Is the proposed American troop withdrawal from Germany a sign of the widening gap between U.S. and its European allies?
President Donald Trump’s sudden announcement to withdraw 9,500 U.S. troops from Germany should not have come as a surprise to his European allies. Even before he entered the White House, Mr. Trump had described NATO as 'obsolete' and raised questions that exposed divisions between Europe and the U.S.
The June 15 statement blamed Germany's "delinquency" in not matching the NATO stipulated 2 percent of GDP for its defence budget. It was a reiteration of the long-suffering complaint that the U.S. continues to shoulder the bulk of the economic cost for the alliance in its deployments across global trouble spots.
LEGACY OF THE LIBERAL WORLD ORDER
Shared values and the bonds established during the bloodbath of World War II, and subsequent proxy wars of the Cold War, created a strong relationship between the U.S. and Europe.
The first half of the 20th century saw Europe and America come together to give shape to the liberal world order and establish multilateral agencies such as the UN, WTO, IMF, World Bank and, of course, NATO. These organisations provided the platform and the protocols for the world to function, to a large extent, and through relative peace and globalisation, ushering in an era of prosperity for many countries, if not for all.
These institutions have now become dysfunctional or archaic and to an extent, ineffective, in the face of growing defiance of UN resolutions and the rise of China with its economic heft creating alternative power centres like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
As for NATO, the official U.S. National Strategy document of 2018 (published every four years) states its objective as to “fortify the Trans-Atlantic NATO Alliance. A strong and free Europe, bound by shared principles of democracy, national sovereignty, and commitment to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, is vital to our security. The alliance will deter Russian adventurism, defeat terrorists who seek to murder innocents and address the arc of instability building on NATO's periphery. At the same time, NATO must adapt to remain relevant and fit for our time—in purpose, capability, and responsive decision-making. We expect European allies to fulfil their commitments to increase defence and modernisation spending to bolster the alliance in the face of our shared security concerns”.
The document is clear in emphasising the criticality of the NATO as a security partner of the U.S. to deal with both terrorism and mass migration, and an aggressive Russia under Putin. However, it gives clear notice to the Europeans to gird up and be prepared to shoulder a larger share of the cost of the mutual security pact.
The U.S. deploys almost 63000 soldiers in Europe as part of its commitment to NATO, in about 11 countries, with over 34,000 deployed in Germany alone. The European bases are critical to the U.S. for its worldwide expeditionary operations.
After Mr. Trump's announcement, there was mixed public reaction in Europe. While the supporters of the NATO alliance view the U.S. presence as boosting security and credit it with the bloodless end to the Cold War, critics especially on the left, welcome it as an alliance that has outlived its purpose.
THE GROWING FRACTURES
The unpredictability of the Trump administration’s foreign policy outreach has ensured that there is a great deal of uncertainty among its European partners as to the direction in which the security relationship will progress.
Differences in policy understanding have always existed between the U.S. and its European allies as would be expected with sovereign liberal democracies. However, in the recent past, the acrimony has become more strident with the split over the spread of BRI into Europe and member countries joining the Chinese controlled AIIB; the Libyan conflict; the Iran nuclear deal and subsequent sanctions; the Trump Palestinian Peace Plan; U.S. evacuation from northern Syria without consulting allies; climate change; dealing with a resurgent Russia, to name a few.
In a 2014 study conducted by Chatham House's U.S. Project, it was found that perception-wise, the Europeans and the Americans were drifting apart. The shared traditional values, which bound the two across the Atlantic, were being lost sight of. The lack of universal healthcare; the death penalty; gun laws; and the Edward Snowden episode, did much to exacerbate the differences between the two.
Dick Zandee, a senior research fellow, in an April 2019 article in the Militaire Spectator wrote, “All in all, it seems that NATO, as the cornerstone of European security, is crumbling under the combined weight of Trump, the East-South divide, and Turkey. Allied declarations and statements express the principles of solidarity and mutual support, but in reality, the Alliance has become a family characterised by mistrust and serious tensions among its members.”
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
To its credit, NATO has gone through worse and survived: the Suez crisis (1956); the French exit (1966); the cruise missile controversy of 1980s, to mention a few. While NATO is likely to survive, it may change in many definitive ways in times to come. For one, the European contribution has to increase considerably to make it a credible and effective deterrence against a resurgent Russia in Europe and, farther away, a rising China.
As mentioned above, while the U.S. national defence strategy clearly identifies Russia, and to a lesser extent China, as primary threats and accordingly, the U.S. expects its NATO allies to increase defence spending and support the U.S. strategy to counter Russia. Some European powers do not concur with the American strategic point of view.
While France has agreed to increase its defence budget to 2 percent of the GDP by 2025, it still considers counter-terrorism as the primary threat, and not Russia. Similarly, 77 percent of the German population considers the ISIL a greater threat than Russia. Economic factors are also at play here as the EU sanctions on Russia, after its Crimea adventure, have been as painful to Western Europe as to Russia.
Some countries, like Denmark, align with the view from Washington and have agreed to a 20 percent increase in defence expenditure. The U.K. too supports the American outlook although its involvement with BREXIT inhibits its ability to hike its military budget.
There is also a real fear that the American military will soon leave its European comrades far behind in terms of military capabilities in a digitised battlefield of the 21st century. Stripped of its forward military bases in Asia and the Middle East and finding it exorbitant to maintain bases in Europe, the U.S. military would prefer to go for long-range precision strike capability based on stealth aircraft, strategic airlift, drone technology, and networked agile combat groups. No individual nation, not even the combination of rich European countries, can match dollar-to-dollar this modern arsenal.
Within the U.S. itself there is opposition to President Trump's plans to withdraw from Europe. According to the Atlantic Council article of June 25, the withdrawal plan has come under criticism from lawmakers in the U.S., on both sides of the political divide who are working on regulations inhibiting the president’s powers to unilaterally change alliances.
- The last 75 years since the World War saw a strong mutually beneficial alliance which kept the peace in Europe and act as an engine for the rise of globalisation. This approach has not only served the U.S. and its NATO allies well, but indirectly benefited the larger global community.
- The rise of a challenger in the East has shifted the focus of U.S. to the Indo-Pacific, which no doubt will demand a greater military effort. It is, therefore, only a natural expectation on the part of America from its NATO allies close ranks against the emerging rivals, both in the Indo-Pacific and Eastern Europe.
- Amidst these emerging challenges, it may not be correct to assume that the U.S. is ready to abandon a strategic alliance nurtured over the last 75 years for pecuniary considerations alone. This is a messaging for its European allies, through the strongest and richest European nation Germany, to gird up and loosen their purse strings for greater defence preparedness.
Author: Maj Gen Ajay Sah, SM, VSM (Retired), CIO, Synergia Foundation