The AP's Donna Cassata is reporting today on a study commissioned by the Senate Armed Services Committee, which purports to calculate the costs of the U.S. military presence overseas. This is a hot topic, but it isn't exactly a new one. Americans have long been frustrated by inequitable burden sharing, with many of our wealthy allies spending a fraction of what we do on defense. On Monday, Cato published a new infographic on the subject to coincide with tax day (see below).
Unfortunately, the committee's estimate that the permanent stationing of U.S. troops overseas costs us $10 billion each year is too low--in all likelihood, much too low. I have not yet had a chance to read the entire report, but the DoD's own estimate of overseas military costs includes the costs of personnel, and is more than twice that amount, $20.9 billion (see p. 207 in the latest budget submission). Even the DoD's figure, however, understates the true cost of our commitments to defend other countries that can and should defend themselves, because it doesn't fully account for the additional force structure that is required to maintain a presence many thousands of miles away from the United States. If the U.S. military operated chiefly in the Western Hemisphere, with regular expeditionary operations far afield, we could safely have fewer people on active duty, and mobilize a large and well-trained reserve for genuine emergencies. This smaller military would require ships and planes to take them where they were needed, when they were needed, but not as many planes and ships as we have today. And no report can actually assess the costs and risks when and if our security commitments compel us to become embroiled in a distant war that does not engage vital U.S. interests.
Other studies have attempted to assess all of the costs of these various global commitments, and the estimates vary widely. Graham Fuller and Ian Lesser of the RAND Corporation, for example, estimated in 1997 that the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf cost between $30 and $60 billion per year. A more recent study by Mark Delucchi and James Murphy estimated costs between $47 and $98 billion. Several of us at Cato have been compiling these estimates, and coming up with our own, as part of a comprehensive study of the costs of our global military presence. We will publish our key findings when they become available.
In the meantime, this much is clear: our security commitments, many of them holdovers from the Cold War, induce other countries to spend less than they could on their own defense. And they compel Americans to spend more than we should.
Joshua Keating over at Foreign Policy offered a thoughtful commentary on Rob Montz’s North Korea documentary, “Juche Strong,” after last Thursday’s screening at Cato. Keating contended that the film, which suggests that pervasive regime propaganda has created at least some degree of legitimacy in the minds of many North Koreans, makes a case “that the United States needs to maintain its current military commitment to the region.”
No doubt, it would be better for the Republic of Korea and Japan if the North was made up of “cowed and terrified people who will abandon their leaders at the first signs of weakness,” as Keating put it. But even popular determination and commitment—so far untested in an external crisis—go only so far. The question is not whether the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a threat, but 1) whether it is a threat which cannot be contained by its neighbors and 2) is a sufficient threat to America warranting U.S. led containment. The answers are no.
First, the DPRK has amassed a large army with lots of tanks, but training is limited and equipment is antiquated. The North’s forces could devastate Seoul with artillery and missile strikes and a 4,000 tank surge might reach the South’s capital, but North Korea would be unlikely to ultimately triumph. The latter is weak in the air and with a decrepit economy can ill afford anything other than an unlikely blitzkrieg victory. Nor could Pyongyang look to Russia or China for support: the Cold War truly is over.
More important, the ROK, which currently possesses around 40 times the North’s GDP and twice the North’s population, could do much more in its own defense. South Korea has created a competent, modern, and sizeable military. Is it enough? Only Seoul can answer.
If the South remains vulnerable to a North Korean strike, it is only because the ROK decided to emphasize economic development and rely on America. That made sense during the early days of the Cold War, but no longer. There is no justification for turning what should be a short-term American shield against another round of Soviet- and Chinese-backed aggression into a long-term U.S. defense dole. It doesn’t matter whether the North Koreans are “Juche Strong or Juche Harmless,” as Keating put it. South Korea can defend itself. (Doing so would be even easier if Seoul and Tokyo worked harder to overcome their historical animus. Alas, they feel little pressure to do so as long as they both can rely on Washington for protection.)
Second, the DPRK poses no threat to America requiring an ongoing military commitment. Even in 1950 the Pentagon did not believe the Korean peninsula to be vital strategically, but the Cold War created a unique context for the conflict. Today a second Korean War would only be a Korean War. Tragic, yes. Threat to America, no. Pyongyang is an ongoing danger to its neighbors, not the United States.
The North matters to the United States primarily because Washington remains entangled, with troops, bases, and defense commitments. That is, North Korea threatens America because Washington chooses to allow North Korea to threaten America.
Of course, proliferation would remain a concern even without a U.S. presence in Korea, but America’s garrison does nothing to promote denuclearization. To the contrary, Washington is helpfully providing tens of thousands of American nuclear hostages if the DPRK creates an arsenal of deliverable nuclear warheads. It would be far better for U.S. forces to be far away, out of range of whatever weapons the North possesses.
North Korea is only one side of the Northeast Asian balance. It doesn’t much matter if Pyongyang is weak or strong so long as South Korea and Japan are stronger.
