President Trump’s decision to seek alternative locations for troop deployments in Europe reflects an appropriate evaluation of the political context in Germany as well as American strategic needs. Not only does the German political class remain reluctant to make good on its commitments in the Wales Pledge to contribute to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) costs, the electorate is neither supportive of the American military presence nor predisposed to endorse military solutions anywhere. For the foreseeable future, the political environment in Germany will make the American military presence increasingly uncomfortable and, more importantly, limit its strategic utility in a plausible crisis situation. Germany has ceased to be a reliable venue for the primary concentration of American forces in Europe.
Unfortunately, the discussion of the President’s decision has tended to reduce this to a matter of personal pique between him and Chancellor Merkel. Nothing could be further from the truth. The divide between Washington and Berlin with regard to security questions is much deeper. Germany rebuffed previous administrations’ calls for increased defense spending, and this minimization of security needs will continue in the future. So will the prominence of anti-American political views across the German political spectrum, compounded by aggressive Russian disinformation campaigns. This political environment can significantly reduce the ability of our assets in Germany to fulfill their missions.
American troop presence in Germany has two primary strategic goals, one concerning the Middle East and the other with regard to Russia. Bases in Germany provide certain logistical support for counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, including the relaying of electronic communications that manage drone operations. Germans regard this as tantamount to our carrying out military operations from German territory. On occasion the German government has even insisted on reviewing those operations in light of human rights concerns associated with collateral damage at the target. This intrusiveness could increase in the future.
In addition, U.S. forces are stationed in Germany to be called upon in the case of Russian advances on the eastern flank of NATO. To move them from southwest Germany to the Baltic frontier would require transporting them across German territory, including through the states of former East Germany. That is a region where the political leadership has proven to be especially pro-Russian and anti-American. During a crisis in the East requiring American forces, operations could be impeded by political opposition in Germany, whether at the regional or the federal level, let alone by anti-war demonstrations on the highways.
A lesson from history can remind us how German politics might hinder American military operations. During the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, the West German government under the Social Democratic Chancellor Willi Brandt adopted a position of neutrality between Israel and the Arabs. The Arab countries were receiving considerable on-going material support from the Soviet Union, and Israel therefore requested supplies from Washington. The optimal supply chain involved moving materiel located on American bases in West Germany, but the Brandt government objected and delayed the operation, jeopardizing Israeli security. High-level diplomatic tension ensued between Washington and Bonn.
That episode is relevant today for two reasons. In 1973, the U.S. was still an occupying power in West Germany, but the Brandt government could nonetheless limit the resupply efforts; today Germany has regained full sovereignty and therefore has even greater leverage to block American military operations. Furthermore, during the Yom Kippur War, the West Germans were explicitly fearful of provoking Arab countries into cutting off their oil supply. Today, Germany has grown dependent on Russia for energy supplies. In the context of a crisis that involved Russian aggression in eastern Europe, Berlin would certainly face energy blackmail from Moscow to prevent American troop movements. Count on Berlin to buckle quickly.
The prospect of Berlin limiting or even nullifying the utility of American military presence in Germany must also be evaluated in light of the 2021 Bundestag elections. The results are sure to yield a coalition more to the left and less supportive of potential American operations than the current Merkel government. Without the perennially popular Merkel as chancellor candidate, the Christian Democrats will lose support in the elections and consequently exercise less power in the next government. Should the Social Democrats continue in the current governing coalition, their own move to the left will put stress on the trans-Atlantic alliance, as will the faction of the party that retains loyalty to former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a close friend of Vladimir Putin and now head of Nord Stream and Rosneft, the primary Russian energy company: a clear case of “elite capture.” If instead the Green Party enters the government, the significance for the U.S. would be mixed. Because the Greens have principled human rights concerns, they at least understand the dangers of the Putin regime, but their strongly held anti-nuclear and pacifist inclinations would raise other challenges for American weaponry in Germany. In the worst-case outcome, the Christian Democrats would leave the government altogether, giving way to a left-wing coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and the Left Party, the legacy party of East German Communists. At that point German hospitality for the U.S. military presence would cease.
Any of these political scenarios would stand in the way of U.S. security operations. Should Moscow provoke instability in the Baltics, for example, along the lines of the hybrid warfare in eastern Ukraine, instrumentalizing Russian-speaking minorities or infiltrating irregular fighters, a left-leaning Bundestag would likely delay or even block American troop movements. Russia could achieve its strategic objectives, while Berlin would argue that it had prevented military conflict—at the cost of defeat for its eastern neighbors. Of course, those neighbors are NATO members, but in an Article 5 crisis, one should not count on Berlin being willing to support a military confrontation with Russia. On the contrary, one should expect Berlin to prevent U.S. forces in Germany from defending the Baltics.
Given the tenuousness of German approval for American military operations, it is urgent that alternative European locations for troop deployment be identified and developed. This does not necessarily imply moving all troops out of Germany, but it does mean a clear-eyed recognition that the United States needs more reliable options. A credible American military presence in Europe, including as part of NATO, needs to factor in the very real prospect of Berlin preventing the use of American assets, with dire consequences for European security altogether.
Russell A. Berman is Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Professor of German Studies at Stanford University.