U.S. Army paratroopers enter a helicopter at the training area in Grafenwoehr, Germany, on Feb. 10, 2014. (Armin Weigel/European Pressphoto Agency)
BERLIN — For more than half a century, the deployment of U.S. troops to Germany appeared to be a mutually beneficial relationship. Americans defended their national interests in Europe and beyond, while U.S. soldiers considered being stationed in Germany an attractive gig, with tourist capitals like Paris, London or Berlin just a few hours away.
Germans, meanwhile, benefited from the security the Americans provided and the economic boost to towns near U.S. bases. There was always some public opposition to the U.S. presence, but the open hostility that marked the 1960s and 1970s (and even a bit of the 1980s) eventually turned into the widespread indifference of recent years.
Now, in a rather stunning poll, 42 percent of Germans say they want U.S. troops out of the country, compared with 37 percent who want the approximately 35,000 U.S. military personnel to stay. In 1951, right after the end of World War II, only 21 percent of West Germans favored a withdrawal of U.S. troops. (Back then, the number of U.S. troops in Europe was more than seven times higher.)
The most recent poll, conducted by the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) in collaboration with YouGov, was commissioned after The Washington Post reported two weeks ago that the Pentagon was in the process of analyzing the impact of a large-scale withdrawal or transfer of U.S. troops based in Germany. YouGov and DPA did not specify why Germans think the Americans should leave. But with a foreign policy strategy that has included threatening North Korea with destruction, dismantling nuclear deals considered crucial in Europe and hugging dictators, Trump may have contributed a bit to Germans’ growing opposition to U.S. troops here.
Trump’s “America first” slogan is largely being reinterpreted in Germany as “America alone,” and Trump has approval ratings in the low single digits.
While resentment against Trump is a global phenomenon, here in Germany public opinion could have a more immediate impact if it builds into pressure to remove U.S. troops.
The desire to kick U.S. troops out of Germany is not shared by the country’s leadership. German leaders for decades have attempted to balance the nation’s war-weariness and the need to prepare for possible conflicts. After World War II, Germans adopted a strongly pacifist position that has only gradually evolved. Budget expansions for the Bundeswehr, the German military, remain controversial, and the army is chronically underfunded.
While promising to support the military won’t help German politicians get elected, they are well aware of the nation’s security shortcomings. If U.S. troops were to leave Germany, politicians here would face the even more difficult task of having to fill the gap by massively bolstering their own armed forces — long considered a taboo.
German politicians are unlikely to demand a U.S. troop withdrawal anytime soon. But Trump’s threat Thursday to “do his own thing,” as U.S. officials put it, if alliance partners refuse to increase their defense spending may send an ominous message to the dozens of U.S. bases that remain between the Alps in the south and the Baltic Sea in the north.
For now, however, that option does not appear to be on the table. “Germany has agreed to do a lot better than they were doing,” Trump said during a news conference Thursday, only minutes after his threat was made public.