops From Germany Is Right for Today's Reality | Opinion

There are currently 34,500 U.S. troops permanently stationed in Germany. If recent news is accurate, that number could go down by approximately a third.

On June 5, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Trump administration is seeking to redeploy 9,500 U.S. troops from Germany by September and cap at 25,000 the number of U.S. military personnel on German soil at any one time. The report drew voracious condemnation from the foreign policy establishment. Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations said the drawdown "tempts further Russian aggression." Congresswoman Liz Cheney called it "dangerously misguided policy." German officials were none too pleased either; Norbert Röttgen, a possible successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, testified that it would be "regrettable" if such a decision was carried out.

The complaints are shared widely on both sides of the Atlantic. They also ring a bit hollow today, nearly 30 years removed from the dissolution of the once-mighty Soviet Union. The world has experienced significant changes since then, including China becoming the second-largest economy and the global economy becoming more interdependent. Yet the view of Europe from Washington is still stuck in the 1980s, as if Soviet troops were only a few miles from the Elbe.

For decades, U.S. policy on the European continent has been impressively consistent. Washington, D.C., is a city where transatlantic relations are closely protected and where tens of thousands of U.S. troops based in Europe are intrinsically depicted as the keeper of the peace. Any straying from the status-quo is denounced as weak-kneed, vilified as dangerous to the stability of the postwar order or involuntarily condemned as a gift to Russia.

For a time, a sizable U.S. force presence in Europe was appropriate, necessary and indeed integral. The Cold War, however, is long over. The Berlin Wall fell over 31 years ago. A noticeable slice of the German public appears to understand that the 34,000-strong U.S. troop contingent in Germany is a relic of a bygone era; 45 percent of Germans surveyed by the Pew Research Center disagreed that U.S. military bases in Germany were important for their country's security.

As mischievous as the Russians have been under Vladimir Putin's 20-year reign, the Russia of today is far less powerful than it was during its Soviet past. The Russian economy continues to struggle under the weight of its own ineptitude and corruption. The European Union, meanwhile, has risen to the top of its class in terms of economic productivity and wealth. The World Bank's latest figures calculate Russia's GDP at $1.6 trillion, considerably smaller than Italy's and about one-tenth of the European Union's $15.9 trillion.

At $65.1 billion in 2019, Russian military expenditures are nowhere close to NATO-Europe's $302 billion. European governments possess the monetary resources to not only improve its military capability, but to embrace primary responsibility for its own security—an objective of U.S. presidents as far back as Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The truth everyone grasps—but too many are unwilling to openly admit—is that Europe is composed of highly wealthy, versatile states that have the resources to defend themselves, yet very little will to follow through and embrace this responsibility as long as the U.S. military is the continent's ultimate security guarantor.

battle tank Germany
A M1 Abrahams battle tank from the U.S. 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, parked at Bremerhaven port on February 21 in Bremerhaven, Germany. David Hecker/Getty

There is no question that transatlantic relations have seen better days. Individual personalities at the leadership level can be blamed for much of the tension. Policy, however, can't be overlooked. Despite the stereotype of U.S. and European interests always being in perfect alignment, the reality is that Washington and Europe have divergent positions on issues from trade and China to Iran and strategic arms control. The drift from Europe to the Asia-Pacific as the stage for geopolitical competition in the 21st century will force U.S. policymakers to rethink where Washington deploys its forces and where it needs to retrench.

Let there be no mistake: Russia can cause trouble. Whether the activity includes cyber-hacking and disinformation operations or assassination plots against former Russian intelligence operatives, Moscow has shown itself to be a prolific agitator. None of this, however, will be addressed by an outdated U.S. military posture in Europe at the cost of concentrating on higher strategic priorities.

The Cold War is over. U.S. policy in Europe must be attuned to the realities of today.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.