Soldiers conduct simulated air assaults at Hohenfels Training Area, Germany, Aug. 10, 2020, for Saber Junction 20, an annual U.S. Army Europe-directed exercise.

Soldiers conduct simulated air assaults at Hohenfels Training Area, Germany, Aug. 10, 2020, for Saber Junction 20, an annual U.S. Army Europe-directed exercise. Army Maj. Robert Fellingham

A Potentially Deadly Blow to NATO

A former member of Trump’s NSC decries the plan to pull U.S. troops from Germany.

President Trump’s recent announcement of large troop reductions in Germany should be seen for what it is: a potentially deadly blow to NATO’s solidarity. The decision, reportedly made without notification or consultation with the German government, allies, Congress or the Pentagon, was supposedly driven by Germany’s failure to pay its “fair share.” The fallout will shake NATO to its core. 

In this debate, facts matter. In 2014, following Russia’s intervention in eastern Ukraine, all NATO allies agreed to “work towards” spending 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024. Overall, the Alliance has made impressive progress since then, raising defense spending by tens of billions of dollars. Last year, our European allies spent $302 billion on defense, more than quadruple the Russian defense budget. In terms of soldiers, tanks, combat aircraft, and warships, their holdings far exceed Russia’s. For our part, only a small fraction – perhaps 10 percent—of U.S. combat forces and defense spending are located in or aligned towards Europe. 

As for Germany, the country has since 2014 raised its defense spending by 36 percent to $49.3 billion — the largest defense budget increase among the world's top 15 states. At 2 percent, Germany alone would outspend Russia on defense. No other ally pays a higher share of NATO’s Common Operating Budget. As Europe’s strongest economic and political power, Germany matters. There is no NATO without an engaged and respected Germany.

To be sure, Germany can do better. German military readiness is poor, and the fees that Bonn charges the U.S. to base forces in Germany can and should be renegotiated. German cooperation with Russia on Nord Stream II will only increase European dependence on cheap Russian energy, weakening Ukraine through loss of transit fees. U.S-German trade relations do include inequities and imbalances that deserve fair and reasonable solutions. These friction points reflect the reality that Chancellor Merkel presides over a governing coalition that includes the Social Democrats, a left-of-center party that controls the important finance, foreign affairs and labor ministries. To do what Trump demands – now, immediately – would drive Merkel from office. That is not a reasonable demand to make of a sovereign ally. 

The Congress and our two political parties don’t often agree on much, but the importance of NATO is one issue that commands genuinely bipartisan support. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization includes 30 allies and 40 official partners, including Sweden, Finland, South Korea, Australia and Japan, that together constitute some 70 percent of the military and economic capacity on the planet. Here there may be cultural affinity, common values and shared interests, but there is little altruism. We lead and support NATO, first and foremost, because it is emphatically in our national interest. This is precisely why NATO has been the bedrock of American national security for more than seven decades, across Republican and Democratic administrations, in peace and war. 

The 2017 National Security Strategy, authored by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and his team, recognized this central reality explicitly. Though signed by the President, it remains all but a dead letter, at least with respect to Europe and NATO. Against the advice of his cabinet and National Security Council, President Trump rudely attacked NATO heads of state in his first NATO Summit, abrogated the Paris Climate Accords and Iran nuclear deal, condemned the European Union and inaugurated a continuing and escalating series of trade disputes. One by one, senior administration officials who championed the importance of strong transatlantic relations – McMaster, Tillerson, Mattis, Kelley—were dismissed and denigrated.

As a result, NATO is more troubled today than perhaps ever before, its confidence in U.S. leadership badly shaken. NATO faces huge challenges, its ability to weather a resurgent and dangerous Russian challenge hindered by massive refugee flows, the COVID pandemic, and economic disruption. Across Europe, the rise of extremist right-wing parties is encouraged by Russia. Along the southern flank, Greece, Italy and Spain are more concerned with fragile, leveraged economies than collective security. In Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania, democratic backsliding and corruption have reached alarming proportions, aided by Russian subversion. Turkey’s slide towards authoritarianism has introduced further division and tension inside NATO. 

Amid these cares, a politically brutal attack on Germany can only endanger transatlantic relations altogether. Increasingly, that appears to be the goal of the administration. As many have pointed out, the only winner here is the Russian Federation, eager to fracture NATO and poised along its fragile eastern flank with strong military forces and a taste for military aggression. The next election will highlight the future of NATO as one of the most crucial foreign policy issues in play. Let us all choose wisely. 

R.D. Hooker, Jr. served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Europe and Russia at the National Security Council from April 2017 to July 2018.