Tag: Mancur Olson

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.

Reaping What We’ve Sown in Europe

Josef Joffe famously referred to the U.S. presence in Western Europe as “Europe’s pacifier.” The idea was that you stick the American pacifier in there and the *cough* recurring problem emanating from Europe goes away. 

After the Cold War ended, and the official reason for the NATO alliance blew away as if in the wind, we never considered letting the alliance go with it.  That tells you something.  Instead of coming home, we pushed NATO “out of area” rather than allowing it to go “out of business.”  Christopher Layne argues that this was all by design.  U.S. policymakers never intended to allow Europe to establish its autonomy and worked diligently to ensure that efforts at autonomous European defense would fail.  They succeeded.

In February, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was whining about the “demilitarization of Europe” and how the Europeans have grown “averse to military force.”  I responded by pointing out that this was dumb.  Mancur Olson’s logic and the history of American policy on the European continent that Layne documents show that we were as much to blame for this state of affairs as the Euros themselves.

And now here’s the Wall Street Journal pointing out that the Euros are slashing their defense budgets further still.

There are two schools of thought on this.  The first says that European defense spending isn’t so low as it’s commonly made out to be.  This group argues (implicitly at times) that there is no pacifier.  War has been “burned out of the system” in Europe, to steal a phrase, so the Euros should just invest in capabilities that can help out with the sorts of overseas noodling-around missions we’re doing now in Afghanistan and that NATO/America is likely to create in the future.

But I don’t think you have to be John Mearsheimer [.pdf] to belong to the second group.  This group buys pacifier logic but worries about both the prudence and the sustainability of Washington playing the pacifier role indefinitely.  It worries about the larger role the United States appropriates for itself in the world as it promotes the infantilization of Europe.  And it worries, ultimately, about how this all ends.

The question for the first group, it seems to me, is how little European defense spending is too little, and why.  Further, if we approach or cross the “too little” line, what should we do to promote more European defense spending?  Would this include promoting a larger European role in the world, which has historically been the main reason America has opposed EU defense efforts?

Regardless, the perennial American lament about European defense spending is likely to wind up again, particularly in the shadow of the dubious Afghanistan campaign.