Relocating Forces or Redistributing U.S. Strategic Weight in Europe?

This report discusses U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw 9500 US soldiers from Germany. It also looks into the motives behind such a decision in light of the U.S.-European disagreement and the increasing Russian and Chinese presence in the international arena. This report tried to provide future insight into NATO members' unity in a very dynamic international environment.

by Bilal Al Adaileh
  • Publisher – STRATEGIECS
  • Release Date – Jul 9, 2020

On June 15, 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump confirmed that the number of U.S. forces deployed in Germany would be reduced to 25,000. The White House statements attributed the reason to Berlin's late payment of its financial contributions to NATO.

Ever since he came to power, Trump has put pressure on allies - especially European NATO countries - to increase defense spending as a percent of each country's gross domestic product, claiming that the U.S. provides an unfair share of free protection services. 

In a press conference held at the White House on the sidelines of Polish President Andre Doda's visit to Washington on June 24, 2020, U.S. President revealed that some of the estimated 9,500. troops will be withdrawn back to the U.S., with others deployed to other places, like Poland. On June 12, 2020, the U.S. Embassy in Poland tweeted that talks to strengthen U.S. presence in Poland are on the right track and an announcement will be issued soon.

The U.S. military deployment in Germany dates back to the post-WWII period, after the Cold War dominated international relations, as this strategic deployment expressed a U.S. commitment to secure a system that would deter European allies in the face of Soviet nuclear dangers.

As reported on the U.S. Air Force website, there are currently 34,500 U.S. troops in Germany, distributed on 5 garrisons. Given this concentration, it seems that there are vital U.S. military installations with a prominent operational dimension, such as the Stuttgart garrison that includes: U.S. headquarters in Europe "EUCOM", and the U.S. command headquarters in Africa, AFRICOM, thus expanding the role of this logistical garrison to the Middle East and parts of Asia and Africa. Moreover, U.S. presence includes a huge medical center that treated U.S. soldiers for their injuries in Iraq. According to Foreign Policy magazine issued in June 2020, the Baumholder garrison is considered to host the largest number of U.S. forces at an external base.

While neither side has officially declared their ownership of While The U.S. military presence in Germany has a nuclear dimension, although neither side has officially recognized the storage of nuclear weapons in Germany. However, a document "unintentionally" released in July 2019 revealed the storage of nuclear weapons at the Büchel base. The unofficial document is a draft report entitled "A new era for nuclear deterrence? Modernisation, arms control, and allied nuclear forces"; issued by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly's Defense Committee. Furthermore, several media reports (including what has been released by Defense News) are circulating that Germany contains at least 20 upgraded B61-12 tactical nukes bombs at the Büchel base.

Despite this heavy proliferation, many were unsurprised by U.S. withdrawal plans. In the last few years, U.S.-European differences have become more public; these differences are not limited to technical or protocol framework only, but also extend to strategic issues such as their stances on the nuclear file as well as perceptions of key geostrategic threats. For instance, the European Union conflicts with Washington on considering China and Russia as primary threats to national security, hence, the EU prefers to avoid complicating its relations with these two countries. In its 2019 annual report, STRATEGIECS Think Tank published an article titled "The Competition over the Heart of the World" in which it anticipated the emergence of a semi-independent European political identity, based on an analysis of the most prominent differences on both sides of the Atlantic.

To analyze the anticipated withdrawal of U.S. forces, it is necessary to highlight the main motives behind this decision, which can be summarized as follows:

1. "America First"

The phrase "America first" was not a mere slogan in the 2016 Trump campaign, for it turned into a policy adopted by his administration, and U.S. institutions adapted to align with their trends, even if they clashed with the foundations of U.S. foreign policy.

According to this principle, any costs incurred by the U.S. voter must be balanced against corresponding material gains, commercial or military. Thus, U.S. President Donald Trump has persistently had and still demands his allies to increase defense spending within alliances and joint agreements, such as NATO or the forces deployed in the Middle East and the Far East.

In this critical circumstance in which the U.S. faces the consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. needs to harness all its energies towards the internal situation, which suffers increased spending on external files, with no benefit to its living conditions. In a year that will witness hot presidential elections - unless postponed by a new outbreak of the "Coronavirus" - which is the closest thing to the referendum on the Americans' satisfaction with the 4 years that Trump spent as president. The latter is keen to tune in with a wide section of his audience, which calls for harnessing most of the U.S. capabilities towards the inside.

