IN DEPTH: A House Divided as Trump Reduces NATO in Germany

By Dmitry Semushin for EAD

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By Dmitry Semushin –

On both sides of the Atlantic, the US president is awaiting official confirmation that the US will withdraw from Germany 9,500 troops – more than a third of the total number of its 34,500 troops located in this country.

On June 13, he did not take the opportunity at West Point to explain what was happening in his speech. Outwardly, the situation looks very politicized, primarily for the United States. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) first announced a possible withdrawal proposal on June 5, two days after the situation, which was quite unusual for the US, when Defense Secretary Mark Esper a day before publicly expressed his disagreement to his commander in chief – President Trump – on the issue of calling on the US army to suppress the riots.

Continuing this story, a subsequent publication in the Wall Street Journal was intended to confirm Trump’s “inadequacy” as commander in chief. This is so that later in his commentary on the “chief expert” on the “eastern flank” of NATO, retired lieutenant general Ben Hodges could say: “More than anything else, we need positive leadership from the president.”

In the meantime, John Ulliot , spokesman for the US National Security Council, issued a statement that did not confirm or refute Trump’s plan to reduce the number of troops in Germany. Meanwhile, Richard Grenell , the outgoing US Ambassador to Berlin  in an interview with the German tabloid, Bild confirmed the credibility of the WSJ publication when he said that Americans “pay too much” for the security of other countries.

“American taxpayers no longer want to pay too much for the defense of other countries,” he said and added that in the future, American troops will be withdrawn from South Korea and Japan and that these figures for the reduction in US presence were discussed at the NATO summit last December.

Some media considered that it was nothing more than a farewell shot of the outgoing US ambassador Richard Grenell to Germany which German public opinion did not accept.

However, one US official confirmed to NPR that a similar plan to reduce the US military presence does exist, but no orders have been issued in this regard.

The New York Times also said that the decision “has not been tested by the traditional process of discussing politics in the National Security Council.”

The German government also confirmed the allegations of the WSJ when it said that Chancellor Angela Merkel was informed that the US was considering withdrawing its troops from the country. But in doing so, the WSJ claimed that Germany was not officially notified of the relocation.

Other evidence: Twenty-two Republicans, members of the House of Representatives Armed Forces Committee of the House of Congress, wrote a letter to President Trump, stating that they were “very concerned” about a possible plan to withdraw troops from Europe. “We believe that such steps will significantly damage US national security, as well as strengthen Russia’s position to the detriment of us,” the letter said. The White House has not yet publicly answered this letter.

On June 11, the Washington Post American newspaper said that the Presidential National Security Council had indeed prepared a memorandum on possible changes in the number of troops deployed abroad. But Trump did not sign it, and the Pentagon did not receive any orders to withdraw any troops from Germany, according to the presidential administration. You may notice that if such an order had been received, then it would not have been possible to fulfill it by September.

As a conclusion: the Washington Post believes that “the battle around the withdrawal of American troops is just beginning,” and offer several versions of what is happening. These are the versions.

Some people think that the leak in the WSJ should have attracted the attention of President Trump so that he “signed the plan” or, on the contrary, “did not sign” it.

Some think it was a trial ball for the Republicans split before the decisive round in the election campaign.

A version has also been proposed that under the guise of “withdrawal” the idea of ​​Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is being realized to return American troops home, but then rotate them at various foreign bases in accordance with the concept that Esper calls “dynamic deployment of forces”.

Former US Army Commander in Europe retired General Hodges is also looking for strategic meanings, but does not find them. If this message of withdrawal would be true, he believes, then this would be a wholly political decision. The United States is in an election year, and the president promised that US soldiers would return home from Afghanistan and Iraq. Therefore, it is possible, Hodges argues, that this is part of some kind of political strategy as part of the Trump campaign.

As regards military strategy, in a large interview with the Polish edition of Defense24.pl, Hodges called the possible withdrawal of US troops from Germany a “colossal mistake.”

Here are his reasons.

First, the way it was reported through a media leak is detrimental to NATO’s cohesion. By decision there is no coordination with Germany, with the command of NATO and with other allies.

Secondly, this decision – if it turns out to be true, and if it is final – would be a gift to the Kremlin, since the Kremlin has in no way changed its behavior in such a way as to justify a reduction in the US military potential in Europe. That is, according to Hodges, Russia has not done anything to get a bonus.

Thirdly, there is no connection between the strategic analysis and the presented figures for the withdrawal of military personnel. “Not a single strategic analysis leads to the conclusion that the withdrawal of 9,500 army and air force personnel from among more than 34,000 deployed in Germany is the right decision,” says Hodges.

