The Trump administration announced Wednesday plans to withdraw almost 12,000 troops from Germany, a sweeping continent-wide reorganization that has provoked bipartisan congressional opposition and widespread dismay in Europe.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper told a Pentagon briefing that the move would benefit Washington’s strategic interests abroad, strengthening NATO and deterring Russia, and equipping the military for “a new era of great power competition.”
But President Donald Trump has previously offered a different explanation, suggesting the planned drawdown is punishment for his long-standing complaint that Germany does not spend enough on its military.
It has alarmed congressional Republicans and Democrats, and is seen by many in Europe as emblematic of the dramatic deterioration in relations between Washington and Berlin under Trump.
Esper said the number of U.S. troops permanently based in Germany would be reduced by around 11,900, from some 36,000 to 24,000. That’s even more than the 9,500 announced last month.
Almost half, around 5,600, will move to other parts of Europe including Belgium, Poland and Italy. The other 6,400-odd troops will initially come back to the U.S., with many of them then beginning shorter rotational deployments back in Europe, in places such as the Black Sea and the Baltics.
In addition, several U.S. military headquarters would be moved out of the country, including United States European Command which will move to Belgium, he said.
The move will cost single-figure billions of dollars, and will begin “as expeditiously as possible” with some elements starting “within weeks.”
Most of the U.S. troops in Germany are currently stationed at the Ramstein Air Base, the largest American military facility outside the continental U.S.
While Esper focused on the strategic gains he said the move would bring, Trump has mentioned little of that when explaining his rationale in the past. He has been clear in linking the drawdown to German defense spending, which has become a running theme during his time in office.
“We’re protecting Germany and they’re delinquent,” he told reporters in June on the subject of German military spending. “That doesn’t make sense. So I said, we’re going to bring down the count to 25,000 soldiers.” He added that “they treat us very badly on trade,” referring to the long-standing U.S. complaint that the Germany runs a trade surplus.
While Germany’s military spending is ticking up, it is still smaller, in relation to its economy, than more than a dozen other NATO allies despite being Europe’s economic and political powerhouse.
“American taxpayers are getting a little bit tired of paying too much for the defense of other countries,” Trump’s outgoing ambassador, Richard Grenell, told German media in June when explaining the planned troop withdrawal.
Belgium and Italy, where some American headquarters and troops would be redeployed under the plan, spend even less on defense than Germany in relation to the size of their respective economies.
Even many of Trump’s critics agree that Germany should pay more toward defense, as agreed by NATO members in 2014. The same was argued albeit in more subtle tones by former President Barack Obama and others.
But the troop withdrawal has caused alarm including among congressional Republicans and Democrats. They argue the troops are not there to protect Germany, but to provide an American launching pad to the Middle East, if needed, and a symbolic bulwark against Russia.
It has also angered the German government because according to it, as with several other Trump moves regarding Europe, it was not consulted beforehand.
“This is completely unacceptable, especially since nobody in Washington thought about informing its NATO ally Germany in advance,” said Peter Beyer, a German lawmaker who serves as the transatlantic coordinator for Chancellor Angela Merkel. He was speaking to the Rheinische Post newspaper in June.
Courtney Kube and Mosheh Gains contributed.