President Trump’s announcement that he would order a reduction in the number of U.S. troops stationed in Germany has been roundly condemned by some Republican members of Congress and foreign policy elites. But Trump is right, even if his reasoning is wrong.
That’s the wrong way to look at a deal with a long-term ally. Trump’s approach implicitly assumes that any deal is a singular transaction between two parties rather than part of an ongoing relationship. An ongoing relationship requires trust and forbearance, not constant blustering. No relationship — whether it’s a marriage or an international alliance — can survive if one party is constantly issuing demands and treating the other like a stranger. Treating Germany this way is a disservice to our alliance and to our longer-term strategic interests.
Trump is right, however, to do this anyway. The reason is simple: The United States has a huge gap between its global commitments and its global power, and it can guarantee its national security only if it starts to prioritize those commitments and allocate its power accordingly.
The United States built its global alliance structure primarily to combat the Soviet Union. NATO was formed in 1949 to unite the free nations of Western and Southern Europe in the face of an adversary that had overthrown freely elected governments in Eastern Europe that it occupied after World War II. The United States created two other alliances, CENTO and SEATO, to similarly build an implacable wall around the Soviet Union, and its then-ally Communist China, in the Pacific and Middle East. These alliances were the logical outgrowth of the famous containment strategy initiated by diplomat George Kennan during the Truman administration. They and other bilateral alliances formed the bedrock of U.S. military and diplomatic strategy during the Cold War.
Our current alliances are largely descendants of those long-ago creations. In the Cold War’s aftermath, we also assumed a global role outside those commitments that the existence of the Soviet Union had prevented us from taking. Thus, we could invade Afghanistan, deploy forces around the globe to combat terrorism and send forces to topple the Serbian and Libyan governments secure in the knowledge that no other government was capable of interfering.
But those dual commitments, explicit and implicit, make sense only with certain preconditions. The first is that the United States must have a large enough military to back up its commitments to all of its allies simultaneously in a worst-case scenario. The second is that no nation-state should be able to seriously interfere if the United States decided to deploy its military outside the sphere of its alliance structure. Neither precondition applies today.
Pentagon officials have acknowledged that we can no longer fight two major wars simultaneously. This is because all branches of the military are significantly smaller today than they were in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. If China attacked Taiwan at the same time that Russia attacked NATO ally Estonia, the United States would lack the forces to fight both simultaneously. The United States is also no longer an unchallenged superpower. China and Russia have substantially expanded their militaries, putting more strains on the United States and its allies.
The result is that the United States must either dramatically increase its military power, increasing defense spending from its current 3.2 percent of GDP to something closer to 5 percent, or it must prioritize which threats most merit U.S. force deployment. If it chooses the latter course, as appears likely, European conventional defense is an obvious place to cut.
The European Union’s economy is eight times larger than Russia’s. It could easily build a military that protects all of NATO’s members, relying on the United States for its intelligence, naval and nuclear assets to help combat Russian threats outside of the European landmass. U.S. redeployment from Europe, done in a measured fashion, thus slowly prepares for a future in which the United States bears primary responsibility for meeting threats from Iran and China while the European allies bear primary responsibility for meeting threats from Russia.
America is overstretched. Trump’s proposed redeployment, however clumsily handled and inadequately explained, is recognition of this fact. Those who support an active and reliable global U.S. military presence need to recognize this and act now before our adversaries act for us.