President Trump is right to reduce the U.S. military force strength in Germany. But he should now redeploy some of those forces to establish a permanent base in Poland.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Trump’s order will reduce the total U.S. deployed strength in Germany from 34,500 to 25,000 personnel. It would also cap the total number of personnel in Germany at 25,000.
This is welcome news. Berlin remains an American ally, but it is one that is unwilling to shoulder its fair defense burden under NATO. The alliance, which remains a critical mechanism of Western security and prosperity (including American interests), expects all member states to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense each year. But in 2019, Germany only spent 1.36% of GDP on defense and less than the 20%-of-total-defense-budget target for equipment spending.
While Germany is increasing defense spending, it is doing so far too slowly. An earlier commitment to meet the 2% target by 2024 has been squashed, with Berlin now saying that it won’t meet that target until 2031 at the earliest.
This is ridiculous for four reasons.
First, it undermines the core NATO principle that allies will share the burden of defending their common interests. Second, Germany is the de facto leader of the European Union and thus should be setting an example in defending Europe’s security. Third, Germany has Europe’s largest economy and can easily afford to meet its 2% target. Fourth, the German military is in desperate need of funding.
But Germany’s record is even worse than this.
Not only does Chancellor Angela Merkel refuse to invest in the armed forces, but she rarely allows the military to deter the alliance’s primary threat actor, Russia. While a German warship is currently involved in a NATO exercise in the Baltic Sea, that’s a rare exception to the rule. From the Barents Sea to the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, it is often America and Britain alone leading NATO’s defense. That solitary expression of the alliance’s security interests is incompatible with Russia’s rising threat to NATO’s southern flank.
Some say that it’s unfair to criticize Germany in this manner. They point to Berlin’s significant aid and diplomatic activity in support of the liberal international order. But while those activities are positive, they miss two exigent points.
First, a significant reason Germany is so reluctant to invest in its own defense is that its leaders fear aggravating Russia. This is largely down to Germany’s willful energy dependence on Moscow — a dynamic that reflects the extraordinary shortsightedness of successive German governments, empowering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s energy blackmail of the European periphery. In addition, the we-support-NATO-with-diplomacy argument would have a lot more viability if German aid convoys could obstruct Russian tank and airborne offensives. But they can’t. NATO needs capabilities that can stop invading forces and penetrate area denial strongholds.
That brings us to Poland. While Germany skimps on defense, Poland does quite the opposite. Though far less wealthy than Germany and many other NATO members, Poland meets both the 2% GDP defense spending target and the 20% equipment share target. Warsaw has also shown repeated willingness to deploy its forces on combat operations alongside American units. Deeply pro-American and resolute in the face of Russian intimidation, Poland is an ally to celebrate.
Moreover, Warsaw is desperate for a permanent American military presence on its soil, even offering to pay a significant part of the establishment and operational costs that would be entailed.
Trump can now offer that presence with some of the forces being pulled from Germany. Doing so would put American forces in a better position to defend the Baltics and Poland in the event of a Russian invasion. But it would also show that America values friends that are willing to stand alongside us rather than behind us.
Trump’s undermining of the alliance’s Article 5 mutual defense stipulations is highly ill-judged. Still, he deserves credit for pushing NATO to increase spending. Moving forces from Germany to Poland would send a valuable message to Moscow — and a valuable message to our NATO allies.