Americans lived for decades with the fear of instant death from a Soviet nuclear strike. The People’s Republic of China has acquired a similar, though more limited, capability. Nothing happened in either case, because even evil people who acted like barbarians at home refused to commit suicide abroad.
So it is with North Korea. A Defense Intelligence Agency report that Pyongyang may have miniaturized a nuclear weapon for use on a missile has created a predictable stir. Yet the analysis was carefully hedged, and Washington’s top security leadership, ranging from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper dismissed the seriousness of the threat.
If the so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was lucky, it could successfully launch its longest range missile, topped by a warhead with explosives rather than a nuclear weapon, without the rocket blowing up or falling back on the DPRK. With additional luck, the missile might hit somewhere in Alaska or Hawaii, though Pyongyang would have little control over the actual strike zone.
But if the missile “worked” in this way, the North’s luck would quickly end. The United States would launch several nuclear-topped missiles and Pyongyang, certainly, and every urban area in the North, probably, would be vaporized. The “lake of fire” about which the DPRK has constantly spoken would occur, all over North Korea. Pretty-boy Kim Jong-un wouldn’t have much to smile about then.
Deterrence worked against Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. There is no indication that it won’t work against the North Korean leadership. There always is a risk of mistake or miscalculation, but that properly is a problem for Pyongyang’s neighbors.
The latest DPRK crisis should trigger a policy shift in Washington. Once the immediate furor has passed, the Obama administration should begin bringing home the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the Republic of Korea, and then end America’s formal security guarantee. Once Washington no longer confronted the North, the latter would turn its ire elsewhere.
The ROK should take over its own defense, while building a better relationship with democratic neighbors, most obviously Japan, which also has been threatened by the North. At the same time, the Obama administration should hint at a rethink of Washington’s traditional opposition to the possibility of South Korea and Japan building nuclear weapons. China should understand that failing to take strong measures to curb its ally’s atomic ambitions could unleash the far more sophisticated nuclear potential of America’s allies.
North Korea is a practical threat to the United States only to the degree which Washington allows. Better policy-making would reduce America’s role in Pyongyang’s ongoing tragic farce.
The NATO summit starts Sunday in Chicago and will be the largest gathering ever held by the alliance. This is fitting given NATO’s desire to act around the globe. While U.S. officials say no decisions on further expanding membership will be made at the meeting, they explain that the door remains open. Adding additional security commitments in this way would be a mistake.
The United States has always been and will continue to be the guarantor of NATO’s military promises. In reality, NATO could not pay its bills without the United States, much less conduct serious military operations. American alliance policy has become a form of foreign aid. Nowhere is that more true than in Europe.
America’s alliances once had a serious purpose: to increase U.S. security. NATO joined the United States and Western Europe to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating Eurasia. The alliance lost its raison d’être in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. Communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe had toppled. The Warsaw Pact soon dissolved. Ultimately the Soviet Union collapsed.
Yet 23 years later NATO labors on, attempting to remake failed societies and anoint winners in civil wars. There’s no big threat left: Russia isn’t going to revive the Red Army and conquer the European continent. Moscow was barely capable of beating up on hapless Georgia.
Moreover, the Euro zone crisis threatens to turn NATO’s military capabilities into a farce. Virtually every European state is cutting back on its military, even France and Great Britain, which traditionally had the most serious—and most deployable—forces. NATO always looked like North America and The Others. Today the only power prepared to battle even a decrepit North African dictatorship is America.
Yet like the Borg of Star Trek fame, the alliance wants to ever-expand, absorbing every country in its path. Bosnia—an artificial nation who military was cobbled together from three warring factions—hopes to join. So, too, Macedonia, which remains at odds with Greece over its very name. Georgia, which triggered a war with Russia in apparent expectation of receiving U.S. support, wants in. Montenegro, which has no military of note, is also interested.
There is even talk of adding Kosovo, another artificial country in which the majority ethnically cleansed national and religious minorities while under allied occupation. Serbia, bombed by NATO in 1999 and still resisting Kosovo’s secession, is on the long list. As is Ukraine, a country with a large Russophile population and a government that acts more Russian than Western.
Adding these countries would greatly expand America’s liabilities while adding minimal capabilities. The United States would have to further subsidize the new members to bring their militaries up to Western standards while making their disputes and controversies into America’s disputes and controversies. Worst would be expanding the alliance up to Russia’s southern border, giving further evidence to Moscow of a plan of encirclement. As Henry Kissinger once said, even paranoids have enemies. Indeed, Washington would not react well if the Warsaw Pact had included Mexico and Canada.
The United States cannot afford to take on more allies and effectively underwrite their security. It is not worth protecting Georgia at the risk of confronting Russia, for instance. Moreover, now is the time to end this foreign aid to wealthy European countries. The Europeans have a GDP ten times as large as that of Russia. Europe’s population is three times as big. The Europeans should defend themselves. If they want to expand their alliance all around Russia, let them. But the U.S. government, bankrupt in all but name, should finally focus on defending Americans, not most everyone else in the world.