The Trump administration has announced its intention to downsize the US military presence in Germany from 34,000 to 25,000 troops. The decision is not yet formal or finalized. It appears to have been driven by Trump’s pique at German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refusal to attend the planned G-7 summit in the US in June, which now has been postponed. But it reflects a long-standing tension between the US and Nato countries about burden sharing, defense spending and free riding.
Whatever determined the decision, it is part of a larger strategic story about America’s military presence in important places, and how any effort to downsize or right-size that presence triggers political anxieties and uncertainties about American resolve and commitment. When it is done without warning or consultation, as is the case here, it accrues additional costs to US prestige, influence and credibility.
Many presidents have tried to recalibrate American military presence in allied and partner countries, as threat perceptions change and as budgetary pressures warrant. Bringing the boys home from South Korea or Japan has been on the table for decades, but usually leads to a compromise, some adjusting of who pays for what and a revalidation of the security relationship.
In Europe at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, the US had 400,000 troops stationed in key Nato countries. That number was slashed by two-thirds in the late 1990s and is now about 60,000 in four countries, with more than half stationed in Germany. The mission is stated in vague terms but has been revalidated in Nato corridors since the Russian annexation of Crimea and continued tensions over Russian intentions and aggression. Yet there is no talk of planning for a conventional war with Russia and the military presence these days is more about reassurance and nontraditional missions, such as counterterrorism and cyber threats. And the European theater is often a critical hub for logistics and medical care for the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Of course, the numbers do not tell the whole story of security partnerships. Some countries are very sensitive about troop presence and strictly enforce caps and other restrictions on US forces. Some agreements with host countries permit temporary surges for joint exercises, or if an acute threat emerges. Earlier this year, the US deployed an additional 20,000 troops to the European theater for a massive months-long exercise, the largest in 25 years.
And despite all the talk of drawing down US forces in the Middle East, the Trump administration has sent additional forces to the region several times, for anti-ISIS or anti-Iran operations in Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Most recently, after the January 2020 killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani by a US drone attack, an additional 3,500 troops were deployed to Iraq and Kuwait, to protect US facilities and personnel from popular anger at the attack, or Iranian retaliation. The commander of the Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie, told Congress this spring that some of the additional troops in the region will remain so long as the “maximum pressure campaign” against Iran is in force; other contingents defending US bases or Saudi oil installations, have been rotated out of the region.
Host countries do have a say in how many US forces can be stationed in a country and for how long. While Europeans have reacted nervously to the new announcement about the recall from Germany, in the aforementioned case of Iraq, the opposite is happening. The Iraqi government has to respond to public opinion and its own wounded pride over American abuses of its sovereignty. The Iraqi parliament has already voted for the withdrawal of all US forces from the country and the matter is now being negotiated in bilateral diplomatic and military channels.
The chaos and turmoil that characterize the Trump administration’s decision-making, which even now is tragically evident in dozens of major American cities, puts these troop level issues in a larger context. US mayors and governors are now in the same boat as Nato and Asian allies, shocked by unilateral and abrupt pronouncements from the White House. At least the American political figures can invoke the constitution and now have senior military leaders helping restrain the president from his worst instincts about demonstrations of force and abuses of the armed forces for his own political objectives.
This latest scuffle over troops in Germany is only one of countless examples of Trump’s cavalier and amateurish approach to national security. It demonstrates his pettiness towards his fellow leaders, the absence of careful reflection on the secondary effects of whimsical leadership decisions, the disregard for established protocols of consultation with allies and a failure to articulate a sustainable sense of purpose in security alliances and partnerships. The steady erosion of US credibility and influence and the declining belief in American competence will be hard to reverse, even if the American electorate makes Trump a one-term president in November.
Ellen Laipson, a former vice chair of the US’s National Intelligence Council, is currently director of the international security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. She is a former president and CEO of the Stimson Center in Washington. Prior to this, Laipson spent a quarter century in government service.