According to officials in the German government, the reduction of U.S. troops won’t have grave consequences for Germany’s security. But the symbolic damage to the German-American relationship, which has already been battered under Trump, is severe. Since the end of the Second World War, the presence of U.S. soldiers in Germany has been an important symbol of the closeness between the two countries.
It’s unclear when exactly the decision to withdraw was made. Some signs suggest the decisive date was in early June, when Grenell had his official farewell visit as ambassador with President Trump in the White House. Grenell posted an Instagram photo of the Oval Office showing him with O’Brien, the national security advisor, as well as with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. High-ranking German and American government representatives describe what happened in the ensuing days as a perfect storm.
Grenell was only able to withstand two years in Germany before announcing his resignation as ambassador. From the beginning, he had an arm’s length relationship with the country. While most post-war U.S. ambassadors to Germany maintain excellent relationships with officials at even the highest levels of German politics, Grenell remained isolated. No wonder: He issued directives to German business leaders on Twitter, berated the German government for its defense expenditures and ranted to the right-wing U.S. media about the chancellor’s refugee policies. Soon, he was a pariah in Berlin’s political circles. Even Merkel steered clear of the diplomat.
In summer of 2019, Grenell threatened to withdraw U.S. troops if the German government didn’t accede to American calls to raise the defense budget to 2 percent of gross national product (GNP), as NATO members had pledged to do by 2024. “It is really insulting to expect that the U.S. taxpayer will continue to pay for more than 50,000 Americans in Germany, but the Germans use their trade surplus for domestic purposes,” Grenell said. Officials in Berlin were shocked by the tone.
At the time, Trump was also considering reducing the contingent of U.S. troops. His reasoning, as is so often the case, was simple. Despite the NATO agreement, he believed Germany’s defense budget was still too low. He argued that Germany was profiting security-wise from the U.S. presence in the country, despite being unwilling to pay for the costs.
Trump backed away from the plan, apparently partly because the proposal didn’t get a very positive reaction from Republicans in Congress or at the Department of Defense.
But Grenell never allowed himself to be dissuaded from punishing the Germans for their inaction. Although his own people had repeatedly tried to explain to him that the American troops in the country only served to protect Germany to a small degree, if at all, the ambassador refused to change his mind.
Now the gleeful comments about his departure may have once again set off Grenell’s disdain. He could have ignored the remarks, but that’s not his style, given that his curt tone is paired with an enormous personal sensitivity. This led to a Twitter war that even came to involve Trump’s son. In a tweet, Grenell responded to Nick, the CDU lawmaker, by arguing that it is his duty to represent the interests of the U.S. — in response to which Donald Trump Jr. paraphrased Grenell, “Pay your NATO bill.”
Then a new source of irritation in the White House gave Grenell a unique opportunity to implement his plan of revenge. Trump was annoyed that Merkel ruined his plan to hold a G-7 Summit in Washington. Trump wanted the meeting to take place there in June to send the message that the U.S., and the rest of the world, had overcome the COVID-19 crisis. Merkel had her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, state that the time had not yet come for such a meeting. Trump saw this as an insult. “There was some disappointment that the meeting could not take place immediately,” Grenell told Germany’s Bild tabloid. “We will certainly not have a G-7 summit without the Germans.”
In early June, when the first rumors that the president had told Defense Secretary Mark Esper to drastically reduce the number of U.S. troops in Germany began making the rounds, it wasn’t just the German embassy that was taken by surprise. The State Department and parts of the National Security Council in the White House were also kept out of the loop. Congress, whose related committees should have been informed, were also not told.
For the entire weekend, the German government didn’t know what to make of Washington’s plans. Leading officials from the German Foreign Office and the Defense Ministry called their counterparts in Washington, but they couldn’t help and had to admit that their departments hadn’t been included in the White House’s decision-making.
Even now, the German government doesn’t have any strong connection to Donald Trump’s administration, so officials in Berlin decided to wait. They saw the fact that the planned troop withdrawal wasn’t being announced publicly by either the Pentagon or the White House as a reason for hope. But early last week, the German embassy in Washington received a phone call from O’Brien, the national security adviser himself, making it clear how serious the president was. The number of U.S. soldiers in Germany was to be limited to 25,000, and 9,500 soldiers were to be withdrawn soon.
But in practical terms, the punitive act will hurt the Germans less than it will hinder the U.S. military. “The withdrawal of U.S. troops wouldn’t present an immediate security risk for Germany,” says Sigmar Gabriel, who is now the head of the Atlantik-Brücke, an Atlanticist non-profit. “We are not a front-line state anymore,” he says. He argues that the U.S. would primarily hurt itself. U.S. military figures agreed: “The U.S. soldiers are not here to protect Germany, all of them only serve our aims,” says Ben Hodges, a former commanding general for the U.S. Army in Europe. For this reason, among others, he describes Trump’s withdrawal plans as a “colossal mistake.”
Germany has been one of the most important military hubs for the U.S. Army since the Second World War. Around 35,000 U.S. soldiers are stationed here, along with 12,000 American civilians who work for the troops.