Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

Trump’s Foolish Plan to Cut Back on Our Troops in Germany

In his push to get European countries to pay more for their own defense, the president forgets why we need NATO and NATO needs us.
June 12, 2020
Featured Image
US President Donald Trump at Ramstein Air Base, Germany while returning from a surprise Thanksgiving visit to the troops in Afghanistan on November 28, 2019. (Photo by Olivier Douliery / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

The Department of Defense is reportedly planning the withdrawal of 9,500 servicemembers from Germany, almost a third of the current U.S. military presence there. The news, which first leaked last week in the Wall Street Journal, apparently “blindsided German officials and many American military leaders in Europe.”

Richard Grenell, until recently the U.S. ambassador to Germany, has been advocating for this move since the beginning of his mission in 2018. Grenell was an extremely political ambassador, with a provocative Twitter account, a wish to empower with far-right populists in Europe, and unpopular standing among center-left and center-right Europeans. He remained ambassador even as he came back to the United States to serve for several months as President Trump’s director of national intelligence. But Grenell has now left both jobs—and, in one last interview with the German media, confirmed the troop drawdown.

According to an explanation offered by an unnamed Trump administration official in the original report, the troop reduction reflects the administration’s “long frustration with German policy, especially the nation’s level of military spending and its insistence on completing the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will channel Russian gas directly to Germany under the Baltic Sea.”

One supposed justification for the U.S. troop reduction is that it will finally make Germans pay more for their own defense. As a candidate and as president, Trump has said he wants Europe to pay more for its security. Mind you, Germany has already pledged to start spending 2 percent of its GDP on its military by 2021—a 65 percent increase from the current level.

In this context, it’s useful to remember what British general Pug Ismay—Churchill’s top military aide, who became the first secretary general of NATO—famously said about the purpose of NATO: To keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down. Maybe the Trump administration believes that the Russians can be trusted to stay out of Europe. And the president has made clear he doesn’t much care about the Americans staying in. But what about that third criterion? An important rationale for the creation of NATO was that European nations did not trust one another. The United States, the neutral hegemon, helped to end centuries of continental wars in Europe. If the Trump administration succeeds in its objective of getting Europe to handle its own defense, the end result could be profoundly destabilizing.

The Trump administration is also forgetting the purposes of military alliances beyond increasing aggregate military power. Military alliances and forward deployment also give legitimacy to the United States’s hegemonic status, provide geographic access and knowledge about the terrain, and create a buffer zone between the United States and its enemies. Thanks to the U.S. bases in Germany, if Russia ever decides to launch an airstrike against the United States, the United States will have a better chance of shooting it down before it reaches U.S. airspace.

The NATO-Russia ground-forces balance, according to 2017 figures, is 400,000 to 350,000. The Russians, however, benefit from a unified command. This is another reason that we created NATO; the experience of World War II made Western strategists wary of the challenges of coalition warfare. NATO is perhaps known best for its Article 5 promise of mutual defense—that an attack on one is an attack on all. (It has been triggered only once: in defense of the United States after 9/11. Two decades later, the Germans and other NATO troops are still in Afghanistan in our defense.) NATO is also a collective-security organization with integrated units, so the members will be more familiar with each other’s militaries and more comfortable with coalition warfare, an advantage that a decrease in the number of troops will diminish.

But it gets worse. In 2014, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, the United States had no tanks in Europe. Zero. The situation has improved, but not by much. The Russians still have superior numbers: Their 13,000 tanks outdo European NATO members’ 8,236, plus several hundreds of U.S. tanks deployed in Europe. But 2,600 of NATO’s tanks belong to Turkey, which is a NATO member but cannot be trusted to come to the defense of European countries, given Turkey’s anti-Western posture and relations with Russia. And in terms of quality, Russian tanks are superior to NATO models; the T-90 model, for instance, has explosive reactive armor to protect it from guided munitions, which NATO tanks lack.

Other aspects of Russia/NATO lopsidedness:

  • Russia is far ahead of the United States and the rest of NATO in the development of cluster munitions.
  • Russia’s development of anti-access/area-denial capabilities that cover Poland and the Baltics will make the redeployment of U.S. troops to Europe extremely difficult in the event of a conflict.
  • Russia has developed electronic long-range warfare capabilities that could jam, deceit, and intercept NATO’s signals without much defensive and counteroffensive NATO capabilities.
  • Last, and perhaps most importantly, the U.S. has nuclear inferiority against Russia, and Russia has what is called “escalation dominance” for nuclear war against NATO—the capability to escalate the severity of conflict to the next level with absolute power dominance in that level.

The entire picture is not pretty. Of the U.S.-Russian balance in Europe, Gen. Mark Milley—then the Army chief of staff and now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs—said in 2016: “We don’t like it, we don’t want it, but yes, technically [we are] outranged, outgunned on the ground.” Add to that outnumbered.

So: Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. It invaded Ukraine in 2014 and annexed Crimea. Today, the Russian military is present in both Georgia and Ukraine. Yet this is the time when the Trump administration wants to cut back our military presence in Europe.

Some Republican members of the House of Representatives this week signed a letter criticizing the Trump administration’s plans—but it is hard to believe that enough of the sausage-spined congressional Republicans will care to act. It seems unlikely that this bad decision can be prevented—until a new commander-in-chief comes along. In the meantime, however, House Democrats should have senior officials at the Department of Defense—from the secretary down—come testify and give their opinions on whether they endorse this decision.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri is a graduate student of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies. He grew up in Iran and left the country in 2011. He is currently seeking political asylum in the United States. Follow him @ShayKhatiri.