February 26, 2009 7:38AM

Time to Drop America’s Military Welfare Dependents

Matthew Yglesias takes me to task for sniping at poor little Iceland, which is thinking about closing its Defense Agency. And I will grant that they are nice people who have just gone through an economic crisis worse than our own. Still, there is something very tiresome about other countries being perfectly content to rely on the U.S. to pick up their defense tab.

The real problem comes with the big European states, which also rely on Washington, as well as all of the new additions to NATO, which are essentially military black holes, creating far greater obligations than assets for America. Prospective new members, such as Georgia and Ukraine, would be even worse, bringing potential conflicts into the alliance. Yglesias argues that “overall European defense spending is quite robust,” but that ignores output: during Washington’s bizarre war against Serbia even the Europeans admitted that they had just 10–15 percent of America’s effective combat capability. Few European states are capable of fielding significant units of combat personnel. The largest states also are derelict. German papers report that German soldiers in Afghanistan–stationed in the north, so they don’t actually have to fight–have been busy eating sausages and drinking beer, and aren’t particularly fit for combat service. 

None of that would matter if the U.S. wasn’t part of a trans‐​Atlantic alliance in which Americans are expected to do all of the heavy lifting if anything bad happens. If war erupted with Russia over, say, Estonia or Poland, who do we think would send the bulk of the air wings and combat ships? Who would be calling up battle‐​tested Army and Marine Corps units? And who would be highlighting their strategic nuclear forces to deter any Russian resort to nuclear weapons. Hint: it isn’t likely to be the Germans or Italians. And probably not even the British and French. And certainly not the Icelanders. 

“Multilateral defense relationships” can be useful, but permanent security guarantees to populous and prosperous friends are not. Especially when the U.S. is very busy elsewhere around the world, unlike the friends, who are far more interested in sustaining their domestic welfare states.

At a time of economic crisis, it would make sense for the U.S. to tell its rich international welfare dependents–Europe, South Korea, and Japan–that their defense will be their business. The U.S. should retain a robust military, and be capable of cooperating with allied states if a hostile hegemonic power arose that actually threatened America, instead of a small client state half a world away. But our “multilateral defense relationships” should become ones of genuine cooperation regarding shared interests, not ones of helpless dependency in which Washington guarantees the interests of others. Which is what NATO has become.

It will be less painful if the U.S. voluntarily returns to a more normal role in the world. America will long be influential, but the time is coming when it will be merely first among equals. The American people will be far better off if Washington stops wasting their money and lives attempting to micro‐​manage global affairs.