President Trump doesn’t seem to realize that 0.93 is less than 1.36. Perhaps I’m being a little facetious here, but the point stands.
On Wednesday, explaining his reduction of U.S. military force level in Germany from 36,000 personnel to 24,000, Trump was clear as to his rationale. “We don’t want to be the suckers anymore … We’re protecting Germany, so we’re reducing the force because they’re not paying their bills. It’s very simple. They’re delinquent. So we’re reducing the force. Now, if they start paying their bills … I would think about [canceling the redeployment out of Germany].”
On paper, this argument has some real legitimacy. NATO is the world’s most successful alliance and one that greatly serves Americans. But allies need bonds of shared commitment in order to give their alliance true power. I note this in light of Germany, Europe’s largest economy. Because where Chancellor Angela Merkel talks a great deal — and somehow receives great credit — about defending the liberal international order, when it comes to action, Merkel’s record is astonishingly poor. Starved of funding, the German Army has spent the past few years using painted broomsticks as substitute rifles. Its armored forces are an equally unfunny joke. The Navy isn’t much better: Merkel won’t allow warships to deploy in deterrence of NATO’s primary threat actor, Russia. Oh, and Merkel is also the leading voice behind Vladimir Putin’s Nord Stream II energy pipeline. That pipeline will enable Putin’s energy blackmail of Europe for decades to come.
In short, Germany has taken NATO for granted and undermined its underlying strategic imperative. It’s thus appropriate that some U.S. military capabilities and investments be relocated to allies that take NATO more seriously. (Poland is the most obvious example.) Except, Trump’s relocation plan does very little to send this message. After all, it relocates many capabilities out of Germany and into Belgium.
That brings us back to the 0.93 versus 1.36 factor. Where NATO’s most recent assessment puts German defense spending as a percentage of GDP at 1.36% in 2019, it estimates that Belgium spent just 0.93% of its GDP on defense. NATO states are also supposed to spend at least 20% of their total defense budget on equipment. Belgium spends just 11%, less than the German allotment of around 16%. True, those figures represent both nations’ systemic failure to take NATO seriously. But Trump’s relocation takes all credibility from his claim that its rationale is “very simple. They’re delinquent. So we’re reducing the force.” By Trump’s own standards, his plan is a great gift to Belgium’s delinquency.
The Pentagon has laid it out. It notes that units moving from Germany to Belgium include the headquarters of European Command and Special Operations Command-Europe. Also moving are “three brigade-sized headquarters, an air defense artillery battalion, and an engineering battalion.” That’s a lot of high-ranking officers, staffs, and capabilities. It means a nice new investment into Belgium’s economy. Again, it’s not clear how this investment comports with Trump’s “very simple” message of redeployment as a response to “delinquent” defense spending. Still, you can bet that Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes is chuckling.
I’ll write on the broader ramifications of these redeployments on Friday. Fortunately, it’s not all bad — the relocation of a “F-16 fighter squadron and elements of a fighter wing to Italy,” for example, should help counter rising Russian threats to U.S. aircrews and sailors in the Mediterranean. But Trump’s punitive explanation for this plan is patently absurd.