Trump's plan to pull troops from Germany doesn't address a risk NATO has faced since the start of the Cold War

  • The Trump administration's plans to pull thousands of troops from Germany, moving them elsewhere in Europe and back to the US, elicited backlash at home and abroad.
  • Trump isn't the first US leader to want to reduce the US contribution to Europe's defense, but he hasn't addressed a more consequential part of that commitment, writes Christopher Layne, a professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University
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President Donald Trump wants to withdraw roughly 12,000 US troops from Germany, saying Berlin is "delinquent" and should be doing more to bear the costs of stationing troops there. He is hardly the first American policymaker to feel that the Europeans aren't paying their "fair share" of NATO's defense costs.

Although transatlantic burden sharing tiffs are a hearty perennial for NATO, Trump's troop withdrawal plan overlooks an even more important issue: risk sharing. This goes back to the Cold War when NATO lacked sufficient conventional forces to repulse a Soviet assault. Hence, NATO strategy relied on America's "nuclear umbrella," based on the first use of nuclear weapons.

Today, the Baltic States are the new NATO-Russia fault line. The alliance is incapable of defending the Baltics with conventional forces alone. The US brigades that rotate through the Baltic States today are trip wires meant to prompt a nuclear response if Russia attacks — just as were their Cold War counterparts in West Germany.

During the Cold War, NATO went through numerous strategic contortions to make credible the incredible idea that the United States would risk nuclear war — the devastation of the American homeland — to defend Europe.

US policymakers don't like to level with Americans about the true nature of this nation's NATO commitment. But in 1979, Henry Kissinger exposed the dirty little secret: NATO is a one-way suicide pact. As he said, "Don't you Europeans keep asking us to multiply assurances we cannot possibly mean and that if we do mean, we should not want to execute, and which if we execute, would destroy our civilization?"

The time has come to overhaul the US role in NATO by shifting the risks and costs of the continent's defense to the Europeans. This was the vision of America's leading post-World War II grand strategic architects.

George F. Kennan (author of the containment doctrine) argued the US should re-establish a balance of power so other states could lift the burdens of containment from America's shoulders. John Foster Dulles — secretary of state in the Eisenhower administration — said, "We want Europe to stand on its own two feet."

Their successors, however, have been gripped by a paradox: Wanting Europe to do more but also fearing that Europe will do too much, and no longer be subservient to Washington. Herein lies America's European dilemma.

In his 1966 book, "The Troubled Partnership," Kissinger made two important points. First, the US might benefit greatly from a united Europe. Second, America would pay a price for a united Europe.

Europe, he said, would not "be content with a subordinate role once it had the means to implement its own views. Europe's main incentive to undertake a larger cooperative role in the West's affairs would be to fulfill its own distinctive purposes."

The Soviet Union's collapse removed NATO's strategic glue. Putin's Russia is an annoyance. It is not the Big Red Machine of the Cold War. At the same time, there are many issues — Iran, the Middle East, trade, to name a few — on which US and European interests diverge sharply. These differences are exacerbated by the power imbalance between America and Europe. If this imbalance continues, the alliance's fraying bonds may tear completely — with acrimony on both sides of the Atlantic.

When Donald Trump was elected, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Europe could no longer count on America's commitment to its defense. Other European leaders and defense analysts agreed. Proposals for endowing Europe an independent defense capability — including a nuclear armed Germany — were floated.

None have come remotely close to fruition, although French President Emmanuel Macron continues to press the case for Europe's "strategic autonomy." It is safe to say, however, that this idea will languish. As much as Europe resents its dependence on the US, it fears that if it does more for its own defense, America will do less.

Ironically, as Dulles perceived, the Truman administration's policies in the late 1940s stifled European unity and self-reliance.

He observed that the Marshall Plan and NATO "were the two things which prevented a unity in Europe which in the long run may be more valuable than either of them." The unintended consequence was that both acted as disincentives for Europe to take the hard steps toward political unity and to become strategically self-sufficient.

The US should cut the Gordian Knot by announcing the phased retraction of its role as Europe's security guarantor. A transatlantic relationship no longer characterized by American dominance and European tutelage — and shorn of the ill feelings European dependence generates on both sides of the Atlantic — will be healthier and more mature.

A militarily autonomous Europe is in America's interest: It would end the dangerous "extended deterrence" strategy of threatening nuclear war — suicide, to be clear — to deter attacks on European NATO members; resolve America's complaints about burden sharing; and allow the US to reduce its bloated defense budget. Trump's troop withdrawal should be the catalyst for a far-reaching debate about resetting the US-European relationship.

Christopher Layne is University Distinguished Professor of International Affairs at Texas A&M University.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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