Interview with the author John Haines by Orbis editor Nikolas Gvosdev
What does President Trump’s announcement about withdrawing U.S. forces from Germany actually mean in terms of the U.S. defense posture in Europe?
Little to nothing, for two reasons. First, the U.S. leverages a sizeable sunk investment in German bases in very substantial part to support missions that are unrelated in any direct sense to its defense posture in Europe, if indeed the U.S. has one— “Europe” appeared only twice in Secretary Esper’s February 2020 Defense Posture Statement, once in a reference to Chinese soft power and the other to a long-planned military exercise. Many, if not most, missions executed from German bases could be housed anywhere in the world, including CONUS. The German public grasps this. While a majority (56%) of Americans retain a legacy belief that bases in Germany are “very important” to U.S. national security, fewer than 1 in 5 Germans (15%) believe U.S. bases are “very important” to German national security. On this, the German public is correct, and U.S. public opinion needs to catch up. Second, President Trump in 2019 committed the U.S. to increase the 4,500-troop rotational force in Poland by a quarter. His administration proposed establishing a division headquarters in eastern Poland and an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance squadron of U.S.A.F. MQ-9 Reaper UAVs, as well as security-related infrastructure investments. The open question is “who pays.” The risk is President Trump will allow a good idea—forcing Europeans to support the cost of their own defense—to be negated by a bad one—a Cold War era-vintage U.S. tripwire force in eastern Poland. That would be particularly bad policy, both security and fiscal, and wholly uninformed by considerations like the political-security dynamic between Poland and neighboring Belarus.
How will it affect relationships within NATO and the ability of NATO to carry out its missions?
It would indeed be indicative of larger problems within the alliance if withdrawing fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops from German bases impinged NATO’s ability to carry out missions. That is not the case, however. As to intra-NATO relationships, President Trump’s announcement is effect, not cause. Germany bears much responsibility, e.g., Chancellor Merkel’s spiteful refusal last summer to join a naval mission to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz from Iranian predations. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said then, “Taking part in the American strategy of maximum pressure is out of the question.” Bundestag Foreign Policy Committee chair Norbert Röttgen—who called President Trump’s downsizing announcement “deplorable”—went farther, saying, “We cannot have a joint mission with the US right now, because the Europeans are pursuing a completely different policy towards Iran.” All this perhaps is good news, however, insofar as it signals the beginning of the end of alliance out-of-area operations and NATO ambitions as a security exporter.
Is this truly a “gift” to President Putin? How does this serve Russian strategic interests?
It is hard to see how Russia benefits in any meaningful way from the U.S. reducing the size of an already small force housed on German bases. While Germany was a critical Cold War forward base, it is no longer a frontier state and U.S. forces there have not served a “tripwire” role for decades. President Trump was making a political point about Merkel government serial antagonism and anemic German defense spending, period. German handwringers about NATO cohesion might want to consider the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which the Merkel government pursues in defiance of strenuous opposition by the U.S. and almost every Baltic and Central European NATO member-state.
Does this change any of the conclusions you reached in your article last year?
No. The U.S. should embrace an explicit policy in which Article 5 actions are discretionary and serve American interests, period. One caveat is that President Trump should act deliberately, not through salami slice measures which appear petty. Returning to an originalist Article 5 policy that emphasizes the primacy of U.S. security interests requires effort, however, like resisting such backsliding actions as redeploying U.S. forces from German bases to Polish ones. Subjecting U.S. troops to risk as a tripwire force is a bad idea in almost all circumstances. Here, it would accomplish little but to provide cover for reciprocal Russian deployments in Belarus. President Trump should not allow low-probability, imagined threats, e.g., Russian forces closing the Suwalki corridor, to leverage a modern-day Maginot Line in eastern Poland or the Baltic states. Nor should he be swayed by stuck-in-the-past advisors whose guidance misapprehends whether, and if so, how, Russia is a genuine challenge today to defined U.S. security interests.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.