Trump’s Plan to Pull Troops From Germany Doesn’t Address a Risk NATO Has Faced Since the Start of the Cold War

 In Defense, Germany
  • The Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s plans to pull thou­sands of troops from Germany, moving them else­where in Europe and back to the US, elicit­ed back­lash at home and abroad.
  • Trump isn’t the first US leader to want to reduce the US con­tri­bu­tion to Europe’s defense, but he hasn’t addressed a more con­se­quen­tial part of that com­mit­ment, writes Christopher Layne, a pro­fes­sor of inter­na­tion­al affairs at Texas A&M University
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President Donald Trump wants to with­draw rough­ly 12,000 US troops from Germany, saying Berlin is “delinquent” and should be doing more to bear the costs of sta­tion­ing troops there. He is hardly the first American pol­i­cy­mak­er to feel that the Europeans aren’t paying their “fair share” of NATO’s defense costs.

Although transat­lantic burden shar­ing tiffs are a hearty peren­ni­al for NATO, Trump’s troop with­draw­al plan over­looks an even more impor­tant issue: risk shar­ing. This goes back to the Cold War when NATO lacked suf­fi­cient con­ven­tion­al forces to repulse a Soviet assault. Hence, NATO strat­e­gy relied on America’s “nuclear umbrel­la,” based on the first use of nuclear weapons.

Today, the Baltic States are the new NATO-Russia fault line. The alliance is inca­pable of defend­ing the Baltics with con­ven­tion­al forces alone. The US brigades that rotate through the Baltic States today are trip wires meant to prompt a nuclear response if Russia attacks — just as were their Cold War coun­ter­parts in West Germany.

Army NATO Germany Reforger

US Army soldiers at Rhein-Main Air Base in West Germany before the first annual NATO Exercise Reforger, January 6, 1969.
Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images

During the Cold War, NATO went through numer­ous strate­gic con­tor­tions to make cred­i­ble the incred­i­ble idea that the United States would risk nuclear war — the dev­as­ta­tion of the American home­land — to defend Europe.

US pol­i­cy­mak­ers don’t like to level with Americans about the true nature of this nation’s NATO com­mit­ment. But in 1979, Henry Kissinger exposed the dirty little secret: NATO is a one-way sui­cide pact. As he said, “Don’t you Europeans keep asking us to mul­ti­ply assur­ances we cannot pos­si­bly mean and that if we do mean, we should not want to exe­cute, and which if we exe­cute, would destroy our civ­i­liza­tion?”

The time has come to over­haul the US role in NATO by shift­ing the risks and costs of the con­ti­nen­t’s defense to the Europeans. This was the vision of America’s lead­ing post-World War II grand strate­gic archi­tects.

George F. Kennan (author of the con­tain­ment doc­trine) argued the US should re-estab­lish a bal­ance of power so other states could lift the bur­dens of con­tain­ment from America’s shoul­ders. John Foster Dulles — sec­re­tary of state in the Eisenhower admin­is­tra­tion — said, “We want Europe to stand on its own two feet.”

Their suc­ces­sors, how­ev­er, have been gripped by a para­dox: Wanting Europe to do more but also fear­ing that Europe will do too much, and no longer be sub­servient to Washington. Herein lies America’s European dilem­ma.

Trump looking the wrong way NATO

Trump, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and other NATO leaders at the 2018 NATO Summit, July 11, 2018.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In his 1966 book, “The Troubled Partnership,” Kissinger made two impor­tant points. First, the US might ben­e­fit great­ly from a united Europe. Second, America would pay a price for a united Europe.

Europe, he said, would not “be con­tent with a sub­or­di­nate role once it had the means to imple­ment its own views. Europe’s main incen­tive to under­take a larger coop­er­a­tive role in the West’s affairs would be to ful­fill its own dis­tinc­tive pur­pos­es.”

The Soviet Union’s col­lapse removed NATO’s strate­gic glue. Putin’s Russia is an annoy­ance. It is not the Big Red Machine of the Cold War. At the same time, there are many issues — Iran, the Middle East, trade, to name a few — on which US and European inter­ests diverge sharply. These dif­fer­ences are exac­er­bat­ed by the power imbal­ance between America and Europe. If this imbal­ance con­tin­ues, the alliance’s fray­ing bonds may tear com­plete­ly — with acri­mo­ny on both sides of the Atlantic.

When Donald Trump was elect­ed, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Europe could no longer count on America’s com­mit­ment to its defense. Other European lead­ers and defense ana­lysts agreed. Proposals for endow­ing Europe an inde­pen­dent defense capa­bil­i­ty — includ­ing a nuclear armed Germany — were float­ed.

None have come remote­ly close to fruition, although French President Emmanuel Macron con­tin­ues to press the case for Europe’s “strate­gic auton­o­my.” It is safe to say, how­ev­er, that this idea will lan­guish. As much as Europe resents its depen­dence on the US, it fears that if it does more for its own defense, America will do less.

macron putin merkel

Merkel with Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron during trilateral talks at the G20 summit in Hamburg, July 8, 2017.
Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images

Ironically, as Dulles per­ceived, the Truman admin­is­tra­tion’s poli­cies in the late 1940s sti­fled European unity and self-reliance.

He observed that the Marshall Plan and NATO “were the two things which pre­vent­ed a unity in Europe which in the long run may be more valu­able than either of them.” The unin­tend­ed con­se­quence was that both acted as dis­in­cen­tives for Europe to take the hard steps toward polit­i­cal unity and to become strate­gi­cal­ly self-suf­fi­cient.

The US should cut the Gordian Knot by announc­ing the phased retrac­tion of its role as Europe’s secu­ri­ty guar­an­tor. A transat­lantic rela­tion­ship no longer char­ac­ter­ized by American dom­i­nance and European tute­lage — and shorn of the ill feel­ings European depen­dence gen­er­ates on both sides of the Atlantic — will be health­i­er and more mature.

A mil­i­tar­i­ly autonomous Europe is in America’s inter­est: It would end the dan­ger­ous “extend­ed deter­rence” strat­e­gy of threat­en­ing nuclear war — sui­cide, to be clear — to deter attacks on European NATO mem­bers; resolve America’s com­plaints about burden shar­ing; and allow the US to reduce its bloat­ed defense budget. Trump’s troop with­draw­al should be the cat­a­lyst for a far-reach­ing debate about reset­ting the US-European rela­tion­ship.

Christopher Layne is University Distinguished Professor of International Affairs at Texas A&M University.

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