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US-German Relations Bound to Change as US Military Presence Shrinks - 2003-11-19

The United States and Germany have had strong disagreements over the U.S.-led war against Iraq, but their friendship stretches back decades. Some of the deepest links were forged by the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers and their families, who lived and worked at U.S. military bases on German soil.

The United States was crucial in helping Germany recover from World War II. The Marshall Plan provided for economic reconstruction while Germany's defense needs were taken care of by American military bases spread throughout the southern half of the former West Germany. The Euopean country was the frontline in a face off between the United States and its NATO allies on one side and the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies on the other.

These ties run deep, according to Klaus Rodens, the mayor of Spangdahlem, a small town outside the large U.S. airbase in southwestern Germany that shares the same name.

"We will never forget what the Americans did for us at the time after the war [World War II)," he said.

The war Mr. Rodens referred to was World War II. The end of a different war, the Cold War, marked the beginning of significant changes for U.S. military bases in Germany. In a recent interview at U.S. European Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, Deputy Commander, General Charles Wald, said two-thirds of American troop strength in Germany already has been cut in the last decade.

"There have been military changes in Europe significant ones over the past decade or more, since the Berlin Wall fell, which was a significant event, changed all of Europe, in fact, in a lot of ways," said General Wald. "The United States military, in 1989, had 315,000 active duty members in Europe, in European command. Today, we have 114,000 assigned active duty." These cutbacks in U.S. military personnel in Germany are responsible for the closure of the University of Maryland University College's campus in the German city of Mannheim. For more than 50 years, the school has offered a two-year university education to the children of American soldiers.

UMUC Mannheim dean, Mary Fiedler, predicts the situation will not get any better. "We had a large number of base closings five, six years ago," said Ms. Fiedler. "And then, just a trickle since then. But I would expect in the next two to three years, that there will be another round of base closures. That's been in the paper, time and time and time again."

As the number of Americans who live with Germans decreases, the overall relationship is bound to suffer, according to Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies professor Stephen Szabo, in Washington.

"One of the best links between the United States and Germany in the last 25 years is U.S. troops and their dependents," said Mr. Szabo. "Twelve million Americans, both troops and dependents, have lived in Germany in the last 20 or 30 years. They've been a terrific bridge between the United States and Germany. And you'll find, still a lot of the most pro-German people in the United States are Army people."

No formal announcements on future U.S. base closures have been made. But if the United States moves military bases out of Germany, the beneficiaries could include former Eastern Bloc countries that have either just joined NATO or are set to join next year. Stefan Kornelius, foreign editor of the Munich-based newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, says he thinks moving American bases further east makes strategic sense, but is bad news for the U.S.-German friendship.

"There is a lot of military rationale in relocating and thinking differently of deployment, in having the newly-involved Eastern European NATO members as bases for US troops, as well as for others," said Mr. Kornelius. "In general, the impact can't be underestimated for the German-American relations, of those troops being there. Those guys who come over, spend their time, have a lasting impact and impression of Germany."

Mr. Kornelius adds that Germany is facing the prospect of life without as much U.S. influence as before, and so is in the midst of an intense debate over its own national interest. He says the questions asked include what should a larger unified Germany do? And, what role should Germany play in the world?