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Trump’s Troop Plan Stuns Germany and Rocks Postwar Order

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 6/8/2020 Angela Cullen and Arne Delfs
a man in a military vehicle on a dirt field: US soldiers wait prior an artillery live fire event by the US Army Europe's 41st Field Artillery Brigade at the military training area in Grafenwoehr, southern Germany, on March 4, 2020. © Photographer: CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP US soldiers wait prior an artillery live fire event by the US Army Europe's 41st Field Artillery Brigade at the military training area in Grafenwoehr, southern Germany, on March 4, 2020.

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s directive to pull 9,500 troops from Germany hits home hard for friends of America like Edgar Knobloch, whose Bavarian town has been home to U.S. service members for seven decades.

Like Chancellor Angela Merkel, the mayor of Grafenwoehr was caught off guard by the latest sign of the U.S.’s deteriorating ties with a loyal ally.

This medieval town, with a tiny population dwarfed by the size of the American military presence, shows just what a shadow the U.S. has cast over Europe after World War II and what its retreat symbolizes in the eyes of locals and international observers. Another troop cut would signal a further break with a legacy of two generations.

Located near the former East German border, Grafenwoehr is a place where overseas U.S. military infrastructure and community bonds survived the end of the Cold War. Locals celebrate Thanksgiving and enjoy spare ribs. Every year, they turn out by the thousands for the German-American Folk Festival to share beer, bratwurst and country music with the roughly 11,000 U.S. troops based at NATO’s biggest training area in Europe.

“They’re completely integrated here,” Knobloch, 55, said in an interview. “Restaurants are bilingual. There are mixed marriages, mixed families. You often hear from the older members of the community: ‘The Americans liberated us.’”

There hasn’t been much nostalgia between Trump and Merkel, who have clashed repeatedly over trade and Germany’s slow timetable for meeting the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s defense spending target. Last month, Merkel snubbed Trump on his plan to hold an in-person Group of Seven summit in June which he’d like Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend.

U.S.-German relations have become “complicated,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, in the first comment by a government official about the planned troop withdrawal. As of Sunday, the government still hadn’t received any official communication from the U.S. “Should there be a partial withdrawal of U.S. troops, we will take note of it,” Maas told the tabloid Bild am Sonntag.

While Trump has taken aim at Germany’s economic might, Merkel — the longest-serving G-7 leader after 15 years in power — has stared him down across a broad front, from defending the rules-based global economy to policy disputes such as defense spending and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline carrying Russian gas to Germany.

A physicist by training, Merkel also contrasted with Trump in her science-based approach to reopening Germany from its coronavirus lockdown.

Read more: Merkel’s Frankness and Clarity Beats Trump’s Virus Bluster

Lawmakers and government officials in Berlin criticized Trump’s troop decision, which would cut U.S. forces in Germany by slightly more than a quarter, as a snub. It’s potentially damaging for perceptions of NATO and its role in maintaining global security, according to Roderich Kiesewetter, foreign policy spokesman for Merkel’s parliamentary caucus.

“Keeping NATO together seems less important to Trump than was the case under” his predecessor Barack Obama, Kiesewetter said Monday in an interview with Deutschlandfunk radio, adding that “it’s not justifiable because he’s also hurting the U.S.” Most U.S. troops in Europe are stationed in Germany.

“We’re not vassals, and these things should be discussed on a equal footing within NATO,” he said. “It’s clear that election campaigning or the deep trouble he’s in is more important to him than keeping the alliance together.”

Read more: The Moment Merkel Realized Trump Changes Everything for Germany

Trump’s decision and the way it was communicated demonstrate how much Germany’s relations have cooled with a U.S. president who has publicly questioned NATO’s value.

Green party lawmaker Tobias Lindner evoked Trump’s appearances at NATO summits, where has he berated U.S. allies to step up defense spending and called Germany “a captive to Russia” for refusing to halt the Nord Stream 2 project.

“Somebody who acts in this way can’t show up in Brussels with the attitude of reminding alliance partners of their duties,” Lindner said.

Even so, a U.S. troop reduction may make military sense, since Germany nowadays serves mostly as a hub for U.S. operations in other parts of the world such as the Middle East and North, said a German government official who asked not to be named because the decision hasn’t been publicly announced. Other key U.S. installations in Germany include Ramstein Air Base and the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center hospital.

During the heyday of post-World War II relations, U.S. troops were welcomed in West Germany as liberators from the Nazis and a bulwark against a Soviet invasion. Older Germans remember when Elvis Presley was stationed as a G.I. in 1958-60 at Friedberg, north of Frankfurt. To the delight of young German women, he even recorded a song in broken German about his time there. The Army closed the post in 2007.

Important Partner

Attitudes shifted in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when NATO’s decision to base U.S. Pershing II’s in Germany to counter Soviet ballistic missiles triggered mass protests in West Germany. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, some German politicians have called for the removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from German soil.

Ties forged over decades by American service members who rotated through Germany have left their mark in the U.S., too. While 85% of Americans view U.S. military bases in Germany as important for U.S. national security, only 52% of Germans say the bases are important for their own national security, according to a poll by Pew Research and the Koerber Foundation published in November.

Yet Germans are more likely to view the U.S. as an important partner than Americans are likely to view Germany as one, according to the poll.

Reports that Trump is considering further cuts and a possible troop shift to Poland have surfaced for at least two years. Meanwhile, U.S. troop strength in Germany has dwindled to about 34,500 from a peak of 274,000 during the 1960s.

“Such a pullout would be regrettable in every way,” Norbert Roettgen, a Merkel ally who heads the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said in an interview with Funke Media Group. “I can’t see any rational reason for the withdrawal.”

‘Great Pity’

As in previous rounds of cuts, German regions where troops are stationed would take an economic hit. About half of U.S. troops are stationed in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, which borders France, Belgium and Luxembourg.

“This affects not only 9,500 troops, but also their families, which means about 20,000 Americans in total,” Peter Beyer, the government’s coordinator for trans-Atlantic relations, told the DPA newswire. He said he fears lasting damage to U.S.-German ties.

At Grafenwoehr, Mayor Knobloch says American service members are so much a part of local society that they immediately abided by Bavaria’s measures against the coronavirus pandemic. He’s betting the U.S. won’t ditch Grafenwoehr, in part because the Army has invested in the facility in recent years.

“It would be a great pity if it came to that,” the mayor said. “In Grafenwoehr, you can really see how understanding among nations functions in daily life.”

(Updates with CDU/CSU foreign policy spokesman from 10th paragraph)

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