America Has Dependents, Not Allies

America’s international position is distinguished by its alliance networks. Presidential candidates fear today’s dangerous world, but the United States is allied with every major industrialized power, save China and Russia. It is a position that Washington’s few potential adversaries must envy.

Yet as I pointed out in National Interest: “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 policymakers hope to prevent war with treaty guarantees, the resulting tripwires ensure involvement if deterrence fails.”

Equally important, America’s involvement tends to turn friends and allies into dependents. The principle is the same as domestic welfare: Why should they do for themselves if they can get someone else to do so?

In his recent interview in the Atlantic, 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. More recently, the “alliance” 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 to do 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.

Since the Korean War, 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 percent of its GDP on the military than does 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. In fact, in all of these cases, the United States 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.

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 United States has needlessly created a gaggle of dependents.