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American Views of the US Military Presence in Germany

Running Numbers by Giulia Shaughnessy and Craig Kafura
Joel Rivera-Camacho
US military men board a plane

Thirty years after the end of the cold war, Americans are divided on whether to maintain or withdraw US military troops in Germany.

The Trump administration has announced plans to reduce the US military presence in Germany by 9,500 troops. The move comes as the Trump administration becomes increasingly frustrated with German policies and refusal to increase military spending. While Trump allies have touted the decision as beneficial for American taxpayers, it has drawn criticism from former senior defense officials and lawmakers over concerns it will further weaken ties with US allies as well as from many German government officials who say the decision is “regrettable from every point of view”.

The 2019 Chicago Council Survey asked Americans about the US military presence in several countries, including Germany. While Americans have historically supported maintaining US bases in the country, they are almost equally divided over the level of military forces there. Few (3%) support increasing the US presence in Germany, while 44 percent say it should be maintained as it is. Others favor cuts of some sort, with three in ten (29%) saying troops should be reduced, and two in ten (20%) saying they should be withdrawn entirely. In previous Chicago Council Surveys, Americans have generally supported the US having long-term military bases in Germany. In 2018, six in ten Americans (60%) said the US should have bases in Germany, up from a low of 50 percent in 2010, but lower than the all-time high of 69 percent in 2002 when the item was first asked.

Despite divisions over the US military presence in Germany, Americans see the US-Germany relationship as good for US security. When asked whether they think the US’s relationship with Germany does more to strengthen or weaken US national security, three-quarters of Americans (75%) say it strengthens national security while less than a quarter (20%) believe it weakens national security. Furthermore, Americans generally see US alliances in Europe as mutually beneficial: 59 percent say they benefit both the US and our allies; an additional nine percent that they mostly benefit the United States.

This presents something of a puzzle: if Americans view the US-Germany relationship as benefiting our national security, why are they divided on the US presence there? One answer is that the American public may not view the US military presence in Germany as being essential to the relationship.

Bar graph showing changes to US troop levels

As analysis of the 2019 Chicago Council Survey data shows, Americans who view the US-Germany relationship as strengthening US national security are also divided on the issue of the US military presence in Germany. The graph above represents the views of two different groups, those who see a robust US-Germany relationship as doing more to strengthen US national security (in dark blue) and those who see it as doing more to weaken US national security (in light blue). These two groups are further broken down by their views on whether the United States should increase, maintain, reduce or withdraw its military presence in Germany. As seen in the graph, a plurality of Americans who think US-Germany relations strengthen US national security (50%) favor maintaining US military presence in the area, but around one-third (31%) favor reducing it and 14 percent favor withdrawing it entirely. This divide shows that not all those who believe a robust relationship between the United States and Germany to be beneficial for national security see a military presence in Germany as a prerequisite for this relationship.

Thirty years after the reunification of East and West Germany and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Americans may see the US-German alliance as more than simply a military presence. However, some argue that since Germany is Europe’s central political and economic power, a decreased troop presence there will most likely weaken the US’s alliance with the entire region. If that is the case, the consequences of this decision will be at odds with what most Americans view as an important aspect of keeping America’s national security intact.

About the Authors
Director of Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
headshot of Craig Kafura
Craig Kafura is the director of public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a Security Fellow with the Truman National Security Project, and a Pacific Forum Young Leader. At the Council, he coordinates work on public opinion and foreign policy and is a regular contributor to the public opinion and foreign policy blog Running Numbers.
headshot of Craig Kafura
Giulia Shaughnessy
Former Public Opinion Intern at the Council.