Most US military forces in Germany are support and logistics units. They are deployed not only in order to project forces on the eastern flank of NATO – that is, against Russia, but also in other areas, such as the Middle East or even the Arctic. Germany in the modern military strategy of the United States is a kind of logistics and training center – a platform located in the center of Europe, ideal for projecting strength, deploying logistics units and support. These units are not located in Germany to protect Germany, but are part of the American contribution to NATO. These formations also allow for the implementation of the US national defense strategy in the Middle East and Africa.

Hodges believes that the possible relocation of the permanent deployment of US troops from Germany to Poland “could lead to a serious violation of NATO cohesion.”

It is likely, Hodges admits, that the countries of Western Europe will take such a step as a violation of the basic treaty of Russia and NATO, although, according to him, “Russia has actually annulled the Russia-NATO act, thanks to its invasion of Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea.” General Hodges advocates strengthening the US presence in Poland, Lithuania, other Baltic countries and Romania, using the rotational principle of the deployment of American units rather than their permanent deployment. In this way, the United States would avoid deepening divisions within NATO. In the event of a conflict, American troops from Germany would quickly be moved to Poland.

That is, in their views on the principle of deploying US military units abroad, Hodges, like US Secretary of Defense Esper, advocates rotation. In December 2019, on the sidelines of the NATO Leaders’ Summit, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said: “Sometimes we also hear that the United States is leaving Europe – this is not true. The USA is actually expanding its presence in Europe … Thus, in Europe there is more American presence, more American troops in Europe. “I can’t come up with a stronger way to demonstrate the US’s commitment to Europe than this.” But after a significant reduction, the United States does indeed increase the presence of its troops in Europe, but on a rotational basis.

Another part of the experts sees the reason for the “Trump decision” in the fundamental crisis in US-German relations. Indeed, relations between the USA and Great Britain are “special”, but US-German relations have been the key to European security for seven decades now.

The decision to withdraw the troops was made just a few days after Trump’s last quarrel with Berlin, this time due to the decision of Chancellor Angela Merkel not to attend the G7 summit in the USA, and before that, her resistance to the idea proposed by Trump to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to join to the group.

President Trump has long regarded Chancellor Merkel as an antagonist rather than an ally. And it is likely that the main problem here is Trump’s attempt to punish an intractable foreign leader. “With one gesture, Trump once again exposed the capricious and vengeful nature of his foreign policy.”

However, the reason may lie deeper than the personal qualities of President Trump. Germany’s huge trade surplus has caused great friction between Europe and the United States. In this regard, the New York Post recalled one recent episode. In July 2018, during a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump asked him why the United States defends Germany allegedly from Russia, while this country is involved in an energy deal with Russia.

“Germany is completely controlled by Russia, because they will receive from 60 to 70 percent of their energy from Russia and the new pipeline,” Trump said and continued, “So we are defending Germany, we are defending France, we are defending all these countries. And then these many countries go out and conclude a pipeline deal with Russia, where they pay billions of dollars to the treasury of Russia. And I think, that is very inappropriate. ” Thus, the announced withdrawal of troops can also be considered as a “punishment” for Germany for its support of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. That is, for US opposition in their plans to develop the European energy market.

However, all American commentators on the German aspect of the problem admit that it would be wise to put pressure on Germany, which spends 1.38% of its gross domestic product on defense, and Berlin plans to reach NATO’s 2% target in 2031. Trump used the threat of troop withdrawal to put pressure on NATO, South Korea and Japan to pay more for the deployment of US troops. After many years of criticism, Germany is now increasing its defense budget by more than 10% per year. Critics admit that Trump had some success in dollar terms, but he also caused serious damage to allied relations. The way Trump does it, in particular, in the case of the “withdrawal of troops” undermines relations with US allies.

German military expert Bastian Gigerich of the International Institute for Security Studies (IISS) warned that “the withdrawal of troops undermines the long-standing efforts of the United States to reassure European allies and strengthen NATO’s deterrent position in the face of assertive Russia.” He came to the conclusion that this decision “will add fuel to the fire” of the discussion about greater European defense autonomy with less dependence on America.

The American edition of Newsweek published the opinion of the columnist of the Washington Examiner, Daniel R. Depetris , who rationally supports the idea of ​​reducing the American military presence in Europe and Germany in particular. Here is the logic of his reasoning: almost 30 years have passed since the collapse of the once powerful Soviet Union. Since then, the world has undergone significant changes. China has become the second largest economy, and the global economy has become more interdependent. However, a look at Europe from Washington still remains in the 1980s, as if Soviet troops were only a few kilometers from the Elbe.

