By Mu Xiaoming
Germany is one of the closest American allies in Europe, and the German-American alliance is also known as the cornerstone of the Atlantic Alliance. Germany currently hosts more than 34,000 US military personnel, the largest number of US troops stationed in Europe.
As the “brain” and “center” of the American troops in Europe, the US European Command and the US Africa Command are both located in Stuttgart, Germany. The US Air Forces in Europe is headquartered at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
Germany is also the US military “hub” for transferring materials and personnel to the Middle East and Africa. Therefore, Germany is regarded as a staging ground for US military operations in the Middle East and Africa.
Currently, the German-American alliance is undergoing the most severe test in its history. The continually fermenting trade war has caused the German-US relationship to fall to a record low. The recent reports by the US media about the US Department of Defense’s assessment of the withdrawal or transfer of its troops stationed in Germany have further worsened the prospects of German-American or even European-American relations.
As the second largest economy in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Germany was criticized by Donald Trump, President of the United States, as a “typical example” of insufficient military spending.
During the NATO Summit, Trump once again criticized Germany’s military spending growth “not up to standard” and accused Germany of spending big money buying natural gas from Russia, thus becoming Russia’s “captive”.
The military expenditure issue not only highlights the disputes between Germany and the US in the security field, but also reflects the significant differences between the two countries on European integration, transatlantic alliance relations, global governance, and the Iranian nuclear issue.
In fact, the two countries have always had major differences on issues including the choice of unipolarity or multilateralism, free trade or trade protectionism, expansion consciousness or restraint culture, military means or diplomatic means, to name a few.
Since Trump took office, he has publicly supported “Brexit” and repeatedly asked NATO allies to take on more defense expenditures in exchange for US security commitments. This directly harms Germany’s fundamental interests in supporting European integration and maintaining Atlantic alliance relations, which undoubtedly prompted Germany to further strengthen its independence from the US.
Germany has joined France in coordinating the 25 member states of the European Union (EU) to sign the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) to strengthen common security and defense construction.
Germany wants to figure out whether Trump is using the threat of withdrawal as a means of pressure on Germany to increase its military spending, or whether he is really planning to make new deployment adjustments to the US troops in Europe and the world?
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis submitted a report to the House Armed Services Committee, saying that about 19 percent of US military facilities around the world might be unneeded at the end of 2017. He asked Congress to launch a Base Realignment and Closure review to concentrate resources and improve its military readiness level. In this way, the assessment of the US troops in Germany should be a routine matter of the US Department of Defense and there is no need for over-interpreting.
In a statement, the US National Security Council said that it did not ask the Department of Defense to evaluate the US troops stationed in Germany. The US Defense Department spokesperson Eric Pahon also denied the alleged withdrawal of the US troops from Germany. Therefore, even if it happens, the withdrawal of part of US troops in Germany should be considered as a means of base optimization and global deployment adjustment by the US armed forces.
The alliance between Germany and the US has lasted for over 50 years and the two sides share the same political systems and values. Their inextricable political, economic and military ties would be difficult to abruptly sever.
Moreover, although Germany actively promotes its own and EU’s security and defense capacity building, they are still unable to form a joint force in the short term and they must rely on the US-led NATO to deal with security threats.
What’s more, the Trump administration has far more support for NATO than the Obama administration. The US has so far increased its investment in NATO and US-European security mechanism and strengthened its strategic deterrence against Russia.
Therefore, letting European allies take on more responsibilities under the NATO framework helps the US free up its hands, so that the US can push the strategic focus to the east to deal with the “major power competition” from the “Indo-Pacific” region. This is perhaps Trump’s true intention of repeatedly irritating Germany and its other European allies.
(The author is Mu Xiaoming from the Political College of the PLA National Defense University. The article was published on the China's National Defense newspaper on July 16. It is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military online.)