GP Insights

GP Insights # 372, 20 June 2020

US-Germany relations tense, as Trump signals withdrawal of troops
Sourina Bej

What happened?
The US President Donald Trump on15 June confirmed media reports on his orders to reduce the US troops in Germany. Earlier to this confirmation, the outgoing US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, told the Bild newspaper in an interview on 10 June that Washington's plan is because "Americans taxpayers are against paying too much for other countries' security. 

The US military is set to remove 9,500 troops while leaving only 25,000 troops in Germany. Currently, there are 34,674 US military personnel stationed in Germany, including 20,774 from the Army and 12,980 from the Air Force, according to a Pentagon deployment report. The US military infrastructure in Stuttgart, Germany, serves as key hub for securing several missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What is the background? 
First, Trump faults Germany for less defence spending in NATO. The immediate trigger for the order is the failure of Germany to increase its defence spending by 2 per cent in the NATO, and this led Trump to call the long-time NATO ally "delinquent." Even though most of the NATO countries have failed to reach the two per cent mark on defence spending agreed in 2014, Trump has singled out Germany for the default. Simultaneously the rationale behind the troop reduction in Germany and a potential redeployment in Poland is likely to aggravate Moscow. But the US troop withdrawal plans are the latest in the series of incidents that have soured the relations between Berlin and Washington.  

Second, Germany's overdependence on Russian energy. The withdrawal plan in collective aims to drive home a message that Berlin, on the one hand, aims to politically and strategically stay clear for Russian aggression and on the other hand remains steadily dependent on it for energy. This withdrawal order follows a bill in the US Senate to expand the sanctions on Russia's Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that connects the energy route through the Black Sea. 

Third, strained Trump-Merkel personal diplomacy. The withdrawal decision came just days after Trump's most recent spat with Berlin, this one involving Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision not to attend an in-person meeting of the Group of 7 in the US this month and her continued resistance to inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin to join the Group. 

What does it mean? 
First, for Germany the withdrawal will serve as a scope to introspect on ways to mitigate its local economies dependent on the US military base and for the US, the orders mark a culmination of one Trump's presidential promises in 2016. The reduction in US troop numbers in Germany is not new as the numbers have been steadily falling since 2006. In 2018, the number of US troops stationed in Germany more than halved, from 72,400 to the current figure of around 34,000. Hence the withdrawal of troops is not so much a new trend as against the institutionalized and well-publicized order from Trump today. Germany should now prepare for a more long-term possibility: that one day all the US troops may be gone.

Second, along with Germany, Europe and especially the NATO alliance should warm up to the idea of a political absence of the US. Most of the European countries, along with Germany has viewed its relationship with the US through the NATO alliance deriving strength from an impending Russia threat. But this working relationship might have to be revamped as 'Europe will have to take on more responsibility' and this would also mean that many NATO countries like Germany would have to rethink its nuclear and arms policy away from the larger protection of NATO. As things stand now, France could emerge as the only choice in stepping up to the task of providing an alternate defence shield to NATO by integrating its relatively strong missile policy into the NATO defence planning. 

Last, the withdrawal and the redeployment in Poland lacks strategic depth and doesn't provide any economic rationale of "saving the American taxpayer's money." The Pentagon has been studying the possibility of redeploying the US troops in Europe for some time. The shift to Poland will take years, and a large amount of money, to turn Poland into anywhere close to how Germany had maintained the US bases. Even if the goal is just to cut the costs of overseas deployments, this redeployment is going to be devoid of any financial benefit that Germany has provided, such as the 1 billion dollars per year in cash and in-kind payments. 

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