President Trump wants to dramatically reshuffle U.S. forces in Europe to chastise Germany for not spending enough on defense, but that and a range of other foreign policy pushes by the president are likely to fall by the wayside if presumptive Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden wins the White House in November.
Mr. Biden would seek to cancel a slate of key Trump initiatives, including the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear and Paris climate deals, as well as the planned U.S. exit from the World Health Organization, political analysts say.
While speculation is rampant over how the Democrat might overhaul Mr. Trump’s aggressive policy toward China, military insiders say there is little doubt the former vice president would move quickly on the Europe troop realignment issue with the goal of stopping it dead in its tracks.
Pentagon leaders have made it abundantly clear that they intend to move with great caution. They stress that it will take many months to pull nearly 12,000 troops from Germany, move U.S. European Command headquarters from Stuttgart to Mons, Belgium, and take other steps outlined by the Defense Department last month.
The slow process could create a key window of opportunity for Mr. Biden, who likely would cancel — or at least delay and review — many of the Europe moves as part of a broader effort to repair bruised relationships between the U.S. and NATO partners. Such a move would allow the former vice president to put an immediate stamp on military and international affairs.
Specialists say that while Pentagon officials may not be actively slow-walking Mr. Trump’s orders, they may be counting on the creaky wheels of bureaucracy to buy them some time in case the next president abruptly changes course.
“There’s a lot of steps to be taken first, and there’s a lot of planning that’s got to be done and monies that have to be found and negotiations to be done,” said Jim Townsend, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Obama administration.
“This isn’t going to happen tomorrow,” Mr. Townsend said. “A lot of times, the people in the system who know this is bollocks, they know it’s going to take a while … and they’re relying on the system to kill it.
“It will be slow-walked,” he added, “but not because they’re doing it on purpose.”
Other aggressive Trump foreign policy shifts, such as the American withdrawal from several key international defense treaties and a planned U.S. exit from the World Health Organization, could be reversed in just the first few weeks of a hypothetical Biden presidency.
Analysts say Mr. Biden and his foreign policy team would seek quickly to resurrect American participation in the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal — two landmark accomplishments of the Obama administration that Mr. Trump has scrapped.
The former vice president also would reexamine the administration’s China policy, though it’s not clear exactly how Mr. Biden would handle the complex relationship between Washington and Beijing.
U.S. troops in Europe
As part of the Trump administration’s policy announced last month, the number of U.S. troops in Germany will drop from 36,000 to about 24,000. Some of the forces will return home, some will move to Italy and some will rotate farther east to better protect NATO’s border with Russia.
Officials cast the plan as the result of careful consideration and a desire to modernize America’s military footprint in Europe. But Mr. Trump made no secret of the real motivation, undercutting careful efforts by Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other Pentagon officials to cast the policy as the right move for U.S. national security.
“The United States has been taken advantage of for 25 years, both on trade and on the military,” the president said just hours after the Pentagon announced the plan on July 29. “We are protecting Germany. So we’re reducing the force because they’re not paying their bill. It’s very simple: They’re delinquent. Very simple.”
Analysts say the issues of motivation and rationale make all the difference.
Careful military plans that result from years of planning and consultation with allies, they say, naturally will move much faster because the Pentagon understands exactly what the goals are and what national security objectives they are trying to achieve.
“If this had been a policy that emerged from within the Pentagon and the wheels had already begun to turn, then it’s possible that the change in the presence in Europe could have moved more quickly,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“But given that the decision seems to have come out of the Oval Office, first you have to figure out what the president wants,” said Mr. Kupchan, former senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council during the Obama administration. “Then you have to do the planning. Then you have to figure out the implications for warm bodies and equipment and logistics. And then finally, at the end of the process, things start to move, but that takes time.”
Leading military commanders have been clear about how much work must be done to enact all of the planned changes.
“What we have right now is really a concept, a concept that we’ve shared with our allies, shared with the Congress, and we’ve shared inside the department fairly widely. We now have to turn it into plans,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. John Hyten told reporters during the July 29 press conference.
Democrats in Congress said the decision amounts to petty personal politics by Mr. Trump, who has cast Germany as a freeloader dependent on America for cheap military protection. Germans bristle at such charges and say they are ramping up defense spending with hopes to hit the threshold of 2% of gross domestic product often cited by Mr. Trump.
Rethinking the withdrawal
America’s military presence in Europe is just one key foreign policy move that could be ripe for reversal in the early days of a Biden White House.
Decisions that have been made relatively recently will be the easiest to reverse, such as Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from WHO because of the organization’s unwillingness, the White House argues, to hold China fully accountable for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Trump administration decision to withdraw from the WHO undermined our national security. It is very likely a Biden administration would reverse that decision and renew our participation and support,” said P.J. Crowley, who served as an assistant secretary of state for public affairs during the Obama administration. “I would expect such a move to receive bipartisan support.”
On the Paris climate deal, the U.S. technically must remain a part of the accord until Nov. 4 — a day after the presidential election. Should Mr. Trump lose the election, he could still ensure that the U.S. exits the pact, but a Biden transition team likely would publicly state an intention to rejoin immediately after Mr. Biden is sworn in.
A Biden administration would be faced with more complex considerations when looking at whether to reverse Mr. Trump’s exits from several key arms and defense treaties with Russia. The Trump administration last year pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty over concerns that Moscow was violating the deal.
The White House also argued that any such nuclear deals in the 21st century must involve China, a sentiment the Biden team may share.
The next president also would weigh whether to reenter the Open Skies Treaty, which allows for unarmed reconnaissance flights over other nations.
The White House has accused Russia of violating that agreement by refusing to allow flights over sensitive areas. A Democratic White House, specialists say, would thoroughly review Open Skies and other deals but ultimately may decide to follow Mr. Trump’s path.
“I think a Biden administration will also see that Russia was responsible for essentially deteriorating the commitment, under the Open Skies Treaty and almost gave the Trump administration the ability to walk out because of Russia’s violations,” said Mark Simakovsky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the former Europe/NATO chief of staff for the office of the secretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon.
“I don’t necessarily think you would just see Biden unilaterally get us back into all of these treaties overnight,” Mr. Simakovsky said. “But I think you clearly see another policy review being undertaken.”