International Policy Digest

Dustin Biven/U.S. Army
World News /05 Aug 2020
08.05.20

Germany: Time to ‘Get Out Now’?

President Donald Trump never enjoyed good relations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but it was a surprise when he announced that the U.S. would reduce its troop presence in Germany by 9,500 to 24,500 by September. According to Trump, the troops would be relocated to “other places” including Poland.

The Pentagon later reported the number of troops to be repositioned is now about 11,900: 5,400 will remain in Europe, primarily in Belgium and Italy. In addition, 1,000 will be permanently based in Poland according to Poland’s defense ministry. This reduction, if completed, will continue a long-term trend. According to the German government, between 2006 and 2018, the number of U.S. troops stationed in Germany dropped from 72,400 to 33,250,

Trump’s announcement gave the vapors to think-tankers, columnists, and members of Congress, who claimed he was weakening the Atlantic alliance and playing into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Congress immediately began exploring ways to stay the president’s hand by limiting the number of troops he can redeploy.

Observers speculated Trump cut troop levels out of spite as Merkel rebuffed his invitation to a G-7 meeting in Washington in June. But Merkel’s refusal came in the midst of a White House reexamination of the U.S. troop commitment to Germany in light of Berlin’s free-riding on U.S. defense spending and its intent to make itself and much of Europe overly-dependent on Russian natural gas.

If Merkel had come to Washington, Trump could have told her face-t0-face about the troop cuts but, absent Merkel, Germany would get the news via the media. The former U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, is probably upset he wasn’t able to deliver the news himself.

The other sticking point in the U.S.-German relationship is the 760-mile, $11 billion Nord Stream 2 undersea natural gas pipeline that will deliver 55 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Russia to Germany. When completed, the pipeline will double Germany’s import of Russian gas.

As to the military spending, Germany isn’t close to the (non-binding) commitment made in 2015 to spend 2% of GDP on defense by 2024 but claims it will reach the spending target in 2031.

U.S. Army paratroopers assigned to 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade receive orders about how to proceed over a mound while conducting a live-fire exercise in Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, July 27, 2020. (Ryan Lucas/U.S. Army)

In the 1980s Europe spent about 76% on defense as the U.S., largely in response to the interventionist Brezhnev Doctrine and post-Vietnam defense cuts by the U.S. in the 1970s. Ironically, in 1975 Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield made an unsuccessful effort to stimulate European defense spending by proposing cuts to U.S. troop levels in Europe.

According to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, nine of NATO’s thirty members have met the 2% spending target and the rest have a plan to do so by 2024 (except Germany). For 2019 the real increase in spending is 4.6 % and the allies have invested $130 billion more since 2016. The countries that have met the goal are the U.S., Bulgaria, Greece, the UK, Estonia, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland.

Defenders of the status quo in Europe point out that defense contributions can take many forms, such as the provision of infrastructure of development aid. That’s true, and Germany has spent more than $1 billion over the last decade to cover costs related to U.S. troops stationed in Germany. But a defense pact isn’t just a spending commitment but a commitment to take casualties for the other guy. And even if Germany wanted to, it can’t.

Germany may have the lowest military readiness rate in Europe.

In 2018, the Deutsche Marine reported none of its six submarines were capable of deploying and less than half of its frigates could get underway. Also in 2018, the Luftwaffe could fly just 10 of the 128 Typhoon multirole fighters and only 26 of the 93 Tornado fighter-bombers. In 2019, only 8 of the Heer’s 53 Tiger attack helicopters and 12 of the 99 NH-90 transport helicopters were combat-ready.

And Germany plans to buy even more Typhoon fighters which, being more advanced than the current models, will cost even more to operate and maintain than the current inventory it has parked.

A U.S. concern with European defense spending isn’t new. In 1953, then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told European leaders they would have to contribute more to their own defense and their failure to do so “…would compel an agonizing reappraisal of United States policy.”

But don’t worry. Germany, which is far from the front lines, has a plan to stop those Russian troops. It’s called “Poland.”

