While speaking to the Washington Post’s editorial staff, Donald Trump repeated his intention to make Germany and other countries pay more for the troops America stations on their territory. Even though he said that NATO is a good concept and that the U.S. should remain in the alliance, he criticized Europeans for not doing more. He elaborated:
Now, I would go in and I would structure a much different deal with them, and it would be a much better deal. When you look at the kind of money that our country is losing, we can’t afford to do this… We’re protecting Europe, but we’re spending a lot of money. Number one, I think the distribution of costs has to be changed… I’m not even knocking it. I’m just saying I don’t think it’s fair.
When asked if these bases serve other American national interests, Trump answered, “Personally, I don’t think so.”
Many others have rightly said Europe should have a more effective military force, especially after the French, British, and German air forces had difficulties in Libya and Syria. Americans should also consider what kind of force the U.S. needs in Europe. However, Trump wrongly implies that U.S. bases in Germany and other European countries do not serve any national interests, and he may even be wrong to imply that America has troops in Germany primarily to defend Europe.
Decades ago Americans could easily explain their presence in Europe by citing the need to deter the Soviet Union. In response to the Cold War’s end, though, America’s troop deployments in Europe declined sharply from 213,000 in 1990 to 67,000 in 2015. At least some of these troops are deployed to defend allies and deter Russia, and America can have a European presence for multiple reasons, whether for deterrence, power projection, or otherwise. However, the rhetoric that most of these remaining forces are there primarily or only to defend Europe, or that they are sufficient to defend NATO countries, is becoming harder to believe. For instance, a RAND Corporation study published in February found that, without more NATO troops, the Russian military could reach the capitals of Estonia and Latvia within 3 days.
If America wishes only to defend Europe, there are perhaps better, cheaper ways. Prepositioned weapons and equipment allow the U.S. to quickly fly in troops who could then “fall in” the gear and begin operating without waiting for shipments to cross the Atlantic. Such deterrence should not provoke a significant Russian response or cost American taxpayers as much as permanent troop deployments.
Even if America has a military presence in Europe only to defend NATO allies, Germany should be skeptical about paying more for this defense. Not only may the troop levels be insufficient, but there should be considerable doubt over a President Trump’s willingness to defend Europe if shots are fired. Should Trump threaten Germany into accepting an excessive deal, kicking out the Americans—as Charles de Gaulle did in 1966—would be the wiser choice. Instead of spending more on American troops who may not be willing to defend Europeans, Germany could spend resources on German troops who have more skin in the game. Or Germany could focus on what it perceives as real threats, which may not match American perceptions.
The United States would suffer from abandoning its German and other European bases because America would lose its flexibility to respond affordably to global threats. While serving as Commander of the U.S. European Command (EUCOM) in 2013, Admiral James Stavridis explained that America’s European presence gives the U.S. “the strategic agility and responsiveness to deal rapidly with 21st century crises and complex contingencies in an environment of unforgiving speed.” He also described Europe as an unsinkable aircraft carrier that allows America to project force into various theaters, including Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Moreover, the Heritage Foundation’s 2015 Index of U.S. Military Strength argued that without forward bases in Europe some U.S. operations would be more expensive and slower.
Whether using European air bases to airlift equipment into critical regions or launch aerial refueling missions, ports to sealift supplies for various regions or supply ships operating in the Mediterranean, or other bases to keep forward-deployed special operation forces and other troops closer to potential threats—these bases give the United States superb capabilities to protect its national interests.
These facilities benefit America’s national interests more than they benefit Germany’s defense. Threatening to shut bases down because Germany and others do not pay for them would be shortsighted and could limit America’s ability to project power in ways Trump may not expect. Without bases in Europe, a President Trump may discover he cannot fulfill his stated intention to bomb the fecal-matter out of ISIS without incurring significant logistical costs. (As the adage goes, “Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.”)
There are alternatives to having bases in Europe. Instead of having forward air bases, the U.S. could build several more aircraft carriers. These ships, however, are expensive and vulnerable. Building the USS Gerald R. Ford cost around $13 billion, and operating a carrier strike group can cost $6.5 million a day. Yet if anti-access area denial (A2/AD) weapons become more sophisticated and widespread as the “technology gap” narrows, the Navy may have difficulty moving ships into operational range before anti-ship missiles sink the carrier.
Donald Trump may be obsessed about getting America a better deal on all fronts, but his misanalysis of U.S. bases in Europe ignores how our current deal with countries like Germany serve our national interest. Instead of being too expensive, these bases are in fact a much more cost-effective way to defend America’s interests than the alternatives.
Mark Melton is the Deputy Editor for Providence. He earned his Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews.
Photo Credit: In August 2015 at Aviano Air Base in Italy, airmen from the 436th Airlift Wing and 724th Air Mobility Squadron load cargo onto a C-5 Super Galaxy in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. operation to attack Islamic State (ISIS). U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Deana Heitzman.