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Germany never took Trump's troop threat seriously

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Jens Thurau
December 4, 2020

The partial withdrawal of US troops from Germany, announced with so much bluster by President Donald Trump, is now in doubt. But Germany still needs to think seriously about its own security, says Jens Thurau.

President Donald Trump addresses U.S. service members during stop-over at Ramstein Air Force Base
Despite Trump's threat, US troops are likely to stay stationed in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/Zuma Press/Planet Pix/S. Craighead

Is that the end of the discussion? It looks like it. Both chambers of the US Congress — the Senate and the House of Representatives — have voted to block plans for a drastic drawdown of US troops from Germany, announced with great fanfare by President Donald Trump in June.

Trump could still have the last word, and veto the draft defense spending bill that rejects the withdrawal. But he won't be in office for much longer, and military experts across the board warned from the outset against taking such a step.

A punishment for Germany

Trump quite openly spoke about the withdrawal plans as being a punishment for Germany, repeating his criticism that Berlin was spending too little on defense. In an openly despotic gesture, he even said he might reconsider the whole thing if Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to open up the government purse strings.

Quite a few observers saw the withdrawal announcement as a kind of revenge, after Merkel refused to travel to the US to meet with Trump at this year's G7 summit, depriving him of valuable media attention. By that time, Merkel had had enough of Trump, and even he noticed it.

Jens Thurau
Jens Thurau is a DW correspondent in Berlin

Waiting for change in Washington

The striking thing about the whole story from a German point of view was how the government in Berlin reacted — basically, it didn't. There were a few feeble words of regret from backbench politicians, but essentially nothing. It would seem that Germany never really took the chaotic withdrawal plan very seriously.

After all, Berlin knew and still knows that the more than 34,000 US soldiers in Germany are extremely important for US military strategy — for example, as a base for operations for the Middle East and Africa. As with many of Trump's ideas, the German attitude was simply to count on the president losing the November election and hope for better times ahead. The first part, at least, has come true.

Criticism still likely under President Biden

But even if the US troop situation in Germany remains, in all probability, unchanged, it doesn't mean Berlin should ignore the debate on its security needs — one that has been going on for many years. Germany is still a long way from spending the 2% of GDP on defense that it promised at the 2014 NATO summit in Wales — and it can expect continued criticism on that front from the next US administration as well. The reprimands will probably be more moderate in their tone, but definitely clear in their meaning.

That's because Germany approaches the issue of who should take care of its security, and what it should contribute to the effort, with the same strange uptight attitude that characterized the reaction to Trump's wild threat. This attitude is doubtless a consequence of the postwar era. Security in West Germany was always taken care of by others, by the Western Allies of World War II.

Berlin still doesn't have a security plan

When Trump started his campaign of revenge against the chancellor, a survey showed that 47% of Germans were in favor of a US troop reduction. A quarter even wanted a complete withdrawal, and barely a third wanted to keep them at their current strength.

Of course, Germans are allowed to believe that US troops should no longer be stationed in Germany, 75 years after the end of the war. And if US drone attacks all over the world are ordered from German soil, and the German government is kept in the dark, criticism is justified.

But so far, Berlin has presented no plan, or even an idea, about how Germany could take care of its own military security, at best in partnership with its European neighbors. Not to mention the question of whether German society would support having more military in the first place.

The US soldiers will likely stay in the country, the state of Rhineland-Palatinate can breathe a sigh of relief for its continued economic support and the nasty old uncle in the White House has been voted out. But all this also means that Berlin has been able to postpone its security policy debate yet again. An approach like that won't help to solve the problem.

This article has been translated from German by Timothy Jones.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau