Amid the coronavirus pandemic and the George Floyd protests spreading from Minnesota to the world, a significant move by Donald Trump last week went almost unnoticed. The president ordered the Pentagon to withdraw 9,500 US troops from Germany, reducing the number to 25,000.
Germany is one of the most significant and loyal US allies. It is home to the US airbase in Ramstein and the US army hospital at Landstuhl, both important in the battle against Daesh in Iraq and Syria and US operations in Afghanistan.
While the troop withdrawal must be approved by the Department of Defense, it has been a long time coming. Trump wants NATO member countries to spend 4 percent of GDP on defense. NATO agreements ask for 2 percent by 2024. Current US spending is about 3.4 percent. The UK, Greece, Poland, Romania, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania already meet the 2 percent benchmark. Others are laggards. France spends 1.84 percent, Canada 1.55 percent and Germany only 1.38 percent.
Germany has raised its defense spending significantly, but it also aims for a balanced budget; Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has committed Berlin to spending 1.5 percent of GDP by 2024, and to reach the 2 percent mark only by 2031 —significantly short of its NATO requirement.
The coronavirus pandemic has put a strain on budgets in all countries, and many will fall behind in their NATO obligations. To Germany’s credit, last week’s 130 billion euro stimulus package contains 10 billion euros for investment in digital, security and defense projects.
It is significant when the US withdraws more than a quarter of its troops from the soil of one of its oldest allies, apparently without bothering to consult Chancellor Angela Merkel, but Trump’s issues with NATO are nothing new. He is skeptical of all multilateral frameworks, and withdrew from the Paris accord on climate change and the World Health Organization, to name only two. He had harsh things to say about NATO when he first came into office, but changed his tune before the alliance’s 70th anniversary, stepping to its defense when French President Emmanuel Macron called NATO brain dead.
On this occasion, Trump may have been displeased with Merkel’s rejection of his invitation to attend the G7 summit at Camp David in June (now postponed to September), to which he intends inviting other countries including Russia.
It is significant when the US withdraws more than a quarter of its troops from the soil of one of its oldest allies, apparently without bothering to consult Chancellor Angela Merkel, but Trump’s issues with NATO are nothing new.
Many NATO allies will be wary of that wish, because they fear the Kremlin’s increasingly belligerent posture toward Europe. They also do not want to be drawn into the growing tensions between the US and China. China is an important trading partner for Europe — especially Germany. Italy even became a formal partner in Beijing’s Belt and Road” initiative. The UK, admittedly, shows signs of taking a tougher line with China, because of Beijing’s controversial new security law for the former British colony of Hong Kong.
What made the US strong in the world was its economic and military might, but what differentiated it from other superpowers was the strength of its alliances and its soft power. The US led not just because it was a rich and powerful country; Washington also derived legitimacy because it was a reliable ally with a mostly consultative approach, open to discussions within reason.
There is a new sheriff in town in Washington, and his modus operandi is different. However, as the US founding father Benjamin Franklin observed, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. That may be something for the US to contemplate when dealing with allies, since it is so much stronger and powerful with them than without them.