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Will U.S. Troop Pullouts Accelerate European Defense Integration?

The U.S. decision to withdraw 9,500 troops from Germany exacerbates tensions in the transatlantic relationship. Could it also focus the EU’s attention on the need for a serious defense policy?

By: EBR - Posted: Friday, June 12, 2020

"The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw about one quarter of the U.S. troops in Germany is “astrategic”—that is, it is completely unmoored from any discernable strategy vis-a-vis Russia or other national security threats."
"The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw about one quarter of the U.S. troops in Germany is “astrategic”—that is, it is completely unmoored from any discernable strategy vis-a-vis Russia or other national security threats."

by Judy Dempsey*

Elisabeth Brawsenior- research fellow at the royal united services institute for defence and security studies

There has been lots of discussion on Twitter about U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision, with a whole range of people pointing out that U.S. troops in Germany are not primarily there for the defense of Germany.

Nobody in the national security community needed to be enlightened to that effect: Germany is a gigantic U.S. forward operating base. But national security types on Twitter do not communicate with American voters. Communicating with American voters is, on the contrary, Trump’s only intention, and it will be easy to sell the decision to withdraw troops from Germany as punishment of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But Trump’s decision will primarily harm the United States—and it certainly won’t harm European countries enough for EU defense integration to become a priority. There’s already significant unhappiness among non-French defense companies with France’s eagerness to promote defense integration on terms that seem to primarily benefit French firms. As for armed forces integration, the perennial obstacle of command structure and allocation of troops remains.

And let’s remember that previous U.S. withdrawals of troops from Germany—from 246,875 in 1985—have not caused much action in Europe. European defense integration will speed up when the threat picture worsens significantly.

Heather A. Conleysenior- vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the arctic at the center for strategic and international studies

Although it is unlikely that U.S. forces will be reduced in Germany for the time being, U.S. force reduction will not accelerate European defense integration. It will only accelerate European defense-strategy and white-paper writing describing the need for greater defense autonomy from the United States.

As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg frequently cites, 80 percent of NATO defenses are comprised of non-EU members. Of the remaining 20 percent, France remains the most significant European military presence, followed by Germany, Italy, and Poland.

French President Emmanuel Macron has taken leadership of European defense development and deployment efforts as demonstrated in the EU’s Mali operations, which began in 2013. But France does not have sufficient military forces to lead alone, despite emitting some signals that it may offer Europe its nuclear umbrella at some point in the future.

In the meantime, Paris has gone outside of existing structures to help develop a European strategic culture with the European Intervention Initiative (EI2). The EU’s European Defense Fund (EDF) will help Europe develop greater defense capabilities—such as the Eurodrone—and will strengthen French, German, and Italian defense industries, but it will not serve as a meaningful substitute for America’s security umbrella or allow Europe to create an autonomous defense framework.

Thus, European insecurity can only deepen by U.S. uncertainty over its future global force posture.

Raluca Csernatonivisiting researcher at Carnegie Europe

Much ink has been spilled on Trump’s approved plan to withdraw up to 9,500 American troops from bases in Germany.

The pullout seems to be motivated by political rather than military and strategic rationales, and it would deprive the United States of significant deterrence capabilities in Europe. Analysts have attributed this erratic decision to Merkel’s refusal to attend the G7 meeting due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Other explanations attribute this move to ongoing transatlantic tensions and complaints from the U.S. president that European members of NATO are free-riding and should shoulder their own defense, especially wealthy nations such as Germany.

This might be another political signal for Europe to start taking its defense more seriously and a catalyst for Germany for an even stronger stance on European defense burden sharing. The German EU presidency beginning in July 2020 offers an opportunity to keep the European defense integration momentum going, if not accelerate it.

Amid budget negotiations and expected deep cuts that will undermine the EU’s defense portfolio, Germany’s ambition to create a so-called strategic compass seems to come at a perfect time to align member states’ threat perceptions and strategic cultures.

However, it remains to be seen whether this entire affair pans out to be the wake-up call that secures member states’ buy-in when it comes to common European defense.

John R. Denire- search professor at the strategic studies institute of the U.S. army war college

The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw about one quarter of the U.S. troops in Germany is “astrategic”—that is, it is completely unmoored from any discernable strategy vis-a-vis Russia or other national security threats.

Twenty-five years of steady but gradual cuts to U.S. forward presence in Europe failed to engender increased defense spending by Germany. Instead, the turnaround in Germany’s defense budget that has been underway since 2015 is largely the result of an increasingly threatening security environment in Europe.

Just as Trump’s decision is unlikely to change Germany’s approach to defense spending—or its approach to Nord Stream 2—the U.S. drawdown is similarly unlikely to accelerate European defense integration. Only greater European political integration can truly accomplish this. Political authority over life and death national security decisions, which currently resides at the state level, must shift to the supranational or intergovernmental level if Europe is ever to achieve real defense integration.

Presently, just accelerating defense industrial integration in Europe is proving difficult and slow, despite the promise of initiatives such as Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and EDF. I remain very skeptical that these and similar arrangements will fulfill their potential.

