Learning Nothing, Forgetting Nothing: The Useless Laments About Allies’ Contributions to Defense

Today in the Los Angeles Times, Gary Schmitt argues that America’s Western allies are not spending enough on their militaries. This is not news. But Schmitt offers no solution to the problem.

Smaller countries free ride on larger countries’ security guarantees because it is the rational thing to do. Almost two years ago, Schmitt authored a very similar piece in the Wall Street Journal. If he was concerned then, or is concerned now, with the inadequate spending of our allies, the best way to change that is to revoke our commitment to defend them. As I wrote in response to Schmitt’s Wall Street Journal article:

In their 1966 article “Economic Theory of Alliances,” Mancur Olson Jr. and Richard Zeckhauser solved this puzzle. Olson and Zeckhauser explained the disproportionate contributions of NATO members with a model that showed that in the provision of collective goods (like security) in organizations (like the NATO alliance), the larger nations will tend to bear a “disproportionately large share of the common burden.” Due in part to these dynamics, Kenneth Waltz concluded by 1979 that “in fact if not in form, NATO consists of guarantees given by the United States to its European allies and to Canada.” As Waltz pointed out, France’s withdrawal in 1966 from NATO’s integrated military command failed to “noticeably change the bipolar balance” between NATO and the Soviet-sponsored WTO.

The implication of the Olson-Zeckhauser model, which has held up remarkably well over time, is that the only way to force Europe to spend more would be to make clear that the United States views European security as a private, not a collective, good, and that consequently its provision was rightly Europe’s responsibility. Given U.S. policymakers’ extreme reticence to adopt this conclusion, likely because a more independent Europe would be more independent, we should expect European defense spending to stay low and U.S. defense intellectuals to keep complaining about European free-riding, all to no avail. (I have previously written about this subject here and here.)

If we maintain a commitment to defend our European wards, they’ll keep free riding and Uncle Sucker will keep paying. Think tankers writing earnest op-eds and policymakers giving stern speeches isn’t going to change this dynamic.