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Much Ado About a Minor Troop Movement

Long-lasting, major burden-sharing is not going to be made easier by haphazard, uncoordinated actions.
Trump Merkel

Foreign Policy reports on the decision to withdraw almost 12,000 U.S. troops from Germany:

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Wednesday that the United States would pull nearly 12,000 troops out of Germany, starting in the coming weeks, ostensibly to beef up U.S. deterrence against Russia. Immediately after, Esper was undercut by U.S. President Donald Trump, who described the troop withdrawal as a reprisal against Germany for not meeting its defense-spending targets.

Roughly half of the troops that are to be withdrawn from Germany will be sent elsewhere in Europe. Some will be relocated to Belgium, and others to Italy. The president’s stated reason for withdrawing them doesn’t really make sense, especially when many of the troops will be relocated to other NATO countries that spend an even smaller percentage of their GDPs on the military. The goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on the military is not a formal requirement. Regardless, Trump is “rewarding” allies that have done no better than Germany. The move is intended as a slight to Germany, but it probably won’t bother most Germans. According to a Pew survey conducted last year, only 15 percent of Germans said that the bases were very important to their national security. A few thousand Americans more or less won’t trouble them. If this is supposed to punish Germany because it has resisted Trump’s demands for more military spending, it isn’t likely to spur their government to do what the administration wants.

Trump’s complaint about Germany’s “delinquency” is misinformed, since there is no common treasury that all allied states pay into. The alliance is not a protection racket, no matter how much Trump wishes that it was. It goes without saying that Trump’s move is unrelated to any larger strategic considerations. Assuming that the withdrawal actually happens at all (a risky assumption given Trump’s track record), it is unlikely to be a permanent change because there has been no serious attempt to justify it and a future administration will halt it before it can be completed. As the Quincy Institute’s president Andrew Bacevich says, “petulance is no substitute for reasoned policy.” Because the president blindsided everyone with his decision, no one else has really bought into it and the Pentagon will likely slow-walk its implementation as much as possible. Even when the administration seems to move in the right direction on something, it does it so incompetently and irresponsibly that it does more harm than good.

Many establishment critics of the decision have been quick to label the modest reduction a “gift to Putin, but it’s not clear what Russia actually gains from this. U.S. bases in Germany have very little to do with opposing Russia these days, and whether Russia does or doesn’t welcome a U.S. move should be irrelevant if that move is in the American interest. These bases are there to aid in U.S. power projection to other regions, and that is what the remaining forces in Europe will continue to do. Africom headquarters will reportedly be relocated, but it isn’t being shut down. Perhaps the biggest flaw in the Trump administration’s move is that it doesn’t scale back U.S. commitments in Europe one bit, but it does further strain relations with major allies. Long-lasting, major burden-sharing is not going to be made easier by haphazard, uncoordinated actions. This random withdrawal done out of spite will just make it more difficult to argue for deeper reductions in U.S. commitments in Europe down the road.