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Troop reduction in Germany should spark a conversation about NATO’s future

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During the early days of the Cold War, President Truman’s secretary of state Dean Acheson quipped that information presented to the U.S. public about foreign affairs should be “clearer than the truth.” In other words, embellishing threats was encouraged, as long as it drove home an intended policy point in Americans’ minds. The result was damaging enough at the time, cutting off more nuanced policy options from consideration and chipping away at the public’s trust in government. But rather than abandoning Acheson’s reckless dictum, many commentators on transatlantic security today take it further still. Their arguments are not clearer than truth, they’re clear of it — falling well apart from an accurate appraisal of the situation.

Take the recent news that Washington intends to remove some 9,500 U.S. troops from Germany. The relatively minor reduction, with the open possibility that some personnel would stay in Europe but move to Poland, was nonetheless met with hysteria by a noticeable portion of the commentariat. The decision was assessed as a “colossal” and “disastrous mistake.” It would surely trigger a response by Moscow. A former head of the U.S. Army in Europe warned that it could lead to Russian incursions into Romania and the Baltic states, and potentially even to Moscow threatening the use of nuclear weapons.

All of this is Achesonian exaggeration at its worst. European NATO allies — that is, all NATO members except the United States and Canada — have 1.8 million active military personnel among them, twice as many as Russia. Military spending by European NATO members last year was four times that of Russia, according to figures tracked by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The idea that fewer than ten thousand U.S. troops are critical in deterring the Kremlin is nonsense.

Yes, European governments need to take more responsibility for their own defense. But even with current troop numbers and capabilities alone, absent any U.S. forces on the continent, European NATO members would nonetheless be a powerful deterrent against Kremlin aggression. Why would Russia launch an incursion on a NATO member for a few more tentative acres of land, risking a response from such a large force? Not to mention the response from U.S. forces based in the states. 

While too many commentators propagate the idea of a NATO rendered fragile and impuissant in the time of President Trump, the reality is quite different. NATO remains an assertive, even provocative powerhouse. Earlier this month 19 allies held wargames on Russia’s doorstep in the Baltic sea. The training missions included two B-52H Stratofortresses out of North Dakota flying over Estonia and Latvia. While the wargames are irksome to an already strained Washington-Moscow relationship, the long-range strategic bomber missions do also show how the United States can back European allies quite powerfully enough from stateside bases alone.   

Also this month, NATO upgraded its relations with Ukraine, recognizing Kyiv as an Enhanced Opportunities Partner. Ukraine joins Finland, Georgia, and Sweden — and further afield Jordan and Australia—in this group. The newest full NATO member, North Macedonia, joined just this year. Ukraine and Georgia may be next. In all, these changes reveal that NATO continues to roll its influence eastward, offering up membership or quasi-membership to states of no real strategic importance to U.S. security. This risks provoking Russia, which largely views NATO expansion as an excuse to station U.S. troops close to Russia’s border.

The colossal mistake, then, is not that NATO will be hobbled by the possible exit of a few thousand troops from Germany. It clearly won’t. Rather, the mistake is that policymakers and commentators seem unwilling or unable to accurately assess the alliance’s purpose in a world where its founding raison d’être — the Soviet Union — is no more.

The United States needs to have honest discussions about the future of NATO. If Washington wants better relations with Moscow, further NATO expansion is unwise for any legitimate concerns about strategic stability between the world’s two nuclear superpowers.

Most of all, U.S. discussions about NATO should not recoil at the question of whether or not U.S. troops are necessary in Europe, especially in current numbers. While there is and will continue to be disagreement on this issue, the differing opinions should, at minimum, start from an accurate assessment of the situation, from the truth. It does nothing to start from Achesonian exaggeration that spins woefully distorted notions about NATO’s utility. That much at least is clear.

John Richard Cookson is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He previously worked for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, CNN, and The National Interest.

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