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Trump's Removal of Troops from Germany Follows a Trend

President Donald Trump is once again sending shock waves through the political world. This time it concerns U.S. military forces stationed in the Federal Republic of Germany. At Trump’s behest, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper announced on July 29 that the U.S. European Command would withdraw 12,000 American troops from Germany and relocate them elsewhere. This number represents nearly half of the 24,500 troops currently stationed in the Federal Republic.

Trump’s move has prompted rare bipartisan agreement. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska), who has recommended that the United States maintain a forward presence in Europe, stated that “withdrawal is weak.” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) agreed, characterizing the plan as a “grave error.” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) also chimed in, asserting that “champagne must be flowing freely this evening at the Kremlin.” For her part, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) deemed the announcement “troubling.” Other senators also condemned the move. Withdrawing troops from Germany is widely seen across the political divide as a bad idea strategically.

In fact, Trump’s desire to remove U.S. troops from Germany has deep roots in the post-World War II era. Many of his predecessors have shared this desire and for the exact same reason: it costs the United States too much money. Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson all worried that the cost of stationing American troops in Europe worsened America’s balance of payments deficit and thus threatened to undermine the international monetary system. After the end of the Cold War, George W. Bush and Barack Obama also expressed concern that American troops in Europe were a drain on the U.S. Treasury. Given the large number of U.S. forces still remaining in Germany, they insisted that Berlin should pick up more of the defense burden. Trump is not breaking new ground.

Some historical background is in order. Ever since the Federal Republic of Germany joined NATO in 1955, it has faced enormous U.S. pressure to spend more on its own defense or face a reduction of American support. For Dwight Eisenhower, solving the German question—how to ensure Germany remained dedicated to peace—was the linchpin of European security. However, he thought that the Europeans, primary the French and the Germans, should do the heavy lifting. 

A fiscal conservative, Eisenhower wanted Germany, which was making a remarkable economic recovery, to embrace the primary responsibility for its own security. 

This was a position that Eisenhower held firmly during his time as the supreme allied commander (SACEUR) of NATO and as president of the United States. As SACEUR, Eisenhower failed to see why a united Western Europe with “about 350 million people, tremendous industrial capacity, and a highly skilled and educated population” should “be afraid of 190 million backward people.”

As president, Eisenhower stated at a 1953 National Security meeting that “the stationing of U.S. divisions in Europe had been at the outset an emergency measure not intended to last indefinitely.” In 1959, Eisenhower fretted about the United States’ increasingly unfavorable balance of payments with Europe. He fumed that the Europeans were close to “making a sucker out of Uncle Sam.”

Eisenhower’s successor John Kennedy held similar views about U.S. forces stationed in Germany. At a 1963 National Security Council meeting, he railed that the European allies were not pulling their weight. When it came to the defense of Germany, the president stated that the United States could not continue to pay for the military protection of Europe while the other NATO states were not paying their fair share and living off “the fat of the land.”

When Lyndon Johnson entered the Oval Office, he also pressured Germany to pay more for defense. In September 1966 meetings at the White House, Johnson even gave German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard the “Johnson treatment,” threatening to pull U.S. troops from Germany unless Bonn spent more on defense and sent German troops to Vietnam to help prosecute that conflict. Johnson’s insistent demand for German financial and military support, despite Germany’s budgetary problems, along with Erhard’s unwavering support of the president, undermined an already weakened chancellor. Erhard, who had hoped his visit to Washington would give him a foreign policy success to quell growing domestic criticism about his handling of the budget, returned home empty handed. The chancellor’s critics seized on his disastrous visit to Washington and forced him to resign in November 1966.

George W. Bush also wanted to remove U.S. troops from Europe in order to deal with security challenges elsewhere. While addressing a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in August 2004, Bush stated that “Over the coming decade, we’ll deploy a more agile and more flexible force, which means that more of our troops will be stationed and deployed from here at home. We’ll move some of our troops and capabilities to new locations so they can surge quickly to respond to unexpected threats.” At that time there were 53,000 Army troops and 15,900 Air Force personnel stationed in Germany. 

In 2006 Bush used the occasion of a NATO summit to push the allies to increase their defense spending to bolster the NATO military campaign in Afghanistan. Two years later,  Bush repeated this call at his final NATO summit: “At this summit, I will encourage our European partners to increase their defense investments to support both NATO and EU operations.”

Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, continued this line of argument. In 2012 the Obama administration announced that it would eliminate two Army heavy brigades stationed in Europe in order to focus on the Asia-Pacific region and continue operations in the Middle East. This move would cut U.S. forces in Germany by 10,000 personnel. 

However, the Pentagon restored these cuts in early 2016 in part because Russia began arming separatists in Ukraine, after annexing Crimea in 2014. Shortly after Russia declared that Crimea was now a Russian subject state, Obama cautioned“If we’ve got collective defense, it means that everybody’s got to chip in, and I have had some concerns about a diminished level of defense spending among some of our partners in NATO.” Obama’s lame duck status also emboldened Pentagon officials to break with him over his proposed troop cuts. 

What Trump is doing is not unprecedented. After maintaining about 225,000 troops in Germany during the 1980s, that number began to drop precipitously after the end of the Cold War. Between 2006 and 2018, the number of US troops stationed in Germany plummeted from 72,400 to 33,250. Moreover, Trump has some legitimate reason for complaint. The NATO allies agreed in 2014 to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense by 2024. Although Germany has hiked its defense spending in recent years, it is currently spending about 1.5 percent of its GDP on defense. The global pandemic might prevent Berlin from reaching the 2 percent mark for a few extra years.

If Trump actually removes U.S. troops from Germany, he will go beyond the rhetorical threats issued by Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. Despite their irritation with Germany over not spending more on its own defense, Cold War concerns prevented these presidents from carrying out their threats to bring U.S. troops home. With the mighty Red Army no longer standing on Germany’s eastern border, there was little geostrategic rationale for keeping the same level of U.S. forces in Germany. Moreover, after the Cold War ended the United States become militarily more active in areas outside of Europe. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq fueled the desire to redeploy U.S. troops in Germany elsewhere.

Whether withdrawing U.S. troops from Germany is wise or foolish is a matter of debate. But what should not be up for serious debate is that Trump is merely doing what many past presidents repeatedly threatened to do.