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Germany troop withdrawal: Can Biden put the brakes?

In one of his first tasks in office, 46th U.S. President Joe Biden signed a slate of executive orders on issues of domestic and national security importance. Ensuring collaborative U.S. military presence in Germany, beyond executive power, is another he must follow through with.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s determination to ramp-up U.S. unilateralism in a globalized received impetus last year when the U.S. military announced its plans to withdraw some 12,000 troops from Germany, confirming President Trump’s decision to chop a 36,000-strong U.S. military concentration in Germany. According to the plans, more than half of the withdrawn troops would return to the U.S., while 5,600 troops will be redistributed across Europe. Major pivots of Washington’s military command in the region – including the U.S. European Command and Special Operations Command Europe – would also move from Germany to Belgium. In Mr Trump’s eyes, the move would worry Berlin, hearten U.S. allies, and lay the groundwork for a celebrated military homecoming. When measured against the reality on the ground, none of the three stood a chance.

First, Mr Trump’s claim that Germany was an underperforming U.S. ally carries zero endorsements from fellow NATO partners. As early as June last year, French President Emmanuel Macron promoted a united military front within Europe, in a bid to offset costs of future unilateral actions. President Trump’s Germany offensive, before leaving office, is hard proof of that unilateralism in full flux, demanding Europe to think of security as a shared prerogative, as opposed to a financial tit-for-tat as touted by Washington. Both London and Rome appear to have also gone against any form of public endorsement, even rhetorical, during the same period.

Meanwhile, Peter Beyer, a central figure in Germany’s transatlantic cooperation, called it a “bitter day” for select regions in Germany’s southern belt, whose security stood blatantly undermined by Trump’s nationalist fervor. Taken together, the Trump administration’s insistence that the U.S. was actually favoring other NATO countries by undermining one of their own, is a classic lesson in leadership failure that Biden must set right.

Contrary to Mr Trump’s claims, there were also no “bills” for Germany to pay in return for U.S. security assistance. “We don’t want to be the suckers any more,” stated the President during a widely quoted press briefing. “We’re reducing the force because they’re not paying their bills; it’s very simple.”

Two separate reports by Foreign Policy and the Financial Times last year called the bluff on that assumption. Berlin is up to pace with all payments beyond the ambit of defense spending, including headquarters fees, contributed by member states. Financial Times’ defense correspondent Katrina Manson also underlined Germany’s commitment to meeting a two percent defense spending threshold by 2024. This raises serious questions about Washington’s unilateral probe into Germany’s fulfillment of those commitments several years in advance – an approach to diplomatic scrutiny ill-suited to Biden’s transatlantic pivot.

On rational grounds, Biden must prove to Germany – a longtime U.S. ally – that his predecessor’s logic of zeroing in on Germany, without due emphasis on Baltic states (which depend on reinforcements in Germany for their defence guarantees), has indeed set a dangerous and fruitless precedent for Europe’s future. Can countries use questionable statistics to leverage troop withdrawals upon the will, as Mr Trump did? Current trendlines indicate Europe is keen to evolve out of any such transactional worldview of security. Trump’s reckless Germany offensive helps accelerate that thinking, and Biden’s first 100-days in the office are an opportune time to put the brakes on it.

Recent remarks from former U.S. Defense Chief Mark Esper offer another glimpse into the ruthless politics of Washington’s Germany pullout. The ex-Pentagon chief touted “deterrence” of Russia as one of the strategic purposes of redistributing U.S. troops across Europe – an incorrect claim with no basis in fact. Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General John Hyten was quick to arrive at Esper’s defence, arguing that the move sends an “unmistakable message to our competitors.” His implicit reference took aim at Moscow and Beijing, claiming that Washington’s renewed military posturing will “deter aggression and counter their malign influence.”

Even a cursory glance at the politics of Europe would suggest that Beijing and Moscow are two widely respected stakeholders with no history of introducing disruption within transatlantic ties. It serves the interests of the new administration in Washington to end the practice of leveraging the Germany troop withdrawal to launch more flagrant attacks against foreign leaderships, many of which have their own sovereign ties with Berlin.

As a result, by putting the spotlight on China and Russia, the former Trump administration showed no signs of ending its unilateral military leverage vis-à-vis Europe’s stated security commitments, and the embrace of coercive diplomacy as an instrument of American leadership.

On factual grounds, Trump’s tedious troop withdrawal was also grounded in a calculus that was never destined to yield any broad-based domestic dividends. Contrary to expectations, initial estimates reveal that the Germany withdrawal would cost “single-digit billions” of U.S. taxpayer money, and take years to actualize. Further evidence from Pew Research Center shows that 85% of Americans support U.S. military bases in Germany, and three-in-ten Germans endorse close cooperation with both Moscow and Washington.

Both statistics underline the extent to which the Trump administra- tion’s Germany troop stunt is at odds with the sentiments of the Ameri- can people, sentiment which Biden has vowed to put first. It also lays bare the toxic assumptions used by select U.S. military personnel during America’s most turbulent four years, to malign Moscow’s reputation in Europe and give Beijing the isolation treatment.

Ultimately, to consider the U.S. move as a benefit to NATO’s security, or as a reason to target Beijing and Moscow, is to miss the point completely. What Biden’s predecessor really wanted was to leverage the German example into cementing the Trump administration’s “shots-caller” reputation. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of the international world order would understand there is no future for hegemony in Europe – most of all, Biden himself.

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