How the times have changed. At the peak of the Cold War in June of 1963, President Kennedy, in company with General Lucius Clay, spoke to a crowd gathered in West Berlin stressing America’s commitment to defend their freedom. Fast forward to June of 2020 and in stark contrast to a long-standing defence policy, the Trump Administration announced its intention to withdraw roughly a third of the US troops stationed in Germany. No doubt the timing and execution of the decision are questionable, but it could be reasoned that the optics of the announcement are worse than the actual immediate policy consequences.
By deciding to reduce the number of permanently stationed US troops in Germany, a NATO ally, from 34,500 to 25,000 two major implications can be drawn. On the political level, the decision which was taken without consultation with the German government, adds further strain to already rocky bilateral relations between Washington and Berlin. The Trump Administration has been relentless in criticizing Germany for its failure to meet NATO’s defence targets where the chemistry between President Trump and Chancellor Merkel has been lacklustre at best. The Chancellor’s decision to reject the President’s invitation to attend the upcoming G7 meeting in-person in America was a blow to the Administration’s domestic agenda who could be using this decision to showcase their collective displeasure. Not to be overlooked, outgoing American Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell failed to bridge the divide among the leaders or build any confidence among the capitals. This lack of bilateral diplomatic depth to avoid such errors is evident with the decision.
In the military realm, the outcome of the decision is a self-inflicted mistake to the primary advantage of Russian President Vladimir Putin who is sorely in need of good news. A secondary winner of this decision could be Poland who has been hankering for more US permanent deployments. Despite this, the recent announcement by no means alters the strategic balance. Apart from a diplomatic headache for NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, the Alliance remains at high readiness and evokes a strong deterrence posture throughout the European theatre. American troops still lead a battle-group in Poland through the enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) and conducted a scaled-down version of Exercise Defender Europe 20. The potential future fraying of relations will become more impactful down the line with big-ticket arms control issues up for debate like the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and New START. America’s recent exit from the Open Skies Treaty provides potential insight to German negotiators where Washington’s arms control mindset currently lies and going.
Before jumping to conclusions about the endless spiralling of American-German defence relations, remember that American AFRICOM and EUCOM is based out of Stuttgart and that the U.S. Army Europe Chief of Staff is currently held by a German Bundeswehr Brigadier General. Almost 57 years ago to the day of President Kennedy’s address, he stated that America and its armed forces would come again if ever needed after the success of the Berlin Airlift. Despite the current bluster and tension in bilateral relations, allies and adversaries alike know the same rings true today.