For some time, the significant presence of the US military in Europe was appropriate, necessary, and even mandatory. The Cold War, however, is long over. The Berlin Wall fell over 31 years ago. A noticeable part of the German public, apparently, understands that the 34,000th contingent of American troops in Germany is a relic of a bygone era. 45% of Germans surveyed by the Pew Research Center did not agree that US military bases in Germany were important to their country’s security.

According to the latest World Bank data, Russia’s GDP is $ 1.6 trillion, which is about one tenth of the $ 15.9 trillion of the European Union. In 2019, Russia’s military spending amounted to $ 65.1 billion, which is far from the $ 302 billion military spending of European NATO allies. Depetris’s conclusion: European governments have the financial resources not only to increase their military capabilities, but also to take the main responsibility for their own security.

A truth that everyone understands, but not too many want to openly acknowledge – Europe consists of very rich, universal states that have the resources to protect themselves, but have a lack of will to fulfill and accept this responsibility, while the US military is the main guarantor of security continent.

There is no doubt, says Depetris, that transatlantic relations are going through hard times. Most of the tension can be attributed to individuals at the leadership level. However, the general policy, however, should not be overlooked. Despite the stereotype that the interests of the United States and Europe are always in perfect agreement, the reality is that Washington and Europe have different positions on issues from trade to relations with China and Iran, control over strategic arms. The drift from Europe to the Asia-Pacific region, as a stage of geopolitical competition in the 21st century, will force US politicians to rethink where Washington should deploy its forces and where it needs to reduce them.

Let there be no mistake, continues Depetris, Russia can cause trouble. However, none of these problems created by Moscow will be resolved by the outdated US military position in Europe by reducing concentration on more important strategic priorities. The cold war ended, so US policy in Europe should be in tune with the realities of today.

At the same time, as we see, the US deployment of the new strategic imperatives proposed by Depetris does not mean the elimination of the American military presence in Europe in general. Only its reduction with retargeting to new strategic priorities is proposed.

Obviously, such a logic would be accepted by the US allies in the event of an open discussion. As for the United States itself, the Washington Post recognizes that the United States needs real national debate “on the modernization of our overseas forces.” The Trump administration is withdrawing thousands of troops from Afghanistan and threatening to withdraw them completely, despite the lack of security progress there. Trump twice announced the withdrawal of US troops from Syria and twice changed his mind after a response. “Endless wars” is one thing, but the deployment of American troops in Europe and Asia is another. Then follows the injection to the incumbent president: “But this administration [of Trump] is so disorganized and absorbed in its internal and external battles that important national discussions are now impossible.

In addition to discussing strategic intentions, American experts in this matter show ordinary financial pragmatism. The US military has already invested billions of dollars in military infrastructure in Germany. Ramstein Air Base is the largest US Air Force base outside the United States. Landstule Medical Center is the largest US military hospital outside the United States. The Grafenwer Training Ground is one of the few high-tech training facilities and the only one of this level outside the United States.

Hal Brands wrote in Bloomberg: “This is not the withdrawal of troops from the war zone, in which they suffer heavy losses without any good strategic goal – a kind of retreat that can serve the national interests of the country. But it will take years and huge amounts of money to turn Poland into an equally reliable center for US troops like Germany. This is largely due to the fact that in this country there is not much existing infrastructure to accommodate a large American contingent. And even if the goal is simply to cut spending on US foreign deployments – one of the goals declared by the president – the withdrawal of troops will probably not pay off. ”

Mike Gallagher, a leading US foreign policy expert for the Republican Party, said: “The troops leaving Germany will have to go somewhere, and wherever they go, they will not receive German financial support.”

Indeed, Germany, someone John R. Denis wrote in Newsweek , does not provide the same direct compensation as South Korea or Japan for the presence of American troops on its territory, but thanks to gratuitous lease, tax-free policies and other indirect payments, Berlin ultimately covers approximately a third of the cost of maintaining American troops in Germany. This is already something. But the return of American troops from Germany back to the United States means the rejection of German co-financing and additional financial costs for the construction or improvement of bases within the United States.

If the Poles agreed to the full content of the transferred US troops to their territory, then the decision to withdraw American troops from Germany would have received pragmatic grounds. The mass public opinion in Poland initially believed that the presence of American troops on Polish soil (unlike the “Russians”) would be financially beneficial for the Poles. But for now, Reuters reports that US consultations with Poland on Polish financing of a permanent US base on Polish territory are tight.

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