President Bush's decision to reduce US forces abroad by up to 70,000 troops over the next decade has attracted more attention than it merits in purely military terms. But the fact of his announcement, at this particular time, has given it added significance.
The impetus for change is obvious. The cold war is over. Russia poses no realistic military threat. Little of strategic significance is happening in Europe. Modern military technology permits power to be projected efficiently from the US to the rest of the globe. Even in Korea, beyond the current crisis with Pyongyang, the US should not need to maintain all the forces it has there now just for military reasons.
So what's the concern? Part is about timing. In Korea, the US is balancing carrots and sticks to pressure Pyongyang to desist from further developing nuclear weapons and to begin opening up to the outside world. But indicating a reduction of troop strength now, even if it won't happen for some time, has serious consequences. Coupled with the redeployment of some US forces southward from Seoul — out of artillery range from the North — the announcement is anything but reassuring to South Korea.
In Europe, there is a case for reassessing what US forces need to be deployed and where. Moving some east — to Poland and Romania, perhaps also to Bulgaria - provides access to training grounds with fewer political problems than in densely populated Germany. Central Europe is closer to potential action in the Middle East. Even Russia is reconciled to this development, provided it doesn't extend to Baltic members of NATO. In Western Europe, doubts about the wisdom of force withdrawals are political-military rather than military. Allies understand the need for some realignment of forces over the next several years. But the announcement could have been timed better. Not everyone in Europe is yet convinced that, following the worst crisis in transatlantic relations in a half century, US policy has reverted to cooperation with allies. However illogical it sounds, US force levels in Europe have long been shorthand for US commitment. Nor is everyone, especially in Central Europe, confident the Russian problem has been consigned to history.
More important is the role that US deployments play in providing glue for the NATO alliance. Fifteen years after the end of the cold war, Allied Command Operations is still history's only fully integrated military command structure. Twenty-six allies still see enough in common, strategically, to prize the day-to-day cooperation that provides not just sinews for joint military action but a prejudice in favor of meeting threats together. The allies still want a US general to be Supreme Allied Commander Europe.
In terms of overall US security posture, therefore, enough forces need to be based permanently in Europe to keep Allied Command Operations fully up and running, with daily interactions of thousands of people - planning, training, deploying, sometimes fighting, and seeing their destinies as bound together. Beyond some point that no one knows, fewer US troops will mean less leadership and less influence, and that cannot be good for the US or the alliance.
Of course, US forces in Europe aren't there primarily for Europe. They're mainly dedicated to being used elsewhere - but staging from some of the finest bases in the world and benefiting from interactions with others that increase the chances allies will join in NATO-based coalitions, not just leave the US to go it alone. The United States European Command has responsibilities that extend to the Cape of Good Hope and east to the Bering Straits. This includes not just training and staging forces for combat and peacekeeping, but also the Partnership for Peace; stabilization in West Africa; increased involvement in North Africa; and political-military engagement in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Russian Federation.
Withdrawing forces from Europe is unlikely to save much money. Allies, especially Germany, subsidize US bases; deployment distances from Europe to potential battlefields are shorter — often cheaper — than from the continental US; and military units withdrawn to the US and not disbanded cost as much or more in basing, training, housing, and dependent schooling.
Virtually without exception, every US senior officer who has led a regional command argues for retaining as many forces as possible, if for no other reason than the value of human interactions that create and sustain alliances. This makes it possible for the military to find friendly staging areas when it deploys from the US; and it fosters coalitions that work and fight together. Perhaps some US forces abroad should be redeployed. But the costs incurred and the benefits lost must first be factored in.
Robert E. Hunter, US ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998, is a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in Christian Science Monitor on August 24, 2004. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.