Both reflect a view in the Trump administration that the United States should be bearing less of the burden of defending other states and that military spending, which it supports, should be more focused on purchasing new weapons systems rather than supporting overseas basing or operations. While not a complete “fortress America” approach to national security policy, what can be seen and would accelerate if there were a second Trump term, is a United States much less engaged militarily around the world – somewhere between what analysts term isolationism and offshore balancing.
In the most surprising announcement, the Trump administration decided in early August that it was going to withdraw 12,000 American troops from Germany. Roughly half of those forces would return to the United States while the other half would be redeployed to other countries in Europe including Belgium and Italy. If these moves are carried out – and this would depend entirely on the result of the U.S. election – it would leave roughly 24,000 troops in Germany. The rationale behind the withdrawal and shift from Germany lay largely with the Trump administration’s belief that Germany has not spent enough on defense in the past years. Not stated but also another part of the rationale has been the German government’s consistent and vocal opposition to other Trump administration foreign policy and defense policies on Russia and Iran. None of these types of shifts – which involve moving headquarters and units based in Germany for decades -- can take place quickly, and they could be undone by a Biden administration.
Less startling but could be implemented more quickly – within weeks or months at most -- are the most recent announcements regarding U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just this past week General McKenzie, the senior U.S. military officer responsible for the greater Middle East, announced that the U.S. would reduce its presence in Iraq from 5,200 to 3,000 troops by the end of September and those in Afghanistan from 8,600 to 4,500 by late October. The reduction in Afghanistan is in keeping with the agreements that the U.S. signed with both the Afghan government and with the Taliban early in 2020 although there is some question about whether the political or military conditions have been met yet for the size of the U.S. drawdown. The drawdown in Iraq is a bit more puzzling considering the Trump administration’s two-part focus in the region – ensuring the defeat of ISIS and continuing maximum pressure on Iran. However, both are consistent with President Trump’s 2016 campaign pledges to get the U.S. out of wars. Given the domestic politics of troop withdrawal announcements, it is possible that further drawdowns, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, may be announced prior to the U.S. election.
While the U.S. election outcome is very much up in the air, these announcements are a useful harbinger for what a second Trump administration foreign policy would look like. If the U.S. is not entirely out of Iraq and Afghanistan by the election, it would certainly be within a few months of a Trump re-election. Further drawdowns in countries such as Germany, South Korea, and Japan are also likely, and some news reports have hinted that a second Trump administration would consider pulling the U.S. out of NATO.