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It's Time to Stop Enabling Allied Dependence
When there is no danger that the U.S. will do less for them, allies have no incentive to do more.
The only way to produce more equitable burdensharing is to make allies doubt the strength of the U.S. commitment: the stronger the belief in the U.S. commitment, the harder it is to get allies to defend themselves [bold mine-DL]. Unless policymakers fundamentally change their approach to alliances, there is little hope that defense burdens can be spread more equitably.
Reassurance kills burden-sharing. An ally that is fully confident that the U.S. will bail it out is an ally that is not going to devote more resources to protecting itself. American politicians can whine about Germany as much as they want, as J.D. Vance was doing this week, but unless they are prepared to demand significantly lower military spending and U.S. troop withdrawals from Europe they had better get used to allies that don’t do much more for their own security. You cannot enable security dependence for decades and then blame the dependents for the situation that your policies created. Allies aren’t going to “step up” if the U.S. is always elbowing them out of the way to “lead.”
Our allies are responding rationally in the face of our irrational willingness to bear a large part of the costs of their defense. They free-ride or cheap-ride because Washington has proven that it will always foot the bill and fill the gap, and they are happy to get the benefits of having someone else subsidize their defense. If the price of this arrangement is periodic tongue-clucking from the Secretary of Defense, they are willing to endure these lectures because they know that there are no consequences to doing too little for their own defense. As Logan put it in an earlier piece for Responsible Statecraft last week:
Europe hasn’t heeded the warning, and Washington hasn’t put an “or else” at the end of the sentence.
There are never any consequences for allies that fall short of military spending goals, and the only changes that the U.S. makes are to add more to its own budget and to deploy more of its troops. Under those circumstances, why are European political leaders going to take possibly controversial and politically risky actions to reallocate resources to their militaries when they do not have to do so? They aren’t, even when they may say that they will. When there is no danger that the U.S. will do less for them, allies have no incentive to do more.
If Washington doesn’t want its allies to behave as dependents, it ought to be reducing its own military spending and reducing its military presence in their regions instead of pushing its military budget ever-higher and rushing more troops to “bolster” allied defenses. It goes without saying that the U.S. shouldn’t be taking on any new allies. The U.S. should stop reassuring allies of its sacred, eternal commitments and start making them wonder if they should have a backup plan.
Nearly eighty years after the end of WWII, wealthy allies in Europe and Asia are more than capable of standing on their own and providing for their own defense. The U.S. has actively discouraged them from doing this for generations, and it is time for that to stop. The U.S. is already overstretched and has too many commitments, and if it is going to shift the burden for security to its regional allies in a responsible way the process needs to begin now.