In 1939, Poland learned being between Germany and Russia had no upside and that security guarantees were worthless.

In 2020, the German-Russian Nord Stream 2 will limit Poland’s energy choices.

It would make sense for Germany to remember John W. Wheeler-Bennett’s admonition: “A cardinal factor in the relationship [between Russia and Germany] has been the existence of an independent Poland; for, in general, it is true that when separated by a buffer state the two great Powers of eastern Europe have been friendly, whereas a contiguity of frontiers has bred hostility.”

And, because Poland gets more than half its natural gas from Russia, it has focused on bolstering its energy security by diversifying its sources, buying oil from Nigeria, and LNG from the U.S. It also ensured its energy legislation complies with EU energy directives.

But instead, the European Union (EU) is more concerned about the conservative Polish government’s policies on the judiciary and the media than strengthening front-line Poland against Russian meddling and aggression. Poland is likely wondering why it bothered trading the Warsaw Pact overlords for the EU overlords.

Poland and the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania are right to be concerned if Germany can secure for itself the portal that brings 110 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Europe. When Nord Stream 2 is complete, Germany then will be able to pressure Poland and the Baltics, especially now that the contract that brought Russian natural gas to Poland via the Yamal-Europe pipeline has expired.

A U.S. Army paratrooper training in Germany. (Henry Villarama/U.S. Army)

Merkel probably thinks she can manage the situation (and Putin) but she’s the chancellor who said “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do this”) in 2015 and opened the door to a million refugees and upended the politics of the continent.

The U.S. has repeatedly warned Germany and the firms involved in building Nord Stream 2 to quit the project, and last week U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave his strongest warning yet: “Get out now or risk the consequences…” as the State Department stripped the proviso that spared Nord Stream 2 from sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

In December, President Trump signed the Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act which threatens mandatory sanctions against any companies or vessels installing deep seas pipelines for Nord Stream 2, and succeeded in delaying the project until Russia could replace the pipelaying ship that dropped out. And in June, Senators Ted Cruz and Jeanne Shaheen introduced the Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Clarification Act of 2020 which would sanction vessels engaged in all pipelaying activities; those who provide insurance, port facilities, or tethering services for the vessels; and any company that certifies Nord Stream 2 pipeline to begin operations.

The German government responded that the recent sanctions were an infringement of Europe’s sovereignty, and Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative, said the bloc was preparing a “reinforced sanctions mechanism” in response.

Nord Stream 2 isn’t a partisan issue in Berlin or Washington, D.C. so both sides will dig in.

The Russians assume that anything they do will be sanctioned by the U.S. so it’s part of their business model. But the German and other European private sector partners may expect financial relief from governments if they are sanctioned for completing the project. That, however, will put the U.S. in a sticky situation: are the governments providing the aid then subject to sanctions? It may finally dawn on Washington that the sanctions tool has been overused when friendly governments or officials are hit with mandatory sanctions.

Germany has made some bad choices that will alienate its neighbors even as it gets some leverage with them from hosting the Nord Stream 2 landing. At the same time the U.S., an Atlantic and Pacific nation, has more pressing concerns in Asia. This may lead to a revival of the German Question as modern Germany is not classically expansionist but is content to become part of Russia’s strategic energy infrastructure, an expansionist appendage as it were.

To paraphrase a famous German, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country welcome Russian manipulation due to the irresponsibility of its people.”

The German Volk doesn’t value the relationship with the U.S. and that is reflected in a recent Pew poll, so should the U.S. hang around where it’s not welcome?

Pew found most Americans think the U.S. has good relations with Germany; over 60 percent of Germans think their country has bad relations with America. Sixty-nine percent of Americans want to ‘co-operate more’ with Germany, but only 50 percent of Germans want to ‘co-operate more’ with the Americans (less than the Russians at 66 percent). Most alarming, the survey found 60 percent of Germans felt that Germany should not defend a NATO ally.

