America’s international position is distinguished by its alliance networks. Presidential candidates decry today’s dangerous world, yet the U.S. is allied with every major industrialized power, save China and Russia. It is a position Washington’s few potential adversaries must envy.
Unfortunately, littering the globe with security commitments is costly. The U.S. must create a much bigger military to project force abroad to protect countries that often matter little for this nation’s security. Moreover, while military tripwires are supposed to prevent war, they ensure involvement if deterrence fails.
Equally important, America’s defense guarantees turn friends and allies into dependents. The principle is the same as domestic welfare. Why do it yourself if someone else will do so?
In his recent interview in the Atlantic Monthly, President Barack Obama complained: “Free-riders aggravate me.” Unfortunately, Washington has created a world filled with free- or at least cheap-riders.
The president recently visited one of the targets of his ire: Saudi Arabia. The royals long ago assumed the U.S. military would act as their de facto bodyguard. The first Gulf War was more about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia than Kuwait.
At least the KSA began putting more money into its military when it perceived the Obama administration’s commitment to Riyadh was waning. The kingdom was outraged at Washington’s nuclear negotiations with Iran and refusal to directly intervene in the Syrian civil war. Yet the “alliance” still has dragged the U.S. into the KSA’s war in Yemen, which has gone from local civil war to regional sectarian conflict.
Content to spend barely one percent of its GDP on the military throughout the Cold War while facing the Soviet Union and Maoist China, Japan has started doing a bit more. It appears Tokyo is worried that Washington might not go to war with Beijing over the Senkakyu/Diaoyu Islands. Japan only recently passed legislation allowing its military to aid U.S. forces under attack. For decades Japan’s only responsibility as an ally was to be defended.
Washington’s Korean commitment grows out of the Korean War, which ended 63 years ago. Since then the Republic of Korea has raced ahead of the North, with an economy as much as 40 times as large, a population twice as big, and a dramatic lead in technological prowess, international influence, and most every other measure of national power.
Yet the ROK, facing a supposed existential threat, spends a lower percentage of its GDP on the military than does America. Although Seoul’s military is qualitatively superior to that of the North, South Korea’s forces lag in quantity. Because the ROK expects to be defended by America.
Then there are the Europeans. Foreign policy should be based on circumstances. After World War II Western Europe was prostrate and Eastern Europe had been swallowed by the Soviet Union. Today the Europeans not only vastly outmatch Russia, their only potential antagonist, but they possess a larger economy and population than America.
Yet Washington’s desperate, even humiliating pleas for its allies to do more continue to fall on deaf ears. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg took great pleasure earlier this year when he announced that NATO’s European members only slightly reduced their military outlays in 2015, after years of significant cuts. Such is considered progress.
In all of these cases the U.S. has variously insisted, demanded, and requested that its friends do more. When they did not, it often turned to begging and whining, with no greater success.
One could at least argue during the Cold War that it was in America’s interest to defend countries even if they would not protect themselves. No longer. Washington faces no hegemonic threat, no ideological competitor, no international peer. There isn’t any “there there,” as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland.
Yet the alliances commit America to go to war in defense of other nations’ interests. At the same time such guarantees dissuade friendly states from doing more on their own behalf. If deterrence fails, as it often has throughout history, the good times will come to a dramatic and bloody end.
Washington has tolerated allied free-riding for far too long. It’s time for America to engage in burden-shedding rather than hope for burden-sharing. In its quest to maximize its number of allies the U.S. has needlessly created a gaggle of dependents.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.