Why has the Trump administration ordered the drawdown of about one-third of U.S. troops based in Germany?
The administration has not yet provided its rationale, but President Donald J. Trump has repeatedly complained about North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies—including Germany—not paying what he considers to be their fair share for European defense. The recently departed U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, who was reportedly a driving force behind the move, argued on Twitter last year that Americans don’t understand “why Germany isn’t meeting its NATO obligations & helping the West.” The decision to cap the U.S. troop presence in Germany at twenty-five thousand—a reduction from around thirty-five thousand today—seems to be part of Trump’s America First agenda, designed to send a message about the limit of what Americans are prepared to spend to defend foreign borders and, more broadly, uphold world order.
How is the announcement playing out in Germany?
Unsurprisingly, very badly. One senior adviser to Chancellor Angela Merkel, Peter Beyer, called the decision “completely unacceptable,” while another leading politician, Norbert Roettgen, called it “deplorable.” Although U.S. officials have not linked the decision to Trump’s testy relationship with Merkel, many Germans see its timing as retaliation for the chancellor’s announcement last week that she will not attend a Group of Seven (G7) summit Trump is seeking to host in the United States to symbolize the reopening of the U.S. economy.
Most shocking to Germans—and anyone familiar with diplomatic traditions or simple manners—was that the administration did not bother to inform, let alone consult, the Germans on a move that so significantly and directly affects their security and economy. The German public’s confidence in the U.S. president to “do the right thing regarding world affairs” had already dropped to 13 percent before the unilateral U.S. announcement, according to one recent survey. The unilateral troop withdrawal will no doubt undermine that confidence further.
Doesn’t Trump have a point about European defense spending?
NATO burden sharing is a legitimate issue. Germany is among a majority of alliance members that spend less than 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, notwithstanding their 2014 commitments to move toward that goal by 2024. But much of what Trump says about NATO burden sharing is untrue. The president claimed that NATO spending was “going down like a rollercoaster” before he pushed Europeans to contribute more, when in fact European defense spending has been rising steadily since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine more than two years before Trump took office. His comparison between U.S. spending on defense—just over 3 percent of GDP—and NATO Europe’s spending—less than 2 percent of GDP for all but nine of NATO’s twenty-nine members—is misleading, because the vast majority of U.S. defense spending (around 85 percent) goes to regions and functions that have little to do with NATO or European defense.
Trump’s repeated allegations that allies “owe” the United States for failing to meet their budgetary commitments misunderstand how NATO works. The United States does not get paid by other allies for contributing to European defense; it does so because it sees a national interest in a secure, stable, and prosperous Europe. Trump’s approach to the issue also fails to take into account the benefits of deploying U.S. forces closer to the hot spots—such as the Middle East, where they are most often needed—on real estate that is provided free of cost by the German government and using infrastructure subsidized by German taxpayers.
Would a reduction of U.S. troops in Germany put European security at risk?
The United States has deployed large numbers of troops in Germany for decades, to deter external aggression, support cooperation with allies, and facilitate deployments to other theaters around the world. There is no magic number of U.S. troops needed to fulfill these missions, and a carefully planned, closely coordinated, and mutually agreed reduction need not ipso facto be detrimental to U.S. interests.
What could be catastrophic is an unplanned and unilateral withdrawal, driven in part by pique, that sends a message to allies and adversaries alike that the United States is no longer committed to European defense. By questioning the sanctity of the U.S. defense guarantee in Europe, treating NATO as a protection racket, and unilaterally diminishing America’s ability to uphold that guarantee, Trump is effectively signaling that an attack on a NATO ally would not necessarily be met with a U.S. response. That should be deeply troubling not just to Germans but to all Europeans—as well as all Americans who understand their interests in Europe.