NATO partisans often act as though the date on the calendar reads 1950 instead of 2015. Not only do they see Russia, a regional actor with limited means, as identical to the Soviet Union at the zenith of its military power and ideological influence, but they regard democratic Europe as a helpless protectorate. That point became clear again this week with an op-ed by Retired Major General Robert H. Scales in the Wall Street Journal. lamenting “the precarious position of the U.S. military presence in Europe.” Scales subsequently highlighted his arguments in a December 1 interview on Fox News, contending that there were fewer American soldiers protecting Europe than there are police employed in New York City.
A striking feature of his analysis, and the assessments of others who echo former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s contention that the United States is the “indispensable nation,” is the bland assumption that America must take primary (and often exclusive) responsibility for the defense of other regions. Scales, for example, wants to preposition large quantities of sophisticated weaponry in the Baltic republics and along other points on Russia’s western frontier so that the American military can ride to the rescue if Moscow engages in any threatening behavior.
The notion of the United States as the indispensable nation is nothing short of national narcissism. That attitude is especially obsolete and corrosive with regard to Europe. Scales and others in his ideological camp ought to be asked why the European Union countries can’t defend themselves and deal with security issues in their neighborhood. It’s not 1950 any longer. The European nations are not impoverished, demoralized countries still recovering from the devastation of World War II. The European Union now has both a population and an economy larger than that of the United States. Equally pertinent, the EU has three times the population and a gross domestic product more than 10 times that of Russia.
Clearly, the EU should be able to build whatever defenses might be necessary to deter Russian aggression—even granting the questionable assumption that Vladimir Putin harbors large-scale expansionist ambitions. The European nations have not done so to this point because they have been able to free-ride on America’s security efforts. That is why most of the NATO allies spend far less than two percent of GDP on the military while the United States spends over four percent.
Influential people like General Scales are enablers for such cynical free riding, and patriotic Americans should spurn their woefully obsolete arguments. It is well past time for Americans to reject the paradigm of national narcissism, which is based on the flawed assumption that only the United States can deal with possible aggression. Europe is the place to commence a new, more realistic policy. We should make it clear to the Europeans that they are now big boys and girls who need to take responsibility for the defense of their own region.