COLOGNE, Germany — German officials have woken up to the prospect of a new trans-Atlantic relationship under President-elect Joe Biden, with Chancellor Angela Merkel pledging to up Berlin’s contributions and the minister-president of Bavaria hoping the new administration will put a troop reduction plan on ice.
Leaders here reacted positively to the news that the former vice president and his running mate, Kamala Harris, had defeated President Donald Trump in the presidential race. It appears Biden secured enough electoral votes to become president after major U.S. television networks on Saturday called Pennsylvania in favor of Biden.
“The entire world watches the U.S. presidential election with a keen interest every four years,” Merkel said Monday. “Americans have made their choice.”
She said Germany and Europe stand ready to increase their contribution to what many here hope to be a relationship free from the pervasive animosity of the Trump era.
“Germans and Europeans know that we must shoulder greater responsibility for this partnership,” Merkel said. “America remains our most important ally. But it expects from us, for good reason, stronger efforts toward our own security, and to stand up for our convictions in the world.”
Over the summer, news of a planned drawdown of almost 12,000 American troops from Germany strained the two country’s relations, mainly because the White House had kept German officials completely out of the loop. Under the plan, the headquarters of U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command would move from Stuttgart to Belgium to be co-located there with the NATO command infrastructure for Europe.
Bavaria’s Minister-President Markus Söder, whose state hosts U.S. Army installations at Vilseck and Grafenwöhr, said he was relieved about Biden’s election. The two nations should return to a renewed sense of common purpose, he said Monday. That includes hopes to "put partially one-sided, politically motivated troop drawdown plans on ice,” he added.
Meanwhile, federal government officials have yet to weigh in on the issue, and many may not do so publicly before the new Biden administration is sworn in Jan. 20.
Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, told Defense News he expects the incoming Biden administration to freeze the Germany drawdown plans.
“This is not unusual. New administrations typically do a strategic review of these types of decisions,” he said. “They may decide that some elements of the plan are actually feasible and will allow them to continue. But I expect that they’ll determine that most of the elements of the plan are not feasible, do not improve readiness or NATO cohesion, and are prohibitively expensive.”
One potential candidate for the U.S. defense secretary job, Michele Flournoy, panned the Trump administration’s troop drawdown plans in an interview with Defense News in September. “This was a presidential impulse,” she said. “It was done for all kinds of ‘astrategic’ reasons. It’s just no way to treat your allies if you’re the United States of America, and one of your most strategic sources of advantage is your alliance network that no other country in the world has.”
Germany’s U.S. bases should be judged by what they contribute to deterring Russia and to offering a staging ground for American forces en route to hot spots in the Middle East and Africa, she said.
“So I would not rush to just assume that we can dramatically change the posture,” she added. “I would want to look at that very, very carefully with those two lenses in mind.”
Flournoy served as a senior defense official during the Obama administration.
Hodges said he expects to see more Obama-era officials under consideration for defense jobs under a Biden-run White House. “Most of them are strong trans-Atlanticists and believers in the strategic vital importance of NATO and our European allies,” he said.
“I hope that the Biden administration will treat Germany as our most important ally, which it is, and that the access and infrastructure Germany allows the United States is valued and appreciated,” Hodges added. “But I also expect that the Biden administration will be very demanding on our European allies, especially Germany, to step up and do more to accept more responsibility and to fulfill agreements on defense investment. The style and tone will be different from the Trump administration, but the pressure will be just as firm.”
Aaron Mehta in Washington contributed to this report.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.