The U.S. commitment to European security is a political arrangement and those arrangements are mutable as political circumstances change. For a long time, those circumstances focused the U.S. on Europe; now they are focusing the U.S. on Asia to deal with expansionist China and an erratic-acting, nuclear-capable North Korea so some U.S. attention (and troops) may be required elsewhere.

Ukraine has gotten more ink lately, but if Russia decides to visit Europe it will probably take the historic invasion route – the North European Plain.

In this new environment, Poland is the key to plugging the gap – literally, the Suwalki Gap which is the Polish territory between Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. If Russian forces lunge across the Gap to sever the Baltic states from Europe, it will have to pass through (warily) friendly Belarus, which also borders Latvia and Lithuania.

The U.S. should focus on rotating military units to Poland for exercises via the U.S. European Reassurance Initiative and NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence program. Also, personnel exchange programs, improved infrastructure, and prepositioning equipment, and selling Poland first-line equipment, such as the M-1 Abrams main battle tank (MBT) will enhance Poland’s preparedness.

As Russia’s plan may require crossing (warily) friendly Belarus, the U.S. and European partners should encourage Poland and Belarus to strengthen relations by engaging diplomatically on issues such as the status of ethnic Poles in Belarus and Minsk’s accusations of Polish meddling in Belarusian elections. The recent arrest by Belarus of 33 Russian military contractors is an opportunity for Warsaw and Minsk to engage on mutual concerns about Russian political interference.

The U.S. has limited leverage with Germany. It can sanction German companies and individuals, including officials, for facilitating Russia’s strategic pipeline project and weakening Europe, but Berlin will do it anyway. It can encourage NATO members to work to the 2% defense spending goal and spend that money in a complementary fashion, not on duplicative weapons systems or equipment that isn’t interoperable. (For example, the EU operates 17 different types of MBT; the U.S. operates one.)

If Germany is content with sub-standard military readiness and wants to stay “in the rear with the gear” that’s Germany’s call, but then there’s no need for the U.S. to support German candidates for leadership positions in NATO. Perhaps Poland has a nominee or two. The U.S. and the NATO partners would be smart to plan around Germany while encouraging it to get that spending and readiness up.

So, stay or go? Stay, but move those troops and continue to encourage greater European budget support for its own defense but within NATO so it doesn’t develop an autonomous capability (which will probably be scuppered if it will cost more than 2% of GDP).

On the energy front, the challenges will be harder if Russia prices natural gas to make European energy diversification expensive, while tapering off the flow through Ukraine’s pipelines by 2024. (This may be the point where Angela Merkel learns Nord Stream 2 isn’t the purely commercial operation she says it is.) The U.S. should support a political settlement in Libya to flow more oil and natural gas to Europe, and support the EastMed pipeline that will transport gas from offshore Israel and Cyprus to Greece and on to Italy. (Chevron’s acquisition of Noble Energy, Inc., which has stakes in Israel’s Tamar and Leviathan gas fields, is a positive sign assuming Chevron understands Turkey’s neo-Ottoman intentions for the area.)

One thing might make the U.S. reconsider continuing its robust defense presence in Europe.

The EU is considering a proposal “to hit back against U.S. tariffs by imposing sanctions on the intellectual property [IP] of companies such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook.” The EU has no tech sector to speak of and it is looking for a response to U.S. tariffs on goods by hitting the U.S. with tariffs on IP and services that will drive future growth in America’s economy.

If the EU acts, President Trump will probably take the opportunity to make further cuts in troop deployments with the excuse that it’s in response to an unwarranted attack on the highest value-added parts of the U.S. economy. This will cause some ructions in the executive branch as the White House may rely on the Commerce Department and the U.S. Trade Representative more than the Pentagon and the national security bureaucracy, which will complain that trade and defense are separate “silos” – an archaic view. It will make for some awkward moments at the next Munich Security Conference

The U.S. is an Atlantic country and (probably) isn’t evacuating from Europe with its shift in emphasis to Asia. The pivot will be successful only if the U.S. remains engaged in diplomatic efforts to support Europe’s energy security, which may depend on the state of EU tariffs on U.S. IP and services.