Francois Heisbourg- senior advisor at the international institute for strategic studies

The short and “now” answer is “no,” the slightly longer and somewhat later one is “maybe.”

“No” because the decision to cut U.S. force levels by 25 percent in Germany comes late in Trump’s term. The natural reaction in Germany and much of Europe will be to wait this one out until former U.S. vice president Joe Biden is (hopefully) elected as U.S. president in November 2020, with the issue then being revisited. Such a posture is politically much less demanding than wrestling with the strategic and budgetary implications of Macron-style European defense.

“Maybe” applies if Trump is reelected. Then the assumption will be that a relegitimized anti-alliance U.S. president will forego NATO’s multilateral disciplines. As a consequence, some Europeans will want to integrate, notably—but not only—France, Germany, and the Benelux countries. Some, such as Poland, will try to secure U.S.-centric bilateralism. Yet others will emphasize accommodation with Russia and China.

But all will presumably try to give a pan-EU cover to their chosen hedges, with PESCO as the template: it may be European but it doesn’t portend levels of military integration comparable to those provided by NATO.

Conversely, the failure of bilateralism or of Russia-hugging as viable options could spur integration on an EU scale.

Ben Hodges- pershing chair at the center for European policy analysis

The only thing that will accelerate European defense integration is an honest assessment by political leaders in Europe of the threats to European security and a willingness to address those threats.

If the European Union is unwilling to even budget adequate resources for military mobility, for example, then any talk of European strategic autonomy and integration is empty rhetoric—and we have a “European pillow” instead of a “European pillar.”

If the reported decision by the White House to withdraw 9,500 soldiers and airmen from Germany this year is true, and if it is actually implemented, it would be a colossal mistake.

Such a withdrawal would dangerously undermine NATO cohesion because of the way it has been done—without any coordination with allies, especially Germany, or NATO itself—and because of the impact on readiness and capabilities. It will cause many allies—and potential adversaries—to wonder about U.S. commitment to Europe.

Then, perhaps, enough political leaders would wake up to the danger resulting from an alliance that is lacking both American leadership and cohesion, the latter of which—despite the Herculean efforts of Stoltenberg—would be severely damaged because of the frayed relationship between Germany and the United States.

Shada Islam- independent eu commentator and managing director of new horizons project

Sometimes it’s better to stay calm and carry on. This is not such a moment.

Stoltenberg may turn out to be right, and America’s commitment to the alliance may still be strong. But Europe should not bet on it, especially since relations between the United States and Germany, the EU’s most influential and economically powerful nation, are clearly on life support. Merkel’s decision not to attend the G7 summit in the United States is one clear illustration of Berlin’s irritation with Trump’s policies.

Even if cracks in German-American ties are papered over, the writing’s on the wall: Europe must start working harder to ensure its strategic autonomy on security and defense. This will not make NATO less important or less relevant. But it will give more credibility to the EU’s ambitions of becoming a more active global security actor.

Europe has started posting defense attaches to many of its delegations abroad and is engaging in many interesting security conversations with Asian nations. These initiatives are important and should continue.

Rem Korteweg -senior research fellow at the clingendael institute

Trump’s decision to withdraw 9,500 U.S. troops is meant to send a message to Germany. It is not a signal of impending U.S. withdrawal from Europe. In fact, this week, the U.S. army started prepositioning equipment for an armored brigade in Poland.

But whether the withdrawal of troops is just Trumpian chest-beating or something else is unimportant. Two things will be heard loud and clear across Europe.

One, the current U.S. president likes to play politics with U.S. security commitments on the continent. Two, the U.S. security presence in Europe is increasingly uncertain. Like his unilateral decisions to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Open Skies Treaty, and the Iran nuclear deal, as well as his unannounced withdrawal from northern Syria, this decision will be seen as yet another indication that Trump is unreliable.

It will give another push toward more European defense integration. But European defense ministers now face a different, more daunting challenge. As governments take on large amounts of debt to deal with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, budget cuts seem inevitable.

Europe should take more responsibility for its own security, yes, but it may be increasingly difficult to find the money to do so.

Barbara Kunz- senior researcher at the institute for peace research and security policy

That seems unlikely. Alongside diverging threat perceptions and different defense priorities across Europe, two U.S.-related factors stand in the way of “more Europe” in response to partial U.S. withdrawal.

First, Europeans do not share a single assessment of the transatlantic relationship’s future trajectory. Second, two different theories of causality exist in Europe when it comes to how European defense integration and U.S. engagement in European security relate to each other.

That Europeans seriously need to consider a plan B in light of U.S. disengagement from European security is not the consensus on this continent. The European security debate consequently lacks a common starting point, not to mention a joint assessment on what ought to be done.

Moreover, the effect European defense integration has on the transatlantic link is viewed differently depending on the respective theory of causality held in the various European capitals. This became clear throughout the debate on European strategic autonomy. Some—notably Paris—consider a more capable Europe a contribution to transatlantic burden sharing. Others—notably Warsaw—tend to see it as undermining the transatlantic link.

