July 29, 2020

European Unilateralism: Will Germany Steer Towards Military Autonomy in Europe as Trump Plans to Withdraw U.S. Troops?

By Kenny Pearce

Germany has been given the final ultimatum to increase its European and global military presence after a unilateral decision taken by the Trump administration to withdraw 9,500 U.S. troops from the 34,000 stationed in Germany has been planned for the near future. This decision taken by the U.S. stems from years of frustration from Washington’s beliefs that major European states were not contributing enough toward global defence and security. Germany began their turn to host the 6-month rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU on 1 July, and although it will be largely focused on providing a post-pandemic response to kickstart the economy of European states, they will also have to fill the void of the retracting U.S. security influence in Europe.

Reasons behind US withdrawal

This decision has stemmed from a build-up of criticism by Washington towards major European allies not contributing their full 2% of GDP towards defence expenditure to support the NATO alliance. Before Trump, President Obama criticized European countries for their low defence spending contributions to NATO, labelling them ‘complacent’ as a response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the rise of Islamic terrorism. Since then, the onus has fallen on President Trump to pressure Germany into increasing its military responsibility in Europe and around the world.

The US has become increasingly more rejective of their self-proclaimed role as the global hegemon, building an ‘America first’ attitude which has seen the Trump administration pull the US from international agreements such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Agreement, as well as turning their back on global institutions they helped to build. The tense relations between Washington and Berlin have been highlighted by a debt that Germany ‘owes’ to the U.S. every time they do not reach the 2% target. NATO statistics show that only 9 countries reached the 2% target in 2019, with Germany contributing 1.38%. The conflict caused from this has led to a reform of the NATO common funding from 2021-2024, increasing the cost shares of European states and Canada whilst decreasing the share of the United States from 22% to 16%, equaling Germany’s amount.

As of March 2020, only Japan hosts more U.S. troops abroad than Germany, according to the Defense Manpower Data Centre. The decision to withdraw the 9,500 will reduce Germany to 25,000 troops, making them the third-highest country in the world to host U.S. troops, below South Korea. The reliance of U.S. military presence in allied countries is something that the Trump administration is determined to change and in recent years something that Germany has begun to realize.

Germany forced to move away from a global multilateral defence policy

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) stated that every region in the world increased its military expenditure from 2018-2019, globally contributing to the highest level of annual increase since 2010. However, it was Germany who had the highest year-on-year increase in the world at 10%, projecting a rise that will overtake Europe’s biggest military spender, France, in years to come. Holding a joint press conference with President Macron on 29 June, Merkel suggested that Germany would have to reflect ‘very deeply’ on their reliance on U.S. support should they withdraw from its role as a world power. Germany, acting as the European economic superpower, will have to bear the responsibility of making up for the void the U.S. will leave behind by taking a new autonomous approach to defence and security that will incorporate the whole of the EU.

The need for Germany and the rest of Europe to act independently and unilaterally from the US is a possibility that needs assessing. Germany’s defence minister Kramp-Karrenbauer stated that Europe is still dependent on the U.S. and NATO for military assistance when addressing the EU parliament on 14 July. Germany’s position as President of the EU Council gives them a chance to push for an integrated defence system which incorporates EU countries to have a military that can defend the external borders of the union. The European Defence Fund (EDF) which was revised on 27 May has allocated €8 billion from its next budget, down from €13 billion. This fund will be the first time the EU budget will contribute to a collective EU defence system, encouraging the ‘strategic autonomy’ of the EU through joint research collaborations.

SIPRI states that total defence expenditure as a percentage of the EU27 GDP is currently at 1.4%, with Bulgaria contributing the highest percentage of their GDP at 3.5% and Germany contributing the 15th highest at 1.3%. However, by 2031 Merkel believes that the 2% mark will be ‘realistic but ambitious’ for Germany as they look to respond to the criticism they’ve received for the last decade. With a retracting US military presence, Germany will have to increase its own in Europe, being the biggest economic power in the region and look to take responsibility for creating an autonomous EU defence system.

Germany has been reluctant to break away from its multilateral approach to defence and security, creating investment shortfalls in their military. The 2016 ‘White Paper on German Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr’ states their desire to maintain the cooperation between the EU and NATO as a way of maintaining sovereignty for all EU countries. However, the decision by Trump to withdraw U.S. troops has strained the relationship between Washington and Berlin, leading to a future where the EU is likely to become more reliant on a further integrated Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). Germany is the central state to the EU and will be tasked with leading the way in increasing greater defence autonomy, something they once greatly rejected.


Defence Manpower Data Centre (2020) ‘Military and Civilian Personnel by Service/Agency by State/Country’. Available at: https://www.dmdc.osd.mil/appj/dwp/rest/download?fileName=DMDC_Website_Location_Report_2003.xlsx&groupName=milRegionCountry [Accessed 23 July 2020]

Ellyatt, H. (2020) ‘America’s relationship with Germany may never be the same again, Berlin warns’ CNBC (29 June 2020). Available at: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/29/us-germany-relations-decline-over-g7-nord-stream-2-defense-spend.html [Accessed 23 July 2020)

European Commission (2020) ‘The EU budget powering the recovery plan for Europe’ Available at:

https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/about_the_european_commission/eu_budget/1_en_act_part1_v9.pdf [Accessed 23 July 2020]

German Federal Government (2016) ‘White Paper on German Security Policy and the future of the Bundeswehr’. Available at: https://issat.dcaf.ch/download/111704/2027268/2016%20White%20Paper.pdf [Accessed 24 July 2020]

NATO (2019) ‘Defence Expenditure of NATO Countries (2013-2019)’ Available at: https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/pdf_2019_11/20191129_pr-2019-123-en.pdf [Accessed 23 July 2020]

O’Hanlon, M. (2020) ‘Why cutting American forces in Germany will harm this alliance’ Brookings Institution (15 June 2020) Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/06/15/why-cutting-american-forces-in-germany-will-harm-this-alliance/ [Accessed 23 July 2020)

Stern. J, Lantier, A. (2020) ‘Merkel, Macron promote EU militarism amid growing conflicts with Washington’ World Socialist Web Site (30 June 2020). Available at: https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2020/06/30/mese-j30.html [Accessed 22 July 2020]

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (2020) ‘Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2019’. Available at: https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2020-04/fs_2020_04_milex_0.pdf [Accessed 23 July 2020]

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