According to Washington’s punditocracy, there are only two ways to interpret the Pentagon’s announcement Wednesday that it plans to move ahead with withdrawing nearly 12,000 U.S. troops currently stationed in Germany. One view is that President Donald Trump is capitulating yet again to pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin and handing Putin a gift in the form of a weakened NATO. The other take is that the White House decision to pull troops out of Germany, as Trump has long wanted, is a foolish escalation in his standoff with German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance.
Both interpretations are correct. There are, nonetheless, additional and wider implications not only for the future of NATO, but for the coming battle in Congress over a likely reduction in discretionary spending on American defense and how all of these factors might fit with notions of a new era of American “restraint.” For decades, the United States has spent more on defense than China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea and Brazil—combined, according to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. About 15 percent of all federal spending goes to defense. With Trump’s abject mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic driving the American economy ever closer to the brink of a full-blown depression, there will likely be a significant decrease in defense spending starting next year.
Whether left, right or centrist, many Americans agree that it is time for the era of U.S.-led military interventions and forever wars to wind down. Whether that equates to less use of American military power in favor of a return to a more consultative form of multilateralism or Trump’s brand of “America First” isolationism depends on where you sit on the spectrum between the Democratic and Republican parties. But both of those prevailing views are out of step with an emerging era of regionalism within different hemispheres in which states are fast becoming the handmaidens of extreme capital concentration, digital disruption, climate change and now Anthropocene-era pandemics.