Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

The Post-Trump Reset With NATO Starts in Germany

The Biden administration has paused Trump’s plan to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops from Germany, an early move to reassure allies. 

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Military personnel unload M1 Abrams tanks ahead of a U.S.-led military exercise with NATO allies in Bremerhaven, Germany, on Feb. 21, 2020.
Military personnel unload M1 Abrams tanks ahead of a U.S.-led military exercise with NATO allies in Bremerhaven, Germany, on Feb. 21, 2020. Patrik Stollarz/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Biden pauses Trump’s troop withdrawal from Germany, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin confronts extremism in the military, and tensions between China and Taiwan continue to rise.

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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Biden pauses Trump’s troop withdrawal from Germany, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin confronts extremism in the military, and tensions between China and Taiwan continue to rise.

If you would like to receive Security Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.

Not Quite Ready to Move On

The Biden administration has frozen former President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw some 12,000 U.S. troops from Germany and is conducting a review of the decision, according to the top commander of U.S. forces in Europe, Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters.

Trump abruptly announced in July that he would withdraw one-third of U.S. troops from Germany—12,000 of some 36,000 total—because Berlin failed to meet NATO defense spending targets. The move came as a surprise to German officials and was made against the advice of some of Trump’s own aides.

What Wolters said. “The new administration has comfortably stated to us that we need to conduct a thorough review, cradle to grave, in all areas,” Wolters told reporters on Wednesday. “And then, after they’re allowed to conduct that review, we’ll go back to the drawing board. … What I will say that exists at this very moment is that every single one of those options, that they’re all on hold, and they will all be reexamined.”

Speaking at a White House briefing on Thursday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan confirmed that Biden was freezing the withdrawal as part of a global review undertaken by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

The backdrop. Then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper slapped a veneer of strategic coherence on the withdrawal decision when it was first announced in July 2020, saying the move was part of broader plans to reorient U.S. troops to better face Russian aggression. He insisted it would not undermine NATO unity, and that some troops could be repositioned to the Black Sea and rotations in the Baltics and Poland.

Then Trump undercut his defense secretary, doubling down on claims that Germany, like other allies, was taking advantage of the United States and not paying its fair share to NATO defense. “We don’t want to be the suckers any more,” Trump said at the time. “We’re reducing the force because they’re not paying their bills; it’s very simple.”

Now, there’s a new sheriff in town. Team Biden seems intent on trying to repair relations with its NATO allies after four years of tensions, spats, and awkward photo ops. The pause on troop withdrawals from Germany clearly fits into that plan, though the populist narrative that allies are taking advantage of U.S. military presence worldwide won’t disappear with Trump.

What the experts are saying. Jim Townsend, a former Pentagon NATO policy official under the Obama administration, told Foreign Policy that it was important for Washington to complete the review on the plans and make a decision quickly—not least for the U.S. troops and their families stationed in Germany who are caught in limbo.

“Not only do our guys in the field need to know, but the Germans need to know too,” Townsend added. “If we really want to begin to restore the relationship with Germany, and with Europe generally, we need to address this early on and in consultation with them so we can make up for that lack of consultation.”  

 What We’re Watching 

Stand down. Secretary of Defense Austin has ordered the U.S. military to schedule a stand down within the next 60 days to address the issue of extremism in the ranks after the Jan. 6 pro-Trump assault on the U.S. Capitol. The move means that every unit will have to break from normal operations for a short period of time within the next two months in order to deal with the problem. It was not immediately clear how the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Space Force would implement the new guidance.

Systematic abuse. Women in China’s Uighur internment camps face a systematic pattern of rape, abuse, and torture, according to new accounts from survivors told to the BBC. The disturbing details of what some of an estimated 1 million interned Uighurs have endured under the Chinese government crackdown prompted immediate outcry from human rights groups. The revelations could further chill relations between Beijing and the Biden administration, which appears set to keep in place Trump’s determination that China’s abuses in Xinjiang amount to genocide.

Strait on through. Speaking of China: A U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer transited the Taiwan Strait today in a move meant to flex U.S. military muscles with an eye tto Beijing. It’s the first time a U.S. ship has transited the waterway during the Biden administration. A Navy spokesman described the passage as routine, but it comes after rising tensions near the strait in recent days, with Chinese aircraft buzzing the area and prompting a rebuke from the Biden administration.

The Week Ahead

Feb. 4: French President Emmanuel Macron will speak at a virtual event at the Atlantic Council.

Feb. 9: Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial begins in the Senate.

Feb. 9: The U.N. Security Council convenes to discuss the ongoing conflict in Syria.

Movers and Shakers

FBI gets a deputy. FBI Director Chris Wray has tapped Paul Abbate as the agency’s deputy director, according to a Monday press release. Abbate was considered for the top FBI job under Trump, but he was passed over. A long-tenured law enforcement official, Abbate had previously served as associate deputy director of the FBI, and as executive assistant director for the criminal, cyber, response, and services branch.

The Biden administration plans to keep Wray in the top post.

Duss in the wind. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ top foreign-policy advisor is expected to depart Capitol Hill for a role at the State Department, Politico reported on Wednesday. The hiring of Matt Duss, one of the architects of the challenges to Trump’s war powers authority that allowed U.S. forces to assist the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen war, would be a victory for progressives.

Want to know more? Check out Robbie’s profile of Duss from February 2020—back when Sanders was vying for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Top NSC Russia job open. The top National Security Council job overseeing Russia appears to be up for grabs again. Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a veteran intelligence analyst now at the Center for a New American Security, was announced as the senior NSC director for Russia and Central Asia several weeks ago. But on Twitter she said she would be staying at CNAS after all.

New Iran envoy. Biden tapped Rob Malley to be his Iran envoy late last week, as we reported. He has his work cut out for him: Getting Iran back to the negotiating table on its nuclear program will be easier said than done.

Pence finds a new home. Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence will join the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, as a “distinguished visiting fellow.”

Quote of the Week

“Space doesn’t have a mother. You can’t reach out and hug a satellite. You can’t see it; you can’t touch it. It’s hard to have that connection.”

Gen. John Raymond, head of the U.S. Space Force, on why the new military branch might have a bit of a PR problem in explaining to average Americans what it does

 Foreign Policy Recommends

A real-life spy thriller. From Technology Review: Read this fascinating and largely unknown account of how a team of CIA officers, with the help of Mexican spy, “borrowed” a crashed Soviet spy satellite to unlock secrets of Moscow’s Cold War space program.

Odds and Ends

Sounds uncomfortable. A smuggler was apprehended in New Zealand with nearly 1,000 cacti and other plants strapped to her, according to the Guardian. The plants were reportedly worth over $10,000.

That’s it for today.

For more from Foreign Policy, subscribe here or sign up for our other newsletters. You can find older editions of Security Brief here.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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