Ask This General

Brigadier General Peter B. Zwack {Ret.}

The Trump administration’s decision to unilaterally withdraw additional military forces from Germany is short-sighted and unsettling. Why now? And why during these so unsteady times?

We’ve already drawn down so much in Europe and serious, unresolved threats clearly remain. Is this a carefully staffed policy decision or just planning by a small group of administration insiders?

Why so little pre-coordination with host nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or even our own military commands in Europe?

And why is the White House in such a hurry to get this done by September? Is this, in part, a personal jab toward Germany? These military drawdowns, often involving moving families and shutting bases, normally takes years … and some of you reading this have patiently lived through how wrenching they can be.

How does it get so often lost, that we derive great benefits in being cooperatively embedded in Germany and in Europe overall? Ever since VE-Day and the Marshall Plan, our steady presence in Europe has been the greatest form of realistic preemption versus dangerous potential outcomes that we’ve had on this planet beyond purely inflexible hard-power nukes. Besides providing deterrence toward potential adversaries, assurance for our allies and a platform and sanctuary for our forward deployed forces, they also help provide a significant mooring point business-wise with mainstream European society and NATO — the world’s core security alliance. It’s also an important and credible conduit to complex, difficult Russia.

Precipitously cutting more forces in Europe now, especially without coordination with our allies, only sends additional erratic signals during this fraught, uncertain period. With over a 11 years over more than three decades serving with U.S./allied forces in Germany and environs, I’ve personally seen and lived how affirming our presence and resultant allied-partner trust and interoperability matters. I have also experienced several major drawdowns that, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Cold War’s end seemed appropriate initially — but much has changed since then.

Further reducing our presence in Europe at this time will further shake our allies’ and partners’ faith in our reliability and further reinforce potential adversaries who wish us ill. We’ve already pulled out of so much of the “global commons” treaty-wise and have been ceding our hard and soft power, including moral leadership, to other fast muscling entities … a trend that could strategically bite us one day.

What I am really worried about is that politically — and yes, personally — our formerly special relationship with Europe and Canada has been quite damaged … not yet irreparably, but painfully so, especially since 2016. This goes philosophically much deeper than just funding issues. Absolutely, key allies like Germany should spend more on defense and NATO’s 2 percent funding goal — but we should continue to work this via hard-nosed back-room diplomacy rather than public-stiffening media statements and tweets.

Where’s our discipline, our predictability, our perceived reliability?

Albeit with bumps, NATO has held together for 71 years. To remind, NATO and its tough predictability has worked regarding the challenging USSR/Russia relationship, and overall internal European security for a long seven-decade period of relative peace — unprecedented in Europe’s battle-scarred history.

Undeniably, Asia is looming and critical — all the more important to firmly anchor our center in Europe. And we had best do that with constructive and mostly philosophically aligned allies and partners. That extends into the Indo-Pacific as well.

Isn’t America most great and most secure when entwined with strong and supportive allies and partners? Such enduring relationships should not be measured just in dollars, but from all the other benefits that accrue from routine contact, presence and a common world view. Sure, it can be frustrating when we disagree. That will always be so in such voluntary constructs with equal allies.

We must — without public brinksmanship — firmly but diplomatically work through our differences within the complicated issues that always crop up in alliances and partnership. Simply walking out of important international treaties and agreements accomplishes little but sow ill will and discord.

If we continue on this self-isolating course, increasingly distancing allies and partners, we risk becoming more dangerously and expensively alone.

Finally, we cannot isolate ourselves from this cyber-connected transnational world. It’s simply not possible. We must find a balance. This is not the time to make such a short-sighted move to unilaterally withdraw forces from Germany and Europe. Instead, we should wisely re-embrace the global community and strive to lead by inclusive example once again.

Retired Brig. Gen. Peter B. Zwack commanded the U.S. Army’s 66th Military Intelligence Group from 2004-06 and served as a senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Kosovo, South Korea and U.S. Army Europe. He also was the senior U.S. defense attache to Russia (2012-2014) and operations officer for Army Cyber Command. He is currently a Wilson Center Global Fellow at the Kennan Institute.