Stopping the troop drawdown may be one way for Biden to shore up allies like Germany, Japan and South Korea, who felt spurned by the Trump administration. But Biden also appears to be responding to the Defense Department’s call for a different basing strategy, one that responds to the pressures of major power competition.
Why the focus on Germany?
Germany has traditionally hosted one of the largest concentrations of U.S. military forces abroad. Currently, Germany hosts 87 U.S. military facilities and 33,948 active-duty U.S. military personnel. Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, repeatedly clashed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, accusing Germany of free-riding in the NATO alliance by not spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense. After Merkel refused to attend the Group of Seven meeting of industrial nations scheduled to take place in Washington last June, Trump announced plans to cut U.S. troop levels in Germany by about one-third.
Trump’s aggressive approach to Germany had consequences. We conducted fieldwork in Germany over the summer of 2019 and talked to both Germans and Americans about German perceptions of the U.S. and its military presence in Germany. We found Germans viewed Trump and his government negatively, and also tended to view the Republican Party much more negatively than the Democratic Party. These findings suggest that reassuring U.S. allies will be a challenge — though a Democratic government may have an easier time than a Republicans one.
Keeping U.S. military personnel in Germany may help improve perceptions of U.S. power. Our research finds U.S. military forces deployed abroad can build a type of “military soft power,” as service members who integrate within local communities serve a public diplomacy role. Expenditures related to the military base also provide economic benefits to host communities. Indeed, Germans tend to have more positive views of both the U.S. military and the U.S. population, and less positive views of the U.S. government.
We also found areas of Germany with a higher concentration of U.S. military facilities do not have more negative views of the military, compared with other parts of the country. If rebuilding alliances is a priority for the Biden administration, then interactions between Germans and U.S. service members could make it easier for the United States to continue to operate its military installations abroad.
Off-base activities can generate negative views of U.S. soldiers
Of course, there’s a potential downside to interactions with the local community. When service members deployed overseas engage in harmful actions, policies and criminal behavior, this can boost local demands for the U.S. to withdraw from a country. The U.S. military has often sought to limit off-base activities, to reduce the opportunities for negative encounters with host-country residents that could increase negative sentiment toward the U.S. military.
In our research, we interviewed U.S. Embassy staff across various countries that host different types of U.S. military deployments. We found successful military deployments involve cooperation between the diplomatic and military arms of U.S. foreign policy. For example, in one of our interviews in Panama, a U.S. Embassy public affairs officer noted how military exercises were timed to not coincide with other planned local protests, to avoid any spillover effect that might generate new anti-U.S. protests. We also found that U.S. service members themselves can and do engage in public diplomacy, both formally and informally.
Are there signs that Biden recognizes the importance of military and diplomatic cooperation? Biden noted that his review of global military deployments “will be coordinated across all elements of our national security, with [Defense] Secretary [Lloyd] Austin and Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken working in close cooperation.” This suggests the State Department would play a significant role in maintaining military deployments.
What does a commitment to Germany imply for the U.S. global military footprint?
Beyond Germany, Biden noted that “Defense Secretary Austin will be leading a global posture review of our forces so that our military footprint is appropriately aligned with our foreign policy and national security priorities.” While Biden may be reversing Trump’s planned troop withdrawal, our research suggests two trends will persist.
First, though Biden stated he will not cut U.S. troop levels in Germany significantly, our research suggests Biden will continue the policy of an increased number of smaller deployments spread out among various host countries. The figure below shows this general trend, as the U.S. shifted away from larger deployments.
Second, the Biden administration is likely to continue basing troops in response to great power competition. In our work, we have found major powers respond to each other’s deployments as they compete for influence. In the past, the United States competed mainly with the USSR/Russia. Both countries would match each other in terms of troop placements within the same regions, but avoid placing troops in countries they considered to be under the rival’s sphere of influence.
This research suggests the U.S. will seek to “claim” more countries as troop hosts, to deter rivals from placing bases there. This fits the Defense Department strategy of having a greater global reach with mostly smaller deployments. This is particularly likely given China’s expanded global military presence and the 2017 establishment of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army support base in Djibouti. China is also expected to establish more foreign military facilities in the near future.
Overall, these dynamics also suggest there will be greater competition for the consent of populations and governments. The actions of military personnel, as agents of public diplomacy, will play an important part in determining which locations are open to the U.S. and other major powers, and how durable and flexible these deployments are.
Carla Martinez Machain (@carlammm) is an associate professor of political science at Kansas State University. Her research explores military effectiveness and public perceptions of the military.
Michael Flynn (@flynnpolsci) is an associate professor of political science at Kansas State University. His research focuses on the political economy of foreign policy and security issues, as well as military deployments.
Michael Allen (@michaelallen) is an associate professor of political science at Boise State University. His research focuses on asymmetric relations, hegemony and the positive and negative externalities of foreign policy.
Parts of this article are based on work supported by the Department of Defense’s Minerva Research Initiative, but the opinions and interpretations are those of the authors and not the U.S. Army or Department of Defense. The authors are working on a book-length manuscript based on their research, tentatively titled, “Outside the Wire: U.S. Military Deployments and the Diplomacy of Defense.”