Editorial: Pulling US troops out of Europe is misguided

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The Trump administration’s decision to remove more than 9,000 troops from Germany by September is part of a dispiriting pattern. It serves little strategic purpose and will be virtually impossible to pull off. News of the proposal provoked the ire of the German government, which wasn’t briefed on it in advance. Given the mutual animosity between Donald Trump and Chancellor Angela Merkel, that appears to have been the point all along.

The plan would cap the U.S. presence in Germany at 25,000, down from about 35,000 today, which itself is less than half the number stationed in Germany during the height of the Iraq War. With overseas combat missions winding down, the U.S. depends less heavily on German bases for transporting troops and supplies. Even so, the U.S. Africa Command runs out of Stuttgart, and military assets in Germany remain critical for counterterrorism operations, treating wounded troops and deterring Russia.

As is so often the case, the potential benefits of the administration’s policy have been negated by the chaos surrounding it. A prudent reduction to the U.S. troop presence in Germany could strengthen the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, provided Washington redeploys those forces elsewhere in Europe. But any such move should be done in coordination with partners, not in defiance of them.

Advocates of redeploying forces argue that other NATO members, such as Poland and the Baltic states, are more vulnerable to Russian aggression. It makes sense for the U.S. to bolster support for frontline countries, but rapidly transferring large numbers of troops poses considerable challenges, not least the cost of maintaining bases and housing for service members and their families. In Poland’s case, it would also reward a government that is at odds with the European Union over democratic norms and the rule of law.

Decisions about how to allocate personnel and resources to meet emerging threats should be made through NATO’s strategic planning process, not on the basis of presidential caprice. Republicans in Congress are right to warn the administration against placing an arbitrary cap on the number of troops deployed in Europe. At a minimum, the U.S. should commit to consulting with allies before making any significant cuts.

NATO’s European members also need to do more. On June 15, Trump told reporters he was ordering the pullout to punish Germany for failing to increase military spending. In reality, most governments, including Germany’s, have boosted defense spending in recent years, partly in response to Trump’s demands. Yet only nine out of 30 members have met the alliance’s stated goal of devoting 2% of national GDP to defense by 2024, and few are likely to increase outlays during a pandemic. As the continent’s biggest economy, Germany should reaffirm its commitment to NATO by investing in new military capabilities and upgrading outdated weapons systems.

Germany should also take a more assertive role in combating the challenges to European security posed by Russia and China. That includes slowing construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would import gas from Russia, and limiting China’s ability to gain access to the continent’s 5G infrastructure.

Over the past three and half years, Trump’s disparagement of NATO allies has emboldened the West’s adversaries and undermined the security of the U.S. and Europe. A rash pullout of American forces promises to weaken the alliance even more. It’s up to leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to persuade the White House to change course, before it’s too late.


Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

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