More than 60,000 uniformed U.S. military personnel − 43,000 Army, 16,000 Air Force and a few Navy and Marines − are currently stationed in Germany, specifically in the states of Hesse, Rhineland-Palatinate, Bavaria, and Baden-Württemberg. This figure is far higher than in any other country overseas, with the exception of Afghanistan.
Early this year, President Obama went to the Pentagon to announce two major military policy decisions, both with great consequences for America’s long-standing military presence in Germany. First, Obama instituted a strategic “pivot” toward Asia and the Pacific − a major strategic shift in response to the rise of China. Second, he proposed a reduction of the annual U.S. defense budget (currently $700 billion) by $497 billion over the coming decade. While the president did not dwell on security challenges for America other than those in Iraq and Afghanistan; the continuing terrorist threats in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia; Israeli-Palestinian confrontations; and potential war with Iran or an intervention in Syria, all place demands not only on our diplomacy, but also eventually on our military as well.
How do the pivot, defense budget reductions, and dangers in the Middle East and Southwest Asia affect our large military presence in Germany? No security threats loom in Europe. Indeed, such threats have not been present since the Cold War’s end more than twenty years ago.
Recognizing this threat diminishment, defense secretary Leon Panetta has announced the withdrawal from Germany of two heavy Army brigades and support troops from the towns of Baumholder and Grafenwöhr, as well as two Air Force squadrons from Spangdahlem.
These cuts have been have been long in coming. In his memoir Known and Unknown, Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense from 2001 to 2006, asked how wise it was for the U. S. to keep large numbers of troops in Germany. Nevertheless, he recounted in an interview that it had taken him a “tremendous” effort to get his Pentagon to even contemplate changes in this deployment status quo.
In 2004 the German government at the time, Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democratic-Green coalition, indicated to high U.S. Defense Department officials its willingness to go along with those withdrawals that the Pentagon deemed strategically necessary.
Governments of the four states with garrisons of American forces, however, had long objected to withdrawals on economic grounds, lobbying in Congress, the Pentagon, or the U.S. Army command in Heidelberg, often successfully. Rhineland-Palatinate, for instance, pointed out last year that 18,500 Germans in the state were employed by U.S. military units in the Land. Jobs and networks of unofficial German-American organizations underpinned and warmed relations in dozens of small German towns in the south and southwest. The troops are mostly near towns into which General Eisenhower’s GIs rolled 67 spring times ago.
A large American military presence in Germany (close to 300,000 at the height of the Cold War) has long been such a central pillar of the relationship between the two countries that it felt permanent. Two generations of Germans have grown up with American soldiers around. Six and a half million Americans have served in Germany and have returned home with a good opinion of their host country. Still today, Army families rate a posting to Germany as the most desirable of any overseas.
Panetta and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton hastened to reassure Germans at the annual Munich Security Conference this February that the withdrawals do not signal a lessening of America’s commitment to Europe or NATO. Clinton declared that “Europe remains America’s partner of first resort.” Panetta called it “…partner of choice for military operations and diplomacy around the world.” He promised that U.S. troops would henceforth rotate more frequently to Europe for joint military training exercises with allied forces. Like his two predecessors, however, he has at the same time been chiding European allies for declines in defense spending since 1990. Germany now spends a very low 1.4 percent of its gross domestic product on its military (compared to the U.S. at 4.7 percent of GDP).
Such reassurances and promises aside, demands on America’s forces in the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and the Asia-Pacific area will certainly grow. Likewise, calls to shrink defense budgets further may become more frequent (If a bipartisan consensus on fiscal policy cannot be reached by the end of this year, an automatic $1.2 trillion “sequester” will have a drastic impact on military spending). Rotational deployments overseas are costly, and Panetta plans to expand them to Africa, Asia, and Latin America as well.
For such reasons, additional cuts in U.S. troops in Germany are quite likely, with frequent rotations unlikely. Perhaps the forces there will drop to 10,000 or fewer within a decade–enough to run the Ramstein air base, important for onward flights of troops and equipment to hot spots in the Middle East and Asia, and to staff the military hospital at Landstuhl, where battlefield wounded in Asian or Middle Eastern conflict can be brought on their way back to the U.S.
As America’s military commitments outside Europe grow and its military resources decline, NATO’s raison d’être comes into question. Established and maintained for forty-five years to protect Germany and Western Europe from Soviet expansion, NATO, in Washington’s view, is being transformed into an expeditionary force structure for extra-European interventions like Afghanistan or Libya.
Germany, along with most NATO countries, joined in the Afghanistan war out of solidarity with America after 9/11. Whether the German government or public will sign on to other interventions on faraway battlefields is doubtful. The refusal to join the attacks on Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 suggest their reluctance to do so down the road.
Possibly, just possibly, withdrawals of American combat brigades and aircraft will jolt Germany into reversing the decline in its defense spending. Furthermore, perhaps such a move will lead to pooling of military capabilities multinationally with European Union members or bilaterally with neighbors like Poland. Finally, it could breathe some life into the EU’s long-proclaimed, but hardly activated, Common Foreign and Security Policy.
For this to happen, Germany will have to overcome its historically determined reluctance to assume a leadership role internationally. Over the last two years, Chancellor Merkel’s government has done so to deal with the Europe’s economic and fiscal crisis. It will prove to be the most significant consequence of American troop withdrawals if they bring Germany more toward the forefront militarily.