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Trump's election games with US troops in Europe

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert
June 7, 2020

The announced withdrawal of US troops from Germany doesn't make military sense, but it does interest a self-centered leader like Donald Trump. Europe needs to take the initiative on its defense, says DW's Bernd Riegert.

Trump smiling and pointing to US troops in Afghanistan
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/A. Brandon

Donald Trump seems to finally be making good on his threat. The US president apparently wants to punish Germany for, in his view, not spending enough on its own defense. But this decision by a temperamental president is misguided for several reasons.

Removing 9,500 troops from Germany does not make military sense. It does not follow any recognizable strategy; the US personnel there essentially work within the framework of NATO for the Pentagon's European and Africa Commands. They operate the Ramstein airbase, a military hospital and a military training facility. They are important pillars of NATO infrastructure, but they do not, strictly speaking, contribute much to Germany's national defense.

Trump's erratic decision to send some of those troops to Poland and the rest to the US weakens his own military, as well as NATO. It is a purely political decision made to put pressure on Washington's ally Germany.

Read moreNATO allies alarmed, annoyed by US Open Skies exit

The Kremlin celebrates, NATO not so much

An alliance should be about trust and working together, not antagonizing and blackmail. Trump didn't even feel it was necessary to formally inform the German government about his troop withdrawal decision.

DW's Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert is DW's correspondent in Brussels

It is true that Germany will not meet the NATO threshold, agreed in 2014, of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defense by 2024. Washington and other members of the alliance can of course criticize that, but by withdrawing troops the US is only weakening itself.

Vladimir Putin will celebrate the fact that NATO leadership is sowing division within its own ranks. The Russian president could not wish for a better counterpart in Washington than Trump, who is incompetent when it comes to military strategy. Putin will happily do everything he can to drive a wedge NATO members.

The joy emanating from Poland, meanwhile, is premature. Warsaw views the relocation of US troops to Polish soil as a reward for its national-conservative government's allegiance to Trump. But the move comes at the chagrin of NATO's European members and, as already stated, has little military relevance — the troops in question will consist of military staff, if anything, not combat units. Permanently transferring troops further east to Poland will also likely violate the NATO-Russia Founding Act, thus further provoking the Kremlin.

A wake-up call for Europe

The decision by Trump, who is under massive pressure domestically, can be viewed as a part of his reelection campaign. Four years ago, he promised to bring "millions of dollars" spent on NATO back to the US. It doesn't really work that way, though, because every NATO member pays for their own troops. There are no fees that the US can reclaim for stationing its soldiers in Europe or anywhere else. Nevertheless, Trump wants to convince his poorly informed supporters that he can get the alliance dancing to his own tune.

This entire affair has shown once again that NATO's European members cannot rely on the commander-in-chief in the White House. It is a wake-up call for Europeans to take the initiative when it comes to their own defense, and actually spend more money on it.

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union