Withdrawing U.S. Troops From Germany Is Simply Bad Strategy | Opinion

Last week, the Trump administration announced its decision to withdraw about one-quarter of the U.S. troops based in Germany, ostensibly over Berlin's continued pursuit of a gas pipeline deal with Russia and what Washington views as still insufficient German defense spending. However, removing roughly 9,500 troops from Germany and capping U.S. forward-stationed presence in the country at 25,000 troops is short-sighted, likely to be ineffective and fiscally irresponsible.

From the end of the Cold War until roughly 2015, the number of U.S. troops based in Europe fell steadily. That process of consistent but gradual downsizing ended after Russia upended the security environment in Europe by invading Ukraine, illegally annexing Crimea, intimidating U.S. allies with massive no-notice exercises and violations of airspace, renewing Cold War–era political assassinations and undermining Western stability through an undeclared hybrid war. All of these Russian actions persist to this day.

The Trump administration recognized these offenses, as well as the grave risks they posed not merely to Europe but to American security as well. The administration's December 2017 National Security Strategy accurately noted that Russia was trying to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests, including by dividing the United States from its allies in Europe, undermining the credibility of America's commitment to Europe and weakening European institutions and governments.

In response, U.S. policies toward Europe and Russia changed over the past several years, including by reversing the downward slide in American troop presence in Europe, both in terms of forces forward-stationed in Europe and in terms of troops rotating through on a temporary basis. Washington did this in coordination with American allies in Europe, who increased their defense spending, expanded their militaries and deployed more of their own forces to Eastern Europe to work alongside U.S. troops. Together, these steps have served to rebalance NATO, strengthen deterrence against Russia and promote vital American interests in a stable, secure Europe.

Withdrawing U.S. troops from Europe now would be a step backward, undermining much of the progress made by the past two administrations and weakening American security abroad and at home. For this reason, cutting U.S. forces in Europe now is an "astrategic" move—that is, it appears completely unmoored from any strategy whatsoever. Evidently, the decision did not go through any kind of normal National Security Council decision-making review process. It's no secret this administration likes to keep adversaries off-balance through inconsistent behavior and abrupt, often unvetted policy shifts. Unfortunately, cutting U.S. troops in Europe looks likely to unbalance not America's adversaries but rather American security.

In addition, removing troops from Germany now is short-sighted, awarding a big win to Russia's Vladimir Putin without gaining anything in return. For example, Washington could offer to reduce U.S. troops in Germany in exchange for a Russian reduction of its forces in Kaliningrad, which is arguably the most militarized piece of land in all of Europe. A considered, deliberate national security decision-making process might have revealed this or other options that would have better promoted U.S. interests.

Cutting U.S. forces in Europe is also unlikely to be effective in achieving what the administration is reportedly after—namely, reversing German decisions on defense spending and a gas pipeline deal with Russia.

Germany can and should spend more on defense, and its Nord Stream 2 pipeline deal may increase Europe's dependence on Russian energy. However, U.S. military presence in Germany is the wrong tool for the job—it won't work in pressuring Berlin to reexamine its fiscal choices in a period of profound economic dislocation, and it's unlikely to bring about the cancellation of a pipeline project that's nearly 95 percent complete.

U.S. military Germany
U.S. Army M1 Abrams and other military vehicles stand in line prior being loaded onto trains after being unloaded from ships two days before on January 8, 2017, in Bremerhaven, Germany. Alexander Koerner/Getty

Finally, reducing U.S. military forces in Europe is fiscally irresponsible at a time when the defense budget may come under significant downward pressure, thanks to coronavirus recovery costs. It's true that Germany doesn't provide as much direct reimbursement as South Korea or Japan for the presence of U.S. forces on its territory, but through no-cost leases, tax-free policies and other indirect payments, Berlin ends up covering about a third of the cost. Transferring American troops from Germany back to the United States means giving up some of those benefits and incurring additional fiscal costs for building or improving bases at home, all at a time when domestic military infrastructure faces some daunting challenges and when military construction funds continue to be diverted to the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Persuading Germany to spend more on defense and weaning Europe off dependence on Russian energy are worthy goals for American foreign policy. Unfortunately, the administration's chosen policy tool appears unlikely to compel or coerce Berlin to shift gears on these two issues and instead is likely to do more harm than good to U.S. interests.

Dr. John R. Deni is a research professor at the U.S. Army War College and the author of NATO and Article 5. The views expressed are his own.

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