The United States Needs German Bases More Than Germany Does

Bases in Europe have always aided American hegemony more than local defense.

The U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany
The logo at the entrance of the U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany, on Jan. 17, 2016. Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, Trump administration officials announced a new cap of 25,000 on U.S. forces based in Germany—a reduction of 9,500 troops. The move supposedly punishes Berlin for not spending enough on defense, a perennial bugbear of Trumpism. In reality, though, it betrays a lack of understanding about U.S. force posture in Europe and is based on three false but common assumptions: that the U.S. military is in Germany solely for the benefit of its hosts, that the United States and Germany share a common threat perception, and that the argument over defense spending is ultimately about spending a compulsory 2 percent of GDP on defense. The next administration will need to correct these errors if it wants to preserve U.S. power in Europe.

The framework for overseas basing was established in 1943 when War Department military planners decided to preserve newly acquired American hegemony in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The rise of long-range strategic bombing and the development of atomic weapons led planners to the assumption that future enemies would bomb the U.S. mainland to destroy the industrial mobilization necessary for an American war effort. Overseas bases would allow the United States to engage an attack from any state far from U.S. shores and allow for power projection in peacetime.

As then-Assistant Secretary of War Robert Lovett put it in a memo to other senior U.S. leaders, “I cannot over-emphasize the importance that I place on this entire base problem.” U.S. President Harry S. Truman even went so far as to ask Soviet leader Joseph Stalin for basing rights in the Kuril Islands. The request was quickly rebuffed, but as the historian Melvyn Leffler wrote, the move was not meant to be anti-Soviet. Rather “it simply reflected the expansive conception of U.S. security objectives that was embodied in the overseas base planning that went on at the end of the war.” That expansive conception of U.S. security continues today, with tens of thousands of American troops based in 80 countries around the world.

The bases and transit rights acquired by U.S. planners in the 1940s remain integral to U.S. power projection, and facilities in Germany are especially important. Ramstein Air Base is the primary logistical hub for all U.S. operations in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. The base is also a relay station for all communications with U.S. drones deployed over the horizon from their operators in Nevada. The issue is a volatile one for German elites and landed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government in hot water over the legality of such usage.

Both U.S. Africa Command and European Command are headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, and, perhaps most importantly, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center was a critical waypoint for thousands of wounded troops from U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To top this off, the United States is currently building a new, larger military hospital in Weilerbach with some 5,000 rooms, 42 specialty departments, and nine operating rooms at a cost of $990 million. That hospital, in case you are wondering, is for U.S. troops—not German soldiers.

Despite the naked national interest and critical necessity of basing U.S. troops in Germany, Trump administration officials continue to trot out banal talking points about how “offensive” it is that Americans are paying for the “defense” of Germany while ignoring the obvious benefit of U.S. bases in Germany for U.S. national security. Furthermore, the argument doesn’t track, because the majority of Germans do not agree that Russia is a military threat.

During the Cold War, there were differences of opinion between West German and U.S. leaders on how best to address the Soviet threat, but there was a shared perception that Soviet Russia was indeed a serious military threat. NATO was the primary vehicle for West Germany to deter a potential Soviet invasion—“deterrence” being the operative word, because a war in Europe would reduce West Germany to rubble. West Germans pushed for de-escalation and viewed escalatory policies hesitantly or fearfully.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a reunited Germany has continually sought to engage Russia, much to the chagrin of many in Washington. For 20 years German policymakers across the political spectrum did not believe European security policy could be defined against Russia. German elites never bought into the far-fetched notion that Putin wanted to gobble up the Baltics or invade Poland, although the Kremlin’s militarization of relations with Ukraine and seizure of Crimea prompted a more hard-nosed German response.

Merkel led the way on the Western sanctions regime and coordinated policy within the European Union. She pushed the German business community—long sympathetic to Moscow because of trade issues—even further. Berlin deployed troops to Lithuania as a framework nation, meaning that Berlin provides the bulk of the force along with key enablers, and then smaller allies can plug in capabilities. The move shows a strong commitment to common defense. The German navy is also once again focused on the Baltic Sea to shore up NATO’s northern flank. And long before U.S. President Donald Trump took to furiously tweeting about freeloading European allies, Berlin committed at NATO’s 2014 Wales Summit to increase defense investment. In 2019 Germany’s defense spending rose by $5.6 billion—the largest increase since the end of the Cold War. The current defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, continues to push for more capability development. More importantly, recent polling indicates that Germans feel that Germany should do more on the world stage—but exactly what “more” means remains to be seen. One thing is for certain—they don’t want to antagonize Russia.

The German approach to Russia has long favored diplomacy and engagement over tantrums and militarization, and this will not change. Problematically for Germany, NATO is no longer a deterrent against Russian invasion. Rather, if Germany and Russia were to come to blows it would be because of Germany’s alliance commitments. Elites in Berlin do not want to shirk such commitments, but the worries around being dragged into a conflict are all the greater as Trump abandons arms control agreements and international treaties at an alarming rate. The alliance with Washington increasingly looks more and more like a liability than an asset.

A debate about right-sizing the U.S. military and the necessity of creatively rethinking strategy is a debate worth having, but a rebalance is not an all-out withdrawal. U.S. bases in Europe support U.S. national security first and foremost. Without them U.S. force projection would be difficult, some operations would be impossible, and stability in Europe would be questionable. Current U.S. troop commitments in Germany and across Europe are nearly the minimum required for alliance cohesion, interoperability, and partner assurance. A further reduction in Germany would be self-destructive; moving U.S. troops to Poland—an increasingly illiberal ally—is nonsensical and costly.

Policymakers in Washington are right to be concerned about low levels of defense investment in Europe. Even if it is in the U.S. national interest to maintain bases in Europe, the United States wants capable partners. But Washington needs to address the difference in threat perception and to frame the discussion around alliance solidarity and capabilities, not the empty rhetoric of the 2 percent of GDP defense spending pledge.

As Jan Techau, one of Kramp-Karrenbauer’s advisors, has written, “As a way to measure an increase in military capability, the 2 percent metric is barely useful. It does not measure spending in real terms or actual output.” Repeatedly bludgeoning allies with this empty target sets the wrong goals and allows allies to claim pointless progress. Instead, a focus on capabilities would make it possible to improve agility and deployability. The focus should be on strategy and force planning to establish the necessary capabilities to deter Russian interference that is decidedly not conventional. A continued focus on an abstract bottom line is doomed to fail, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic downturn—European defense spending will inevitably continue to fall short of the 2 percent target for the foreseeable future.

The next U.S. administration needs to change the narrative and focus on capabilities that advance an actual strategy related to Germany, NATO, and Russia. Doing so will open a space for productive discussion and allies to define NATO for the 2020s, rather than relying on Cold War metrics ill-suited to the contemporary era.

Michael John Williams is the director of the International Relations Program and a clinical professor of international relations at New York University.