America Needs Allies, Not Dependents

It’s time for America to engage in burden shedding, rather than hope for burden sharing.
May 5, 2016 • Commentary
This article appeared in National Interest (Online) on May 5, 2016.

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

Unfortunately, littering the globe with security commitments is costly. Equally important, America’s defense and support transforms friends and allies into dependents. The principle is the same as domestic welfare. Why do it yourself if someone else will?

In his recent interview with the Atlantic, President Barack Obama complained, “Free‐​riders aggravate me.” But 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.

At least the KSA began putting more money into its military when it perceived the Obama administration’s commitment to Riyadh was waning. The kingdom was outraged at Washington’s nuclear negotiations with Iran and refusal to directly intervene in the Syrian civil war. Yet the “alliance” has still dragged the United States into the KSA’s war in Yemen, which has gone from a local civil war to a regional sectarian conflict.

Content to spend barely 1 percent of its GDP on the military throughout the Cold War while facing the Soviet Union and Maoist China, Japan has started doing a bit more. It appears Tokyo is worried that Washington might not go to war with Beijing over the Senkakyu/​Diaoyu Islands. For decades, Japan’s only responsibility as an ally was to be defended, but recently Japan passed legislation allowing its military to aid U.S. forces under attack.

Washington’s Korean commitment grows out of the Korean War, which ended sixty‐​three years ago. Since then the Republic of Korea has raced ahead of the North, with an economy as much as forty 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 America does. Although Seoul’s military is qualitatively superior to that of the North, South Korea’s forces lag in quantity—because the ROK expects to be defended by America.

Then there are the Europeans. 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. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg took great pleasure earlier this year when he announced that NATO’s European members only slightly reduced their military outlays in 2015, after years of significant cuts. This is considered progress.

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 that during the Cold War, it was in America’s interest to defend countries even if they would not protect themselves. No longer. Washington faces no hegemonic threat, no ideological competitor, no international peer. There isn’t any “there there,” as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland.

Yet the alliances commit America to go to war in defense of other nations’ interests, inflating the Pentagon’s budget by tens or hundreds of billions of dollars annually. 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.

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