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.
In a new paper for the Cato Institute, Justin Logan gets to the heart of why U.S. allies don’t take on a larger share of the burden for their own security:
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.
I have long suspected that dependence on the U.S. is exactly what the U.S. wants for its allies as it recently conclusively demonstrated by blowing up the Nordstream pipelines.
I agree with all of this, but there a few additional points to be made. The "real" reason why NATO was preserved after the collapse of the Soviet Union was that France and the UK didn't want to be left "alone" in Europe with a united Germany. The expansion of NATO into eastern Europe, driven by Wilsonian idealists in the Democratic Party and militarists in the Republican Party, acquired a disastrous momentum of its own as the nations of eastern Europe were unsurprisingly happy to accept the U.S. as an alternative to having to choose between Germany and Russia. Our "irrational willingness" to fund all this is quite "rational" if you think of it in career terms for both the American military and all the think tanks and university programs centered around international affairs. As Congress has repeatedly demonstrated, they love spending money on defense as an end in itself, and, like the Pentagon, are always on the search for a new enemy to justify their pork. Think tank funding isn't nearly as lush as defense, but it's definitely "healthy". As you may be aware, the Johns Hopkins School has acquired what used to be the "Newseum" and is fixing it up to be a monument to Wilsonian idealism/interventionism. There are thousands of bright, ambitious people in the military and in those think tanks who want careers and are passionately invested in the "fight to do right". It is sad to see intelligent, idealistic people like Anne Applebaum and Garry Kasparov surrender entirely to the notion that Ukraine is a replay of WWII with Putin as Stalin/Hitler. World War I, in my opinion, was caused by the unwillingness of the aristocratic military elites in Austria, Germany, and Russia to accept that they no longer had a reason to exist. I fear our military intellectual elite could lead us to a similar disaster--one that would encompass the entire world, rather than merely a continent.