While the Pentagon tightens its financial belt, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has hinted at reducing American troop levels in Europe. However, Washington must reconcile a smaller force with traditional NATO obligations.
With US engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, the Obama administration is promising to cut spending. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has announced cuts to the tune of $78 billion (57 billion euros). And these cuts may impact what Gates has called an "excess force structure in Europe."
Once meant to hold the Soviet Union at bay, the Atlantic alliance is redefining its mission on a continent now largely united and at peace. In the future, a smaller US military presence in Europe will focus on rapidly deploying elsewhere in the world. However, Washington must balance this smaller, more cost-effective force with its traditional security obligations as a NATO member.
After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, then-President George W. Bush began to restructure the US armed forces to facilitate interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the geopolitical stage had definitively shifted from Europe to the Mideast and Central Asia.
"For decades, America's armed forces abroad have essentially remained where the wars of the last century ended," Bush said in an August, 2004 address to veterans in Cincinnati, Ohio. "America's current force posture was designed, for example, to protect us and our allies from Soviet aggression. The threat no longer exists."
According to Washington, radical Islam had replaced Soviet communism as the existential threat to American interests. To combat this new enemy, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld initiated an exodus of US soldiers from historic posts in western Europe. But critics warned that the restructuring would undermine NATO's ability to live up to its security responsibilities both inside and outside of Europe.
"The Rumsfeld plan … was the decision to reduce US force levels - then at 100,000 - down to 60,000," Ian Brzezinski told Deutsche Welle. Brzezinski, an analyst with the Atlantic Council, is a former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO Policy.
"While the plan was being implemented, European Command weighed in ... and said if we execute this plan we're going to have trouble living up to currently defined responsibilities, including Article 5 responsibilities," he said.
Article 5 of the NATO treaty requires the Alliance to come to the aid of member-states if their territory comes under attack.
In response to the concerns expressed by commanders, Gates - Rumsfeld's successor - put the plan on hold in 2007. However, newly announced budget cuts at the Pentagon could put troop reductions back on the table. Experts believe the changing role of NATO in a post-Cold War world will ultimately dictate the number and structure of US soldiers in Europe.
"It's a different NATO, but still NATO," Michael Cox, an expert on US foreign policy and transatlantic relations with Chatham House in London, told Deutsche Welle.
"NATO has 'mission creep,'" he added. "Institutions are founded to do one thing well in one context and then one finds them to be useful in another context."
And while the Article 5 contingency of defending member-states from a conventional attack remains relevant, a policy of actively securing Western interests around the globe has taken on new importance. NATO's strategic concept - adopted last November - emphasizes conflict-prevention outside of Europe, combating terrorism, controlling nuclear proliferation, and securing trade routes as well as energy sources.
"The American troops now have other assignments than during the Cold War," Henning Riecke, an expert on transatlantic security policy with the German Council on Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle.
"It's now about crisis reaction or combating new risks in the arch of instability in North Africa, the Mideast and Afghanistan, which are the deployment areas for US troops," Riecke said.
Many Europeans are concerned that conventional territorial defense will fall by the wayside as America's strategic eye gazes increasingly upon the Mideast and Central Asia. For the new NATO members, American troops continue to act as a hedge against what they see as Moscow's unpredictable foreign policy.
"The nations that have been most concerned about the credibility of Article 5 are the Central Europeans," Brzezinksi said."People remember that Estonia had a cyber attack that originated in Russia, and which most believe was organized by the Russian government."
And in 2008, Russia conducted war games with Belarus that culminated in a simulated nuclear attack on Poland. The provocative simulation came at a time of heightened tensions between the West and Russia over Georgia and the establishment of a missile shield. Although relations have subsequently improved during Washington's "reset" with Moscow, NATO members on Europe's eastern edge remain skeptical of Russian intentions.
"Poland and the Baltic States have a stronger fear of Russia's political influence and a possible confrontation," Riecke said. "For them it remains very important that American troops are stationed in Europe. These are scenarios that are not at the top of the list of possible risks, but you can't just sweep them under the carpet."
Although further reductions of US troops in Europe may be on the horizon, the American military will remain on the continent in some capacity for the indefinite future, especially in lieu of an independent European defense capability.
"Europeans are talking about and to some degree creating a force posture of their own," Cox said. "It isn't very large and it doesn't begin to compare with NATO. Most Europeans are perfectly happy with the current security arrangement. The idea that you can now develop new defense policies in a time of deficit reductions doesn't make sense."
As the EU flourishes under a security blanket provided by the US and NATO, Riecke believes that the emergence of an independent European defense capability will likely require some degree of American participation.
"The American presence on European soil acts as an important component of the European security and defense policy," Riecke said. "I can't say whether the Europeans would move slower or faster if the Americans weren't here, but it's an important element."
And according to Brzezinski, the continued presence of the American military on European soil demonstrates the importance of a security relationship that benefits countries on both sides of the Atlantic ocean - even in the 21st century.
"The military footprint we have is the cornerstone of the transatlantic relationship," he said.