COLOGNE, Germany — The European Union should prepare for the possibility of a gradual disengagement by the United States from the continent, even if Democratic challenger Joe Biden beats President Donald Trump in the November election, according to Germany’s defense minister.
Speaking before the European parliament on Tuesday, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said she believes only the “tone” in trans-Atlantic relations would change following a Biden win. The reorientation of America’s foreign policy toward China as a global rival would remain a key driving force in Washington, possibly at the expense of Europe, she said.
“If that is the case, it means we Europeans must become able to act more so than is the case today,“ she said in testimony meant to lay out Germany’s defense agenda during a six-month turn at the helm of the European Council of the EU that began July 1.
To be sure, Kramp-Karrenbauer stressed that Europe remains dependent on U.S. and NATO support, and that there’s no sign of that equation changing anytime soon. German leaders have consistently held up the trans-Atlantic alliance as a cornerstone of their geopolitical calculus, even as Trump took shots at Berlin for the its lackluster defense spending.
But the defense minister’s assessment that nothing other than the style of discourse would change with Trump’s exit — he is trailing Biden in recent polls — may be a sign that Germans suspect bigger forces at play on the other side of the Atlantic.
In that light, the Defence Ministry’s defense agenda for the EU reads as something of a toolkit to avoid getting caught flat-footed. Creating a “strategic compass“ for the bloc, as Kramp-Karrenbauer called it, would be a key step in ensuring all member states back a common foreign and defense policy.
An EU-wide threat assessment is the first step in that process, overseen by the EU Intelligence and Situation Centre and supported by member nations‘ intelligence services, she said. The assessment is slated to be “far along“ and will ideally be finished by the end of the year, when Germany hands the presidency baton to Slovenia, Kramp-Karrenbauer said.
Also needed is a bloc-wide “operational understanding“ for whenever there is actual fighting to be done, according to the defense minister. Even peacekeeping and training missions, which tend to dominate the EU mission roster, always come with more kinetic, force-protection elements, for example, and there should be a process in place for setting up those types of operations, she argued.
“You could approach it with the idea that this would fall to the same few countries in Europe, or you could develop a method as part of the strategic compass that this would become a matter for all members,“ Kramp-Karrenbauer said.
West Africa could be a first test case of waning U.S. concerns about European interests. An American counterterrorism mission there has been crucial in supporting a U.N. peacekeeping force of EU and African troops. European leaders consider the region a hotbed for terrorism, fearing the possibility of fighters making their way to Europe.
But the mission is controversial in the United States, and an American withdrawal could be in the offing at some point, Kramp-Karrenbauer said. “That is a scenario that we could find ourselves confronted with in the future.“
There is also the question of a withdrawal of almost 10,000 U.S. forces from Germany, the details of which are still somewhat shrouded in mystery.
Hashed out by Trump and a small circle of White House advisers, military leaders are still figuring out the details for implementing the decision, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said in a phone call with reporters Wednesday.
McCarthy said he discussed the matter with U.S. Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, NATO’s top general for Europe, earlier that day. But he had little to share about the process, saying only that Pentagon officials would release more details in the coming weeks.
The “repositioning,“ as McCarthy called the move, is controversial among defense analysts on both sides of the Atlantic because it could simultaneously hurt America’s and Europe’s defense posture. Germany is a hub for U.S. troop training and logistics that would be difficult to quickly recreate elsewhere, the argument goes.
The fact that military officials are only now doing the analytic legwork for a possible redeployment shows that no such examinations took place before Trump’s announcement, retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, told Defense News.
Hodges said he was encouraged to see U.S. lawmakers question the decision, forcing a say on the issue by way of legislation. “Congressional support for NATO and for the German-U.S. relationship remains very strong,“ he said.
Meanwhile, opinions differ on how much of a change a Biden presidency would bring to the trans-Atlantic alliance.
“If you look at everything that Joe Biden has said, you certainly get the impression that he is interested in restoring alliances, including in Europe,“ said Jeffrey Rathke, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
“Of course there would be a different tone,“ he added. “But the substance would be different as well.“
For now, the German Defence Ministry’s apparent trajectory of planning for a future where U.S. commitment may be iffy at best can bring more good than harm, he argued.
Fears of an increasingly belligerent Russia and Trump’s overt questioning of international alliances as key to keeping the peace have driven a wave of increased defense spending on the continent in recent years. “The things that Europe needs to do for its own security are precisely the things that improve the trans-Atlantic security relationship,“ Rathke said.
When it comes to Washington’s focus on China versus Europe, paying attention to different regions of the world should be possible simultaneously, he argued. “This is not an either-or situation. That’s not how the United States should look at it.“
Sebastian Sprenger is Europe editor for Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multinational investments in defense and global security. He previously served as managing editor for Defense News.