Defense secretary begins tour to affirm U.S.’ ties in Europe
BERLIN — Nearly a year after President Donald Trump ordered thousands of troops to leave Germany, capping a series of setbacks for U.S. relations with major allies, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday began an inaugural tour of Europe to shore up partnerships that are a cornerstone of the postWorld War II order.
Austin arrived in Berlin against the backdrop of a newly emerging crisis with Iran, which on Monday blamed Israel for a recent attack on its underground Natanz nuclear facility. Israel has not confirmed or denied involvement, but the attack nonetheless imperils ongoing talks in Europe over the Iran nuclear deal.
Also at stake in Austin’s visit is the future direction of U.S. defense commitments in Europe at a time of growing concern about Russian military intervention on NATO’s periphery, including a buildup of Russian forces near Ukraine’s border. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was headed to Europe to discuss with U.S. allies the Ukraine situation as well as the administration’s thinking on further withdrawals of troops from Afghanistan.
The United States seeks European support for its approach to countering China around the world and for efforts to restore the international agreement with limits on Iran’s nuclear program. Austin arrived in the German capital on Monday night and will hold talks today with senior government officials. He will also visit NATO headquarters later this week in Belgium and meet with British defense officials in London. He began his trip Sunday in Israel, where he underscored U.S. defense support in meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
Austin, a former four-star Army general whose overseas military experience was primarily in Iraq, is likely to assure German officials of intentions by the Biden administration to keep troops in Germany, though the number is subject to discussion as part of a monthslong global review of the basing of U.S. troops. Last year, Trump ordered that the number in Germany be reduced by about 12,000, to about 24,000.
In his first visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels since taking office, Austin will meet with Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who declared on President Joe Biden’s inauguration day that the arrival of a new administration marked “the start of a new chapter for the trans-Atlantic alliance.”
NATO allies are anxious for Biden to decide whether to pull out of Afghanistan. NATO has more troops there than does the United States, and Biden’s indecision troubles them, not least because they count on U.S. military support for removing troops and equipment.
The attack on Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility further complicates U.S. efforts to draw Iran back into the nuclear deal. Austin was asked about the issue earlier Monday while in Israel, and he said only that he expects the administration’s diplomatic efforts with Iran will continue. Germany has been an anchor for the U.S. military presence in Europe since the early post-World War II years. In addition to hosting the headquarters for the U.S.’ European and Africa commands, Germany’s Ramstein Air Base is headquarters for NATO air and missile defenses. The U.S. Army’s largest overseas hospital, the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, is a few miles from Ramstein Air Base. The U.S. Air Force also has a substantial presence in Germany, including the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem.
In his first speech to an international audience, Biden in February declared to the Munich Security Conference: “America is back, the trans-Atlantic alliance is back, and we are not looking backward. We are looking forward together.”
Biden suspended the Trump decision on a partial withdrawal of troops from Germany, which had not been implemented.