The news that the US Marine Corps is ending continuous troop rotations to Norway and effectively withdrawing 700 troops should be seen in conjunction with the more significant reduction in Germany (11 900) announced only a week earlier. Both weaken European security and the credibility of the United States.
It weakens European security because US force levels are an indication of Washington’s commitment to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. After decades of taking peace dividends, the European Allies are only just starting to spend more on defence and on modernising their capabilities. Of the two European nuclear Allies, the United Kingdom is struggling to maintain existing capabilities while France is focusing on the threats emanating from the south. Germany, meanwhile, has only started to rebuild a credible military force, but according to current plans it will still take more than 10 years to deliver this force even if the plans are fully funded. Norway, however, has a reputation of being one of the strongest proponents of the transatlantic link and has been a loyal US ally, deploying its forces to Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom and ISAF) and to Iraq. The Government of Norway recently presented a draft Long Term Defence Plan 2020 that is relatively ambitious in modernising the armed forces.
The US forces currently in Europe are among the few on the continent that are fully capable and at high readiness. The European Allies are not able to address today’s security challenges on their own, especially the threat from Russia. Europe’s non-NATO nations, with the exception of Finland, also lack the demonstrated will to address existing and foreseeable military threats. The reduction of forces in Norway and Germany thus has a negative impact on the security of many European Allies, especially the Baltic states.
Troop reductions in Norway and Germany also weaken the United States. These decisions and the confusing messages they convey add to the perception that the White House lacks stability and predictability, both vital for credible deterrence. The reductions appear to go against the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), according to which DoD’s objectives include “maintaining favorable regional balances of power in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East, and the Western Hemisphere” as well as “deterring adversaries from aggression against US vital interests”. Punishing Germany for complacency might make sense if the purpose was to push Berlin to increase defence spending, but as a recent survey indicates, nearly half (47%) of the German respondents actually support the US decision to decrease troop numbers in the country. And why relocate some forces to Belgium and Italy, neither of which are committed to raising defence spending to 2% of GDP? Reducing the number of US forces in Norway and Germany harms and discourages mainly those US allies that border an aggressive Russia and that already spend at least 2% of GDP on defence or have concrete plans in place to do so.
According to the 2018 NDS, the US will be strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable. Recent events indicate that the US may be taking another step towards being both strategically and operationally unpredictable. Against this background, Europeans now have one more reason to follow the upcoming presidential election in order to see what the future may bring.