Johnny Shouldn’t Be Marching Home, Yet : U.S. troops: Our presence in Europe is still needed, to maintain stability and to give us a seat at the European table.

<i> Robert A. Levine is a senior economist with the RAND Corp. </i>

By sticking far too long to an increasingly obsolete military rationale for the politically necessary presence of U.S. troops in Europe, the United States has gotten itself into a very uncomfortable position, logically and politically.

The stated rationale for their presence began to fade out years ago. Now, the collapse of that rationale could push U.S. forces out of Europe in spite of the real necessity.

The need for some significant number of American troops continues, although not necessarily President Bush’s 225,000.

For almost 40 years, their explicit purpose has been to provide American support to deterrence (including nuclear) and, if necessary, defense against all-out Soviet/Warsaw Pact aggression. This stated requirement provided the glue for the Atlantic Alliance and a U.S. troop commitment, the very existence of which remained essential for stable peace and prosperity in Europe.


For almost 30 years, since the end of the recurrent Berlin crises, the aggression rationale has become less and less plausible. Still, for a broad set of reasons, U.S. troops are needed in Europe to support a continuing set of major U.S. interests. They are needed to continue aiding in deterrence or defense against threats smaller than an all-out Soviet attack. They are needed as a hedge against an unfavorable turn in Soviet trends--if not back to Stalin, perhaps toward military adventurism or chaotic anarchy in a nation with thousands of nuclear warheads. They are needed to express our stake in the continuation of favorable trends in Eastern Europe.

The two U.S. interests that summarize all the rest are: European stability and a seat at the European table.

Stability is the key American interest in Europe. Isolationism is no longer an American option. The effects of European instability would cross the Atlantic through economic, political and cultural channels. European stability--decreasing hostility and increasing economic and political cooperation--may be threatened by any number of European fears, including suspicions about the Soviets and the Germans.

American forces are part of the existing system that has worked well; removal of U.S. troops while they are still desired by their host nations could substitute revived suspicions and rivalries for hopes and cooperation. The American presence should not and cannot be forced on unwilling partners. But at least for now it is still wanted, including by Germany, where most of the troops are stationed. Indeed, even the Soviets, despite the doubts expressed by some of their spokesmen, may ultimately prefer U.S. troops west of the Elbe to a reunified Germany solely under its own arms.

Another issue is almost as important as stability. The United States needs a seat at the European table because we have a wide variety of political and economic interests there. The importance to us of European economic integration is the chief case in point now visible, but it is not the only case. A rapidly changing Europe contains the seeds of many events that will affect important American interests; we cannot now predict which ones will happen, but some will. It may not fit the preconceptions of simply drawn organizational charts--politics frequently fails this test--but U.S. forces provide our major stake on the European table. The poker metaphor is an appropriate one. We have many other connections with Europe, but our stake in Europe--our contribution to the common good as seen by both Europeans and ourselves--is most strongly represented by our troops. Removal of the stake from the table would turn us into mere kibitzers about our own vital interests.

Some number of American troops is thus needed in Europe for all of the above reasons. and a military rationale is still needed to replace the one concerning all-out Soviet attack. But none of the reasons says what that number should be. There are three possible approaches:

--Retain just enough to represent a “serious” presence in European and American perceptions (including a continued tripwire for the nuclear defense of a Germany). That number might range from 50,000 up, although President Bush’s 225,000 seems very high just to express seriousness.

--Plan a defense against small incursions and for reinforcement, in case something larger develops.


--Consider using Europe as the base for a mobile NATO force to be used in those parts of the world where peace is less likely to break out.

In any case, it is the commitment, not the number, that counts.