America: Too Weak to Rein in Its Own Empire?
Donald Trump 'withdrawing' troops from Germany isn't a crisis of national confidence; keeping them there is.
A grievous blow to international security has just been dealt. President Donald Trump has announced that American troops are to be withdrawn from…Germany. Yes, Germany. Why are American troops in Germany? Because we have to fight them over there so we don’t fight them here, you see, and there are few generators of terrorism and chaos in the world today quite like the Berlin club circuit.
The real surprise isn’t that we’re pulling troops out of Germany; it’s that they’re still there 75 years after World War II ended. And according to the White House, they aren’t even all being withdrawn, just a quarter of them, a reduction of 9,500 that will leave 25,000 American boots on German soil. And of the 9,500, a senior administration official tells Reuters that at least some will be redeployed elsewhere. Poland, with its closer proximity to Russia and plans to build a Fort Trump panderopolis, is a likely destination.
Which is to say: this is less a withdrawal than another Trumpian “withdrawal,” a stagey bit of realist theater that ultimately leaves America just as militarily overextended as she was before. It’s similar in that way to Trump’s “withdrawal” from Syria last year, which saw American forces leave only to boomerang back in on a cynical mission to protect that country’s oil fields. Yet that hasn’t stopped the usual suspects from shrieking about how Trump is playing demolition man to the postwar order. Critics have accused him of initiating the Germany pullout to spite Angela Merkel. Twitter this week was hot with speculation that he was acting at Putin’s behest. House Republicans, channeling the Hans Blix puppet in Team America, sent Trump a letter.
Hans Binnendijk, a fellow on the Atlantic Council, warned at DefenseNews that pulling American troops out of Germany could undermine NATO attempts to protect Europe against Russia. The alliance’s “deterrent posture,” he intones, “is already fragile.” Worse, “a withdrawal would be a clear signal that Trump is not serious about defending Europe. It would undercut the very deterrent strategy that both the Obama and Trump administrations have put in place to contain an aggressive Russia.”
But who’s really undermining deterrence here? Who’s really unserious about defending against spooky Russian imperialism? Is it the United States, which is burying itself in debt to maintain tens of thousands of troops on the European continent? Is it Donald Trump, who has beefed up America’s military presence in Poland and sent an additional 20,000 soldiers to Europe for anti-Russian military exercises? Or is it Germany, which since the Cold War has slashed its armed forces to fund its benevolent welfare state and balance its budgets? Is it the Bundeswehr, the German military, which internal reports have found to be plagued by deterioration and dysfunction? Is it Angela Merkel, whose government announced two years ago that not only would it not meet NATO’s required 2 percent of GDP on defense spending, it wouldn’t even clear its own downscaled goal of 1.5 percent?
Germany now says it intends to hit the 2 percent mark by the lickety-split deadline of 2031. If Russia really is the primed-to-blow menace that the foreign policy establishment claims, then such foot-dragging ought to have elicited outrage from Arlington to Foggy Bottom. Instead the response was mostly muted. The elite narrative still holds: Donald Trump is steering America towards ruin and Angela Merkel is the new leader of the global sisterhood of the traveling pants. That the reality, at least on military spending, looks like the molecular opposite matters little. That America’s troop presence has clearly enabled the problem, entitling the Germans to protection without ever making them pay for it, is rarely acknowledged.
Elsewhere, at the Free Beacon, the hawkish writer Matthew Continetti has his own dire assessment of the “withdrawal.” Most of what he writes is the usual Kagan-esque noisemaking: as the U.S. pulls out, chaos moves in; neurotic “host governments” are in constant need of reassurance; et cetera. But Continetti also makes a more striking claim: pulling troops out of Germany, he says, is of a kind with the protests and riots that followed the killing of George Floyd. The reason? Both are symptoms of “a loss of national self-confidence, an outbreak of intellectual and moral uncertainty, and an unpredictable, erratic, and easily piqued chief executive.”
Continetti is certainly correct that Trump is erratic. And I suppose he’s right about “intellectual and moral uncertainty,” if only because international relations done right rarely offers up absolute certainties. But the baton twirler in his parade of horribles, “a loss of national self-confidence,” now that’s interesting. It, too, is technically correct—hefty majorities of Americans tell pollsters we’re headed in the wrong direction—but Continetti skips over the reasons why. He says nothing about our invasion of Iraq and subsequent failures there, which brought to an end the credibility and swagger that America enjoyed internationally after the Cold War. He’s mum, too, on how our wars in the Middle East have served to distract us from simmering problems closer to home, which have lately come to a boil.
It isn’t a marginal downsizing of America’s empire that’s shown a crisis of confidence; it’s the fact that the empire is still there, long after it stopped being a net positive. That the United States is still supplying boots and bases to the most powerful country in Europe is preposterous. That it’s still trying to mend the Middle East more than a decade after Iraq fell apart is lunacy. That it’s still covering the defense of South Korea, another wealthy powerhouse, is self-defeating. It isn’t that Americans don’t want to bring the troops home; Trump was elected on a platform to do just that. It’s that Washington lacks the mettle to change course. It doesn’t want to accept that change is necessary; it certainly doesn’t want to undertake the discomfiting business of shuttering bases and ruffling allies. Far easier to let the thing run on autopilot, flying drones on borrowed money, relegating it all to faint background noise.
If we really had our national confidence about us, we wouldn’t be afraid to respond to shifting circumstances. We would follow Dwight Eisenhower’s example after the Korean War and set about bringing the military-industrial complex in line with our needs. We would demand that other countries step up, content that multilateralism need not be incompatible with leadership and even a little nationalism. We would stop pretending to be the global savior. Instead the establishment seethes because Trump has acknowledged the Third Reich is no longer a threat. May God have mercy on the cabarets.