Germany Slams Trump Troop Withdrawal in Transatlantic Low

(Bloomberg) -- German officials lined up to condemn Donald Trump’s latest verbal attack on the country, after the U.S. leader confirmed his plan to withdraw troops from the NATO ally unless Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government boosts defense spending.

The move to cut troop strength by more than a quarter to 25,000 is the latest sign of deteriorating relations between the two countries. Trump has dwelled on what he sees as Germany’s failure to contribute more to North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense, on the country’s perceived trade advantage and on gas shipments from Russia.

The method of communicating the troop move was seen as an affront in Berlin, with Merkel’s government in the dark for more than a week after the plan was leaked to the media.

The German leader has countered the U.S. president on defense by insisting that Germany has bolstered weapons spending and is committed to achieving a NATO target of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defense, even if it takes more than a decade. Last month, she snubbed Trump’s plan to hold an in-person Group of Seven summit in June.

“We expect our leading ally to act as a model, with orientation and balance -- not maximum pressure,” Johann Wadephul, a deputy caucus leader for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, told Bloomberg, evoking a term used by the U.S. toward Iran. “You don’t treat partners like this.”

The U.S. is backing away from Germany at a time of potentially significant integration in Europe. Momentum is building for a recovery fund that would leverage the borrowing capabilities of the whole bloc, while European Union defense ministers on Tuesday are discussing a Franco-German plan for more joint capabilities in areas such as peace-keeping, cyber security and space.

Germany Slams Trump Troop Withdrawal in Transatlantic Low

“Germany’s delinquent. They’ve been delinquent for years,” Trump told reporters at the White House Monday. “They owe NATO billions of dollars and they have to pay it. Until they pay, we’re removing a number of our soldiers, by about half.”

U.S. troop strength in Germany has dwindled to about 34,500 from a peak of 274,000 during the 1960s, but the numbers can vary widely depending on military exercises and troop transfers. In his comments Monday, Trump estimated the U.S. presence at about 52,000, a figure that may include Department of Defense civilian employees.

Addressing Trump’s “delinquent” comments, Wadephul rejected the accusation as false and said that the troop withdrawal will damage NATO security interests.

Another senior official in Merkel’s government compared Trump’s comments with hate speech. The U.S. president’s comments will only serve to erode the post-World War II transatlantic bond to the delight of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said the official, who asked not to be identified by name.

German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer declined to spar with Trump’s rhetoric, saying that American soldiers are “very welcome” in the country and that Merkel’s government will stand by its defense-spending commitments.

“I’ll quote Voltaire, who said about friendship: ‘The first law of friendship is that it has to be cultivated, and the second is that you have to be indulgent when the first law is violated’,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said late Tuesday. “That’s a good description of the German-American friendship at the moment.”

A spokesman for Merkel’s office declined to comment.

Ralph Hechler, mayor of the city of Ramstein-Miesenbach, home to one of the largest U.S. military bases overseas, said Tuesday that “there’s been no sign anywhere that anything would be halted, closed or reduced.” He referred to construction plans in and around the base, including a new military hospital.

The U.S. presence amounts to a cash injection of around $2 billion per year in the region, including salaries, investments, and procurement contracts, Hechler told Bloomberg.

“Of course, it would be a blow for us if it hits us as a base,” he said. “I can’t imagine that scenario. Ramstein is an important hub for the Americans. A lot was invested in the last 15 years and continues to be invested.”

‘Doubtful Re-Election’

Roderich Kiesewetter, a senior CDU lawmaker on the Bundestag foreign affairs committee, said American troops are “very welcome” in the country and attributed Trump’s comments to electoral campaigning.

“Trump is wrong,” Kiesewetter told Bloomberg. The U.S. leader “is conveying the impression that he’s sacrificing the German-American friendship for his doubtful re-election.”

The Social Democrats, the junior partners in Merkel’s ruling coalition, also condemned the move and the way it was communicated.

Norbert Walter-Borjans, SPD co-leader, told N-TV the decision is another example of Trump’s America First policy. “It’s rather annoying,” he said, adding that typically the U.S. president would discuss such an issue with allies before taking action.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he expected the troop reduction to be discussed at a June 17-18 video conference of the alliance’s defense ministers.

The U.S. military presence in Europe generally serves American interests, Stoltenberg said. He hailed increases in recent years in such forces and said that he spoke with Trump last week about his decision regarding Germany and the details still have to be worked out.

“The U.S. has made it clear that no final decision has been made on how and when,” Stoltenberg told reporters Tuesday in Brussels. “Therefore, I look forward to a dialog within NATO about this issue.”

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