The preferred courses of action deriving from these different takes are almost diametrically opposed; no good starting point for joint European action.

Claudia Major- head of the international security division at the German institute for international and security affairs

There is a lot of speculation: Are these troops leaving? Where to? And which troops?

This uncertainty is typical for the current transatlantic relationship, it intoxicates and destroys trust. Sadly, the Europeans lack the unity and sense of urgency to help themselves out of the mess. Thus, the potential U.S. decision is unlikely to give the badly needed push to European defense. Quite the opposite, it might further fragmentation: Europeans might disagree on how to react and enter in a beauty contest to keep the United States in Europe.

Eventually, it is not about this withdrawal. It is about the changing transatlantic relationship; the uncoordinated announcement is just another example of how deeply strained it has become under Trump.

Yes, the United States might harm itself when reducing its presence in Germany, which hosts things like the U.S. European and African commands, a modern hospital, and training areas. But the problem is bigger for the Europeans: they are not yet ready to replace the U.S. contributions to European defense. There is still no credible European defense without the United States.

Thus, the lack of U.S. political will to defend Europe and the lack of urgency among Europeans are the real issues, not these specific troops. This is why the current decision is hurting so much.

Christian Molling- research director of the German council on foreign relations

Many think we must be close to a somewhat bigger version of the aftermath of the 2007–2008 financial crisis.

The pressure on the European defense sector is increasing due to the coronavirus pandemic, and many expect defense budget cuts to be just around the corner. As a natural reaction, Europeans would have to cooperate more. Hence, a bad move by a U.S. president can only add to this reaction and deepen European solidarity.

This hopelessly romanticizes the real outcome of the 2007–2008 story, which wasn’t about a honeymoon and a happy end. Europe’s plan to pool and share military equipment and to develop, train, and operate more jointly failed.

Instead, EU governments emphasized and exercised what they thought was sovereignty: to decide over their military, no matter what partners think and need to defend Europe jointly. Europe’s collective achievement was a capability base of minus 20 percent—congratulations! Former U.S. secretary of defense Robert Gates’s fierce warning in 2011 about Europeans becoming irrelevant faded, unheard.

To do better this time, Europeans should:

-Prevent defense budget cuts to the extent possible.
-Learn the real lessons from the period after 2007–2008, for example: When does cooperation work and when does it not?
-Find the key differences between the strategic situation then and today in order not to go for the wrong cure.
-Think, prepare, and craft cooperation as a necessary and long-term effort that goes against the initial instinct of the state and the military.

Ben Tonrafull- professor of international relations at the university college Dublin

Yes, but only marginally.

Trump has consistently portrayed NATO essentially as a protection racket: “you pay us to protect you.” This has long been factored into European strategic calculation. To date, however, the so-called adults in the room have forestalled any serious transatlantic rifts, and senior NATO officials and the North Atlantic Council have done their very best to appease Trump’s baser instincts.

Of course, at root, Trump’s complaint rests on longstanding and legitimate U.S. complaints surrounding burden sharing.

The impact of this particular move will only marginally reinforce existing European momentum in defense. The return of substantial defense spending to the EU budget (for now), the ongoing (if fitful) work to give substance to so-called strategic autonomy, the reignition of the Franco-German motor, and the UK’s peculiar determination not to discuss security and defense as part of its Brexit final status negotiations with the EU all reinforce the EU’s integrative tendencies.

The wild card for me are the NATO members in Central and Eastern Europe. Will this new move undermine their confidence in the U.S. security guarantee and see them shift toward support for EU hedging against U.S. withdrawal? Or will they double down on concerns that existing EU defense moves are destabilizing the alliance?

Anna Wieslander- director for northern Europe at the Atlantic council

Possibly, but not very likely. The main problem with European defense integration is that it completely lacks a sense of urgency.

The EU has to come to terms with the fact that it now deals with defense, not only security. Defense is about addressing hard power and using it when a threat arises, not when the budget makes it possible. That is a new and—to many—uncomfortable aspect of the EU which causes a lot of discussion and confusion. The effects of the coronavirus pandemic will make that discussion even harder.

In addition, building joint capabilities take many years. Even the French, who believes in European defense independence, talk about a decade from now. The U.S. troops will be gone by October 2020. That is a major problem for European defense here and now.

So far, the political turmoil of the Trump administration had been cushioned by an increased American military engagement in Europe. The U.S. troop pullout from Germany drastically changes that equation. Meanwhile, Russia has done nothing to deserve such a gift. Its military troops are still in Georgia and Ukraine. In addition, it conducts ongoing information operations and cyber attacks targeted at Western democracies and their unity.

Even if the pullout would accelerate European defense integration, Europe’s security is in a worsened situation. That is good news for the Kremlin and Beijing.

*Nonresident Senior Fellow, Carnegie Europe and Editor in chief, Strategic Europe
**first published in: carnegieeurope.eu

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