Trump’s Defense Cuts in Europe Will Backfire

Rather than distributing military burdens equitably, Washington’s rollbacks weaken both the United States and its allies.

Twice this month, the Trump administration moved to walk back critical efforts to strengthen the U.S. military presence in Europe, choosing cheap political points over essential projects and sound policy. First, the White House announced it would cut more than $770 million worth of military construction efforts meant to restore combat capability in Europe and to deter further Russian aggression, in order to divert funds to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Second, the United States is hoping to cut a deal with Germany that on its face appears to increase German military spending and decrease the U.S. share of the military burden in Europe but, in reality, serves to weaken the German military while burdening the United States even further. In both cases, the loser is the United States.

As the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense in charge of Europe and NATO when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, I spent almost every waking moment pushing as much U.S. force structure back into Europe as I could to deter any further aggression by Russian President Vladimir Putin. I know firsthand how essential the projects in question are, and I know for a fact that eliminating them takes away tools the U.S. military needs in case of a conflict, including ammunition storage, runways for combat aircraft, facilities for special operations forces, prepositioned equipment to set up forward air bases, and reinforced shelters for combat aircraft. The projects being cut are not military bands or barber shops but tools of war that would be needed immediately in case of conflict. Deterrence is about not just showing intent to defend your allies, but having the ability to do so. These cuts take away that ability. The U.S. drawdown in Europe at the end of the Cold War helped embolden Putin to invade Georgia and Ukraine, as well as intimidate U.S. allies in the Nordic and Baltic regions. To deter further Russian adventurism in this great power competition, the United States’ ability to respond alongside NATO needs to be restored, and quickly.

In addition to providing funds for the wall, the cuts are likely meant to punish U.S. allies for falling short in their NATO pledges to increase defense spending. From the beginning of his presidential campaign, U.S. President Donald Trump has maintained that Europeans should pick up more of the tab for Europe’s defenses. In the United States, the need for European allies need to spend more on defense is a long-established, mainstream, bipartisan position. But cutting military projects essential for U.S.—not European—combat capability only hurts the country’s ability to fight.

On top of the cuts, the administration is pushing for a bad deal with Germany that takes the wrong approach to the need for Berlin to spend more on defense. It will result in badly needed German defense euros going into an obscure NATO administrative fund, offsetting some of the U.S. share, rather than to the German military, which is desperate for more funding to keep its ships at sea and planes in the air. The measure allows the United States to claim a burden-sharing victory over Germany, without inducing Berlin to spend money where it is really needed: on the German military.

All NATO members contribute a certain percentage of the alliance’s common funds ($2.6 billion total in 2019), which is used to pay the costs of running the organization, as well as to build infrastructure in allied countries that NATO forces may need. Each country’s percentage contribution is based on its GDP and is periodically renegotiated. The U.S. percentage is 22.1 and the German percentage is 14.8. Trump’s deal has Germany increase its cut to 15.9 and the United States drop its contribution to the new German amount. This enables the Trump administration to say that it is squeezing the Germans on military spending and saving U.S. dollars at the same time. The Germans are able to say they are doing more on burden-sharing but at a lower cost than what they should be doing, which is to spend much more on the German military—not on covering NATO administrative costs.

The United States has long held that Germany doesn’t spend enough on defense. That issue has been in the talking points of every administration since the end of the Cold War. But the U.S. drive to get a quick victory against Germany by having that country increase its contribution to NATO common funds while reducing the U.S. contribution misses the point and makes the German situation worse. Getting Germany to spend more on NATO electricity bills and less on its own fighting force is a senseless victory.

Under Trump, the United States is willing to undercut its own goals if that means a slap to Europe. Great power competition with Russia in Europe is real, and the United States and its allies are way behind repairing the damage wrought by almost 30 years of benign neglect. The money taken from U.S. military construction in Europe takes weapons out of the hands of the U.S. military where it is needed most. And claiming a largely symbolic victory over Germany by having it move money away from its military and into a NATO administrative account only weakens the ability of the Germans to fight alongside the United States. A weaker German military only shifts more of the burden to the United States—the very thing Trump is trying to prevent.