In his statement referred to in the introduction to the report, U.S. President Donald Trump mentioned some countries that exploit his nation, describing Germany as "the worst exploiter"; Trump sees his country losing in interacting with Germany in terms of trade and NATO. Concerning NATO, according to Trading Economics, Germany spends about 1.2% of the gross domestic product on the military, while Washington calls for raising this to 4%. At the commercial level, the U.S. recorded a trade deficit with Germany, amounting to about $67.3b, per U.S. Census data.

Therefore, the slogan "America First" has become a key feature of the Trump administration, despite the inconsistency in the assessments of strategic experts linking the international deployment of U.S. forces to Washington's pioneering role in imposing security and world peace per U.S. interests

2. Pressuring Europe's Decision-Making Capitals, Strengthening Relations with Medium-Impact Countries at the Expense of Washington's Relations with Traditional Capitals

The last stage contained the growth of U.S.-European differences due to the severe divide in visions and stances. The dispute has reached its public peak when French president Emmanuel Macron described NATO's current state as one of "cerebral death" attributing the cause in the first place to the absence of U.S. leadership. Furthermore, in his controversial interview with the Economist in November 2019 before a festive NATO summit on the occasion of the 70th founding anniversary, Macron reemphasized his calls for Europe to start working as a global strategic power. In response, Trump expressed his shock at these statements, which he described as "insulting" and "very repugnant; mainly for the 28 countries".

In light of the increasing divergence between the two sides of the Atlantic, the European Union and the U.S., Europe acknowledges the U.S. key deterrent role in the equation of strategic European security. Therefore, and to avoid sudden U.S. fluctuations, the Union seeks to develop a "European Defense Fund" on the ground, with the aim of "strengthening the strategic independence of the Union"; as reported by the European Commission.

Considering the axes of the European-U.S. dispute usually relate to a major country - such as France and Germany – what Washington seeks from the partial repositioning of its forces in Poland - which is a medium-impact country – is to remind European capitals that the U.S. foreign policy portfolio has on-hand alternatives when needed. The deep state in the U.S. thus indicates that the ongoing comprehensive review of its foreign policy does not exclude even traditional allies.

As for redistributing the U.S. strategic weight across the continent, the European Union must prepare for any extreme scenarios so that it does not find itself facing Russia and/or China without the presence of the U.S. security umbrella.

3. Deterring Moscow and Enhancing US Negotiating Position in Strategic Arms Control Treaties

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova objected to the transfer of U.S. forces from Germany to Poland, which is located in the Russian vital area, saying that "Such steps would undoubtedly help reduce confrontational potential and ease military and political tensions in the Euro-Atlantic region."

 However, Polish Foreign Minister, Jacek Chabotovic, stated explicitly in an August 2019 interview with "Polsat" that the deployment of troops in Poland "will curb Russia", thereby reducing the importance of the deployment of U.S. forces in Western Europe compared to the easternmost part of Russia.

The coming stage is expected to witness an operational return to some aspects of the arms race that prevailed during the Cold War, as a result of Washington's withdrawal from some bilateral and international treaties on nuclear weapons reduction. This was evident in the medium and short-range nuclear missile treaty signed between the U.S. and Russia - and with an increase in confidence and certainty degree in international relations; as in the multilateral open skies treaty.

Washington justifies its withdrawal from such treaties by accusing Russia of non-compliance with stipulated provisions. Yet, some analysts attribute Washington's goal to such withdrawals to U.S. eagerness to build new strategic treaties with China as one of its parties; due to the rise of its military and economic power and its approach to achieving a kind of par with the U.S. in vital fields.

Therefore, Washington will try to pressure Beijing and Moscow to formulate a comprehensive military-strategic treaty, similar to the bilateral "New START" treaty between the U.S. and Russia, which entered into force in 2011, and expires at the end of 2021. It is not expected that Washington will extend the treaty in its current form, as it seeks to draft a new treaty with China as a party. 

4. Trump-Merkel Disagreements

Press leaks about a prospective cut in U.S. forces operating in Germany have been preceded by criticism by German Chancellor Angela Merkel of Trump's "controversial" political style; calling on politicians to try to bring people together, as per her answer to a question regarding the killing of African-U.S., George Floyd, in an interview with "ZDF" on June 4, 2020.

