In an unprecedented move, a German officer has been appointed to a key command post over the U.S. Army in Europe.
German Brig. Gen. Markus Laubenthal, 51, became chief of staff last week, the first non-American officer to hold that position, the Army said.
According to Germany’s defense ministry, Laubenthal will serve as “the right-hand man” to Lt. Gen. Donald Campbell Jr., who commands more than 37,000 U.S. Army Europe, USAREUR, personnel from headquarters in the central German city of Wiesbaden.
Prior to assuming his post at USAREUR, Laubenthal, a general officer from the German Armed Forces, the Bundeswehr, was the commander of Panzerbrigade 12, the 12th Armored Brigade, in Amberg, Germany. He also was the chief of staff for International Security Assistance Force Regional Command North in Afghanistan and the assistant chief of staff for operations for NATO’s Kosovo force.
Laubenthal’s appointment comes at a time when relations between the U.S. and Germany are decidedly strained. Recent revelations of U.S. spying and the tapping of German government phones, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s, have put the two nations at odds with each other. The new appointment may be meant to repair relations.
“This is a bold and major step forward in USAREUR’s commitment to operating in a multinational environment with our German allies,” Campbell said of Laubenthal’s appointment. “U.S. and German senior military leaders have been serving together in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan for years. Sustaining the shared capability from this experience will benefit both U.S. and German armies.”
A German army spokesman called the move “a clear sign for a good German-American cooperation.”
If there has ever been a need for an increased spirit of cooperation, it is now. Besides NSA spying on German nationals, in July, German authorities expelled the CIA’s station chief in Berlin after the discovery of two suspected spies allegedly working for the U.S. from inside the German government.
While it means Germany is taking a more active part in its own defense, what makes the appointment both unique and disturbing to some observers is the fact that Laubenthal is a foreign national with no sworn allegiance to the U.S. Constitution. The appointment could raise the specter of a divided loyalty for Laubenthal between his command responsibilities and his native country.
To be sure, there is precedent for soldiers of different countries joining forces in a single military unit.
The Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, or SHAEF, was a military unit that existed from late 1943 until the end of World War II. It was an international force organized for the invasion of France, codenamed “Overlord,” and the subjugation of Nazi Germany.
Gen. Dwight Eisenhower transferred from the Mediterranean Theater to command SHAEF in London in December 1943. SHAEF was a combined force with a command structure from the U.S., Great Britain and occupied countries.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a successor to SHAEF, is a mixed command structure composed of 28 countries.
Even NORAD, an organization most Americans think of as a U.S military operation, is actually a joint U.S.-Canadian defense force with officers from the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and U.S. Army in senior command positions. NORAD’s deputy commander is Lt. Gen. J. A. J. Parent of the RCAF. It had its genesis in 1940 when Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King and President Franklin Roosevelt met to discuss the war in Europe and mutual defense concerns.
But the new appointment to the U.S. Army in Europe is different. USAREUR trains and leads Army Forces in support of U.S. European Command and is a part of the U.S. Department of the Army. It conducts training for the 25,000 U.S. soldiers and almost 40,000 U.S. service members to make them combat-ready for deployment anywhere in the world.
Having Laubenthal in a leadership and policy-making role in a U.S. Army unit could lead to conflicted loyalties many times over, including with regard to dealings with Russia.
Russia is simultaneously trying to improve relations and trade with Germany while also increasing tensions with the U.S. in places such as Ukraine, which could lead to a crisis in conscience for someone with mixed loyalties.