By punishing Merkel, he risks undermining the transatlantic alliance and America’s credibility
In 2017 Donald Trump presented a bemused Angela Merkel with an invoice, backdated to 2002, for the equivalent of £300 billion. It reflected, he claimed, Germany’s chronic underspending on defence. Last year he insisted that Germany (and Japan) should pay the full cost of US military protection, plus a 50 per cent premium — making an alliance into a protection racket, critics said. But the latest rumpus is by far the most damaging: for Germany, for Europe, for the United States — and for Britain.
Last week, without any warning (or planning), the president ordered the Pentagon to cap the military presence in Germany from September at 25,000, a cut of more than a quarter. That, says Ben Hodges, until recently the US Army commander in Europe, is a “colossal mistake”. It makes America weaker and the world more dangerous. It is also dreadful news for Britain. Our overstretched forces will have to do more. Nato, the keystone of our security after Brexit, will be gravely weakened, increasing our dependence on a capricious America.
The move may delight Mr Trump’s supporters in the run-up to the election in November. It is certainly a gratifying rebuke to Mrs Merkel, whom he finds by far his most irritating international counterpart. She prompted the latest outburst by snubbing a presidential invitation to a G7 summit. The troop withdrawal is payback too for Germany’s persistently stingy defence spending. The largest economy in Europe budgets only 1.38 per cent of its national income for the protection of itself and its allies, way below Nato’s 2 per cent threshold. Germany also faces US sanctions over a gas pipeline to Russia, a self-centred venture that undermines its east European neighbours’ energy security. The German business lobby ensures that the government does nothing to anger decision-makers in Beijing, infuriating Americans seeking support in what they see as the West’s existential struggle with China.
It could have been worse. Mr Trump’s original plan was to withdraw all US forces. Officials did not take that seriously. When he returned to the issue last week, they were flabbergasted. Now they are aghast at the task ahead, especially as the US presence in Europe, only one tenth of its Cold War strength, was already stretched perilously thin. The timescale is impossibly short: which troops will move? To where? What about their families? The damage to military readiness, says General Hodges, will be huge. The US bases in Germany are not just a vital part of Nato’s contingency plans to deal with Russian mischief in eastern Europe. They also provide vital training, logistics, medical care and intelligence for missions in Africa, the Middle East and southwest Asia. These capabilities — live-fire exercises in Bavaria, for example — cannot be recreated quickly, or in some cases at all, in other countries.
The deeper problem is even bigger. The troops in Germany are a key part of a military presence in Europe that is the bedrock of American global leadership, dating back to the D-Day landings 76 years ago this week and the Berlin Airlift of 1948. The transatlantic relationship has had its ups and downs (Vietnam in the 1960s and the Iraq war in 2003) but it beat the Nazis and the Soviets and now underpins an international system in finance, health, law, trade and security that benefits everyone, above all Americans.
Mr Trump’s transactional worldview has no place for such arrangements. He is pulling out of the despised World Health Organisation and regards Nato as little better. In its place, he wants bilateral security agreements, with a US military presence being the reward for political flattery and the purchase of US-made weapons systems. Some countries may benefit in the short term: Poland has offered to host the troops being withdrawn from Germany. That is unwise. It would be no substitute for the capabilities, expertise, loyalties, personal ties and planning developed over decades by the most successful military alliance in history.
The president’s petulant behaviour does not just undermine the US’s credibility in Europe. It dismays American allies elsewhere, particularly in east Asia, where countries such as South Korea and Japan are increasingly mistrustful of what used to be their unquestioned security guarantor. The danger of miscalculation in Beijing, and Moscow, has just risen sharply. If the US treats even Germany this way, what price Taiwan? Or Estonia?
Some glimmers of hope pierce the gloom. One is the president’s attention span. Past spats with Germany fizzled out. This one may too. A symbolic cut may be achieved by some number-juggling over rotations and deployments elsewhere. As with his largely unbuilt border wall, Mr Trump can declare a great victory and move on.
Another is Congress. Lawmakers can refuse to vote to release the money to pay for the withdrawal and hold hearings in which officials will be grilled over the flimsy rationale behind the move. Republican senators include loyal Atlanticists who will be hard pressed to defend Mr Trump on this issue.
For all that, the shock may be salutary. European countries are mostly free riders on defence. Germany in particular is beset by a complacent pacifism that conveniently overlaps with its commercial interests. Military budgets must rise, and should be spent more intelligently and efficiently. Europe should think more clearly about the threat from China. Such reflection may bring renewed appreciation of the transatlantic alliance. If it still exists by then.