- The Trump administration's plans to withdraw thousands of troops from Germany and move them elsewhere in Europe and back to the United States triggered backlashes at home and abroad.
- Trump is not the first U.S. leader to reduce the U.S. contribution to European defense, but he hasn't addressed a more consistent part of that commitment, writes Christopher Layne, professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University
- You can find more stories on the Business Insider homepage.
President Donald Trump wants to withdraw around 12,000 US troops from Germany. Berlin is "criminal" and should do more to bear the costs of stationing the troops there. He is hardly the first American politician to feel that Europeans are not paying their "fair share" of NATO's defense costs.
Although transatlantic burden-sharing tiffs are a hearty stake for NATO, Trump's troop withdrawal plan overlooks an even more important issue: risk sharing. This dates back to the Cold War, when NATO lacked enough conventional forces to ward off a Soviet attack. Therefore, NATO's strategy was based on America's "nuclear shield", which was based on the first use of nuclear weapons.
Today the Baltic States are the new dividing line between NATO and Russia. The alliance is unable to defend the Baltic States using conventional forces alone. The U.S. brigades that are now spinning through the Baltic States are trip wires that are supposed to trigger a nuclear reaction if Russia attacks – just like their Cold War colleagues in western Germany.
During the Cold War, NATO underwent numerous strategic distortions to support the incredible idea that the United States would risk a nuclear war – the devastation of its American homeland – to defend Europe.
US politicians don't like to meet with Americans about the true nature of this nation's NATO engagement. But in 1979, Henry Kissinger revealed the dirty little secret: NATO is a one-way suicide pact. As he said: "Do not keep asking us Europeans to multiply assurances that we cannot possibly mean and that if we mean that we should not want to execute and what if we execute would destroy our civilization?"
It is time to revise the US role in NATO by shifting the risks and costs of defending the continent to Europeans. This was the vision of America's leading great strategic architects after World War II.
George F. Kennan (author of the containment doctrine) argued that the US should restore a balance of power so that other states could take the burden of containment off America's shoulders. John Foster Dulles – Secretary of State in the Eisenhower government – said: "We want Europe to stand on its own two feet."
However, their successors were caught in a paradox: they want Europe to do more, but they also fear that Europe is doing too much and that Washington is no longer subject to it. This is America's European dilemma.
In his 1966 book "The Troubled Partnership" Kissinger made two important points. First, the United States could benefit greatly from a united Europe. Second, America would pay a price for a united Europe.
Europe, he said, would "not be satisfied with a subordinate role if it had the means to implement its own views. Europe's main incentive to play a larger cooperative role in Western affairs would be to fulfill its own specific objectives. "
The collapse of the Soviet Union removed NATO's strategic glue. Putin's Russia is angry. It's not the big red cold war machine. At the same time, there are many topics – Iran, Middle East, trade, to name just a few – on which the interests of the United States and Europe differ widely. These differences are exacerbated by the power gap between America and Europe. If this imbalance persists, the frayed ties of the alliance can tear completely – with sharpness on both sides of the Atlantic.
When Donald Trump was elected, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Europe could no longer rely on the United States' commitment to its defense. Other European leaders and defense analysts agreed. Proposals for equipping Europe with an independent defense capability – including a nuclear-armed Germany – have been made.
Nobody has come close to achieving it, although French President Emmanuel Macron continues to press for the "strategic autonomy" of Europe. However, one can say with certainty that this idea will wane. As much as Europe rejects its dependence on the United States, it fears that America will do less if it does more for its own defense.
Ironically, as Dulles perceived, the policies of the Truman government in the late 1940s suppressed European unity and independence.
He noted that the Marshall Plan and NATO were "the two things that prevented a unity in Europe that could be more valuable than both in the long run." The unintended consequence was that both prevented Europe from taking the hard steps towards political unity and becoming strategically self-sufficient.
The US should break the Gordian knot by announcing the gradual withdrawal of its role as a European security guarantor. A transatlantic relationship that is no longer shaped by American dominance and European guardianship – and is cut off from the bad feelings that European dependence creates on both sides of the Atlantic – is becoming healthier and more mature.
A militarily autonomous Europe is in America's interest: it would end the dangerous strategy of "extended deterrence" to threaten nuclear war – suicide to be clear – to ward off attacks on European NATO members. Resolve America's complaints about burden sharing; and allow the United States to reduce its inflated defense budget. Trump's withdrawal of troops should trigger a wide-ranging debate about deferring US-Europe relations.
Christopher Layne is a university professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University.