On June 5, media revealed that United States President Donald Trump was ordering the number of US troops in Germany to be reduced by 9,500, some of whom might be redeployed to Poland. Even though the decision was widely commented on and even criticized by both experts and politicians, Trump did not make an official statement on the issue until June 15, when he declared that he will “bring down the soldier count to 25,000 soldiers” (Whitehouse.gov, June 15). While answering journalist’s question, he stated that Germany “is very delinquent in their payments to NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization]” and does not pay for the US’s “protection.” On June 24, during a joint press conference with the visiting Polish President Andrzej Duda, Trump confirmed that some of the troops will be redeployed to Poland (Facebook.com/whitehouse, June 24). The details of this withdrawal remain unknown. Furthermore, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg even suggested that the withdrawal itself is still uncertain since “it’s not yet decided how and when this decision will be implemented” (Nato.int, June 16). Nonetheless, the US President’s statement—even if speculative—has a serious impact on regional security and is of deep concern to the countries on NATO’s eastern flank.
German-US relations have been almost uniformly tense under Trump, who frequently accuses Germany of financing Russia’s military potential via natural gas purchases and berates it for failing to meet the North Atlantic Alliance’s minimum target for defense expenditure at the level of 2 percent of GDP—as decided at the Wales Summit in 2014. This condition is presently being met by only six NATO allies (Nato.int, November 29, 2019). Most recently, bilateral relations were roiled by intra-German debates about the country’s participation in the nuclear-sharing program (Osw.waw.pl, May 13), resulting in some US dissatisfaction (De.usembassy.gov, May 14). Adding to the tension has been German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refusal of President Trump’s invitation to attend an in-person G7 summit in or around Washington, DC, that would have happened in June, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, May 30).
Yet, President Trump’s narrative seems to be inconsequential and incomprehensive for the vast majority of Germans. It is quite unclear from whom Germany is being protected by the US since German society does not perceive Russia as “a continuous external threat to Europe” (Iri.org, August 2017). Moreover, 60 percent of Germans say “that if Russia got into a serious military conflict with one of its neighboring countries that is a NATO ally, their country should not use military force to defend that country,” and only 15 percent “think US military bases in Germany are very important for their country’s national security” (37 percent say somewhat important; 30 percent not too important; 15 percent not important at all) (Pewresearch.org, March 9, 2020). Additionally, considering Berlin’s defiant stance on the further development of the Nord Stream Two gas pipeline with Russian Gazprom, it is difficult to convince Germans that they need US protection from Russia. Thus, President Trump’s declaration on the drawdown in Germany affects NATO’s eastern flank significantly more than Germany itself, since the latter serves as a hinterland and as strategic depth for the eastern frontline states.
Unlike US ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher’s, floated proposal regarding the potential relocation of US nuclear weapons to Poland (see EDM, May 29), which Polish officials strategically left without any resounding comment, the news of Trump’s apparent decision regarding pulling troops out of Germany became a topic of intense commentary in Warsaw. The Polish authorities are well aware of the strategic importance of German transport and basing infrastructure for NATO’s deterrence, including when it comes to troop mobility and the rapid deployment of US forces into the region. Nonetheless, the government’s initial response was contradictory. A day after the first media leaks, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stated that he hoped some of the troops leaving Germany would be relocated to Poland, which would only strengthen his country’s security considering the main threats originate from the East (RMF FM, June 6). However, Morawiecki’s remarks were quickly though gently corrected by both the ministers of foreign affairs and defense.
Even though, Poland seeks permanent and enhanced US military presence on its territory, it does not want these troops to arrive as a result of intra-European redeployments or personnel cuts in other countries. Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz repeats this stance frequently (Polskie Radio, July 27 2018; Rzeczpospolita, August 19, 2019) and emphasized it once again during the most recent meeting with his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, which took place on June 16 (Polskie Radio, June 16). Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Błaszczak has been quite cautious in his comments on the relocation of US troops from Germany to Poland. Błaszczak said that additional deployments of US troops to Poland had already been declared, though it is the US authorities’ sovereign decision from where those soldiers will be sent (Radio Gdańsk, June 8). President Duda commented on the issue in a similar manner. During his visit to the White House, he strongly and suggestively emphasized that Europe, as a whole, needs strong US engagement. He also told journalists that he specifically asked President Trump, in the corridor, not to withdraw any troops from Europe (Whitehouse.gov, June 15).
In Poland, the discussion about the possible withdrawal of US troops from Germany is strongly related to additional US military deployments to Poland (so-called “Fort Trump” as jokingly referred to by President Duda) and further engagement in the region. Moreover, historical experience makes Poland extraordinarily suspicious of the reliability of all foreign security guarantees and military alliances, even though this position is never officially expressed. Thus, any event like the potential withdrawal of US troops from Germany, the adoption by the United States of a “one-war strategy,” or a pivot to Asia is carefully observed and analyzed in Warsaw. Additionally, the current government’s lopsidedly pro-American policy (in Poland, described as the “Atlantic” option; as opposed to a more balanced US-European stance) is often criticized by representatives of the opposition for being too costly and risky (Facebook.com/radeksikorski, June 18). Therefore, any decision or media revelation of this kind may undermine US reliability in the eyes of at least a portion of Polish society as well as among local experts.