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Fewer US troops are needed in Europe no matter the president

Fewer US troops are needed in Europe no matter the president
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Happy days are here again for transatlantic relations, it seems. European leaders were quick to welcome the U.S. election results. In Washington, foreign policy professionals are already organizing symposia on how a Biden administration can thrust the U.S. back into Europe, which they view as neglected or worse by the Trump administration. There is an eagerness to propel transatlantic relations back to where they were before Trump. However, there are mistaken beliefs about how much the relationship has truly changed in the last four years.

It is important, first, to distinguish between what Trump said and what his administration actually did. The outgoing president was — to use a charitable term — prickly with many European leaders. He was unnecessarily hostile at times if reports about what he said behind closed doors are believed. President-elect Biden will strike a less strident tone, which is good as a matter of diplomatic etiquette.

But it is infantilizing to think U.S. allies were overawed by hectoring alone. While Trump’s attitude has drawn much attention, it was rare that his words translated into sustained ideas; rarer still that those ideas become actionable policy, and rarest of all when policies were fully implemented. At their first meeting, Trump reportedly told German chancellor Angela Merkel that he was owed a trillion dollars in delinquent payments for NATO. That, like much else, came to naught. All the while, the transatlantic relationship's structural conditions, and particularly of NATO, stayed pretty much where they have been for a decade or more — long overdue for a reassessment. 

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In September, more than 63,800 active-duty U.S. troops were stationed in Europe, according to the Department of Defense. That is several hundred more than four years earlier, in September 2016. When you add in reserve service members and civilian defense personnel, the U.S. presence on the continent this year eclipses 80,000. 

The White House announced in July that 6,400 troops, around a tenth of the active-duty total, would be coming home from Germany, while a few thousand more would be redeployed within Europe. Some would head further east, nearer to the border with Russia. The plan is a minor reshuffling if that. Some of the forces ostensibly coming home would be returning to Europe, only on a rotational rather than a permanent basis. It is an impressive imagination that can construe such a self-defeating adjustment as “abandoning” European allies.

In fact, U.S. policy under Trump has continued to err on the side of overinvestment in European security beyond what is needed or wise. In addition to the U.S. troops stationed in Europe, NATO is expanding with Washington’s blessing, and in ways that increasingly invite blowback. Temporary U.S. troop deployments remain scattered across the continent, including 500 military personnel currently in Lithuania through mid-2021. In late August, U.S. B-52 bombers overflew all 30 NATO members in a single day in a ceremonial show of force. 

The Biden administration has an opportunity to fix the U.S. overinvestment error in Europe and strengthen the alliance in its core mission. Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, Europe is secure, many U.S. allies are wealthy, and threats are limited. Two-thirds of NATO members do not yet spend the 2 percent of GDP on defense that members agreed to do by 2024. The European allies’ current combined defense spending is considerable — $281 billion in 2019, compared with Russia’s $65 billion.

If European countries still feel concerned about their security, they can spend more. Sweden, which is not a NATO member, is doing precisely that, planning to increase its defense spending by 40 percent over the next four years. Wealthy European NATO allies can follow suit. 

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Russia remains the largest threat on the continent, but it is a weak and diminishing power. The Russian economy is sclerotic and struggling amid sustained low oil prices. The coronavirus has exacted a heavy toll on the population, too. Reports are the Kremlin is considering cutting its defense budget next year to spend instead on social support ahead of the 2021 Duma elections, which may see large protests against the Kremlin.

Moscow’s current woes reinforce what has long been true: Russia poses no threat of large-scale territorial expansion across Europe. No other country does either. No hegemon is ascendant in northwest Eurasia, and that is due in no small part to NATO. Sustaining that achievement should remain its singular focus. Inventing new tasks for the alliance far afield muddies its commitment to this core objective. It often seems, in part, an underhanded attempt to justify the unnecessarily large U.S. troop presence currently on the continent.

Trump’s temperament toward Europe was often caustic, as well as counterproductive. Biden’s temperament is the opposite. Neither changes the reality the incoming administration should recognize: fewer U.S. troops are needed in Europe to sustain the core NATO objective.

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