Of course, this is not the first time that Trump-Merkel disputes have emerged publicly. The U.S. administration considers that the German Chancellor is lenient in dealing with the Russian threat, and this is reflected in the fact that Berlin allows the expansion of a huge pipeline of Russian gas to Europe via Germany within the "Nord Stream 2" project. This was rejected by Washington, which called on the European continent to reduce its dependence on Russian gas to meet its energy needs.

To block Russian gas projects in Europe; U.S. President Donald Trump ratified in December 2019, a penal code that includes companies and ships involved in the "Nord Stream 2" project. The spokeswoman for the German Chancellor, Ulrike Demmer, considered that these sanctions constitute "interference in our internal affairs."

The Trump-Merkel dispute appears in many other cases. Such as Merkel's call for open policies in international trade and humanitarian asylum, in contrast to Trump, who adopts policies that are sometimes described as isolationism or protectionism. The lack of harmony between the two personalities was reflected in one way or another on the common relations of their two countries because this lack of harmony reflects a conflict between two cultures, and therefore between two elites.

5. Enhancing U.S. Presence in Central Europe

Poland is one of the Central European countries in which the elements of the U.S. anti-missile shield are being deployed in Europe. This project has caused Russian objections, which have been reflected in its relations with the countries in which parts of the U.S. system have been deployed on its soil. Therefore, Poland senses a Russian threat that it does not want to be attacked without the presence of reliable allied forces, and consequently, the U.S. forces in Poland will reinforce the strength of the Polish position on the political scene and will contribute to the stationing nearer to Russia, as stated in motive 3.

The U.S. move can also be evaluated from an ideological perspective, as the Justice and Law Party to which Polish President Andre Doda belongs, is classified as a right-wing conservative with populist tendencies. Doda's visit to Washington came before the first round of the Polish presidential elections, at a time when the Justice and Law Party is facing several trends, most notable is the civil platform with liberal orientations consistent with the European elite climate. The timing of the visit has sparked controversy in the Polish partisan party, and several accusations related to the presence of external interference in the Polish voter’s orientations by using the presidential visit to show supposed accomplishments in the foreign policy file.

It is worth noting that the Polish government has signed a contract to import U.S. gas for 20 years; so that work begins after the end of the Russian gas supply contract in 2022, and talks are taking place about a possible U.S. gas marketing project in Europe, starting from countries such as Poland and Lithuania, the latter is the first former Soviet Republic to receive liquefied gas from the U.S. 

Europe and 2020 November elections

News of relocating U.S. forces from Germany coincided with an exchange of sharp statements targetting U.S. and German officials. Perhaps the most prominent of these statements was the "ridicule" by the likely candidate to succeed Merkel, the German Defense Minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, for the strategic value of the U.S. decision, when she said: "NATO is not a trade organization, and security is not a commodity".

Nevertheless, this statement carries a German fingerprint more than a European one; as part of the withdrawing forces will be redeployed to Poland closer to the Russian border. The withdrawal of forces is not intended to abandon U.S. obligations to the continent; they have moved to a NATO country that has fundamental differences with Russia, a focal point in the nuclear threat in the Cold War era. According to European national security calculations, the U.S. decision is assessed as a redeployment within the same system and not a troop withdrawal; like what happened many times in the Middle East. 

Nonetheless, this does not mean that Washington is not serious about re-evaluating the strategic feasibility of its heavy military deployment around the world. This was clearly displayed in U.S. President Donald Trump's statements, some of which carry very explicit indications of this trend. 

At the 2020 U.S. Military Academy during West Point Graduation Ceremony, Trump expressed his dissatisfaction with the foreign military presence, stating: "We are not the policeman of the world", promising graduate soldiers that they will not have to serve in "endless" wars nor work on "solve ancient conflicts in faraway lands".

A reassessment of the military deployment referenced in the "America First" clause contributes to U.S. foreign policy tendency to review traditional relations on one hand, while working to build closer ties with new allies who were somewhat marginal in previous periods. In addition to Poland, the U.S. administration is strengthening ties with countries like India and Brazil.

Therefore, the EU must anticipate the results of the U.S. presidential elections in November 2020, and prepare for extreme scenarios that may limit its influence in the U.S. strategic perspective. Most probably, if Trump is re-elected to a new presidential term, the future of NATO cohesion will be at risk. This means that there is an entirely new U.S. approach to security in Europe that takes into account the Chinese threat as a priority and looks at the East Atlantic Bank as an Indo-Pacific region gateway, which all signs suggest that it tops U.S. geopolitical concerns.


Bilal Al Adaileh

Research Assistant, specialized in International Peace and Conflict Resolution