President Donald Trump said he would reduce the number of US troops in Germany to 25,000 unless the country spent more on defence, in a move that threatens to further strain the transatlantic security alliance.
Mr Trump said he had taken the decision, which would cut the US presence by more than 9,000 troops, because Germany had not sufficiently boosted its financial contribution to the Nato security alliance.
“Germany as you know is . . . delinquent in their payments to Nato,” Mr Trump told reporters at the White House. “They owe Nato billions . . . Why should we be doing what we’re doing if they don’t pay?”
Mr Trump’s claim that Germany owed “billions” to Nato is incorrect. Nato members have committed to increase their defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP by 2024.
The White House refused to clarify whether Mr Trump would proceed with the withdrawal now, or was issuing a threat to make Germany boost its defence spending.
Since taking office, Mr Trump has frequently threatened to withdraw troops from allied countries — from Japan and South Korea to Germany — for financial reasons.
“The most interesting thing will be whether this actually happens,” said Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security, a think-tank. “Trump has been complaining about Nato allies especially Germany for going on four years now and yet the troops are there.”
Mr Fontaine said withdrawing troops would signal a lower commitment to Europe, hurt deterrence of Russia and spark concern among US allies who are “already worrying about American staying power more globally”.
It marks the latest souring in relations between the two allies. Chancellor Angela Merkel recently angered Mr Trump by declining an invitation to attend a G7 summit at the White House, citing the need to deal with Covid-19.
Mr Trump has had a frosty relationship with the German leader, who has been much less willing to flatter him in the way leaders of countries such as Japan and France have done. At a Nato summit in Brussels in 2018, he stunned other leaders by lambasting Ms Merkel.
Richard Grenell, who recently departed as US ambassador to Germany, has said Mr Trump had long signalled that US taxpayers were “getting a little bit tired of paying too much for the defence of other countries”. He denied there was any connection with the move to withdraw troops.
Congress has expressed concern about a withdrawal. In a recent letter to Mr Trump, 22 Republican members of the House of Representatives warned that a troop reduction would weaken Nato and embolden Russia.
“Signs of a weakened US commitment to Nato will encourage further Russian aggression and opportunism,” wrote the lawmakers, who included Mac Thornberry, the top Republican on the House armed services committee, and Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi