British Prime Minister David Cameron recently reassured President Obama that Britain would remain a "robust ally" — America's wingman — in confronting threats around the world. Of course, that comment might have been a little more comforting if it had not come on the heels of his government's decision to cut Britain's already modest defense budget by another 8 percent. Cameron and his colleagues approved that reduction despite Washington's frantic lobbying.
London's decision to pare down military spending as part of its strategy to close the government's huge budget deficit is symptomatic of what's happening with many of America's security partners, but Britain's maneuver was especially painful to hawks in the United States. Even as other allies became less and less willing to follow Washington's lead on military interventions in recent years, Britain remained doggedly loyal. Indeed, former prime minister Tony Blair endured the label "America's lap dog" with the proverbial stiff upper lip as the war in Iraq became increasingly unpopular in his country.
And unlike some allies, Britain did more than provide rhetorical support for Washington's global adventures. It put boots on the ground and planes in the air. Now, though, there are doubts not only whether a British government would assist future U.S.-led interventions, given the negative tenor of domestic opinion, but also whether London would have the troops and hardware to do so even if it wanted to help. It's as if the Lone Ranger could no longer count on Tonto — or Don Quixote was being abandoned by Sancho Panza.
American leaders seem to be in denial about what is happening in various allied countries. How clueless Washington has become was apparent when the Obama administration issued its first National Security Strategy document last May. The United States, the NSS stressed, cannot afford to be the world's sole policeman; it needs partners who are willing and able to meet security challenges.
But Washington will increasingly look in vain for partners who are willing or able, much less both. America's $700 billion military budget, which consumes about 5 percent of our gross domestic product, has soared over the past decade. In contrast, allied defense spending has been in free fall. With the new budget, London's outlays will decline to a mere 2.7 percent of GDP. And Britain is a veritable Sparta compared to other NATO members. Germany's once credible defense force is now a shrunken husk, with Berlin's spending down to 1.4 percent of GDP. Such key countries as Italy and Spain skimp even more.
The administration can't count on newer NATO members to fill that gap. The military efforts of many of those countries are too small even to matter. Such nations as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Albania, which joined the alliance in the last two rounds of enlargement, collectively spend less on defense in a year than the United States spends in Afghanistan in three weeks. Whatever their desires, they are incapable of providing more than token military deployments. That might be useful for political symbolism — Washington can create the illusion that an intervention is multilateral — but such commitments are useless from a military standpoint.
Washington doesn't have much reason for optimism about help from its East Asian allies either. Japan, by far the most significant friendly power in the region, strictly adheres to spending no more than 1 percent of GDP on the military. South Korea devotes less than 3 percent to defense. And both Tokyo and Seoul are largely concerned about possible security threats from North Korea or China. Neither the governments nor the populace in those countries show much interest in helping the United States in any future nation-building mission in the Middle East or Africa.
Even when allied forces have been deployed in such missions, the results have ranged from frustrating to comical. Japan sent members of its Self-Defense Force to Iraq in 2003, but Tokyo required them to be non-combat personnel. That meant that Japanese forces had to be surrounded and protected by the troops of other countries in the U.S.-led coalition. South Korea sent true combat units, but Seoul insisted that they be stationed only in Iraqi Kurdistan — the northern portion of Iraq that was so peaceful that there were very few incidents, in marked contrast to the chaos that gripped the rest of the country.
Several allied governments have imposed similar restrictions regarding their units in Afghanistan. Berlin, for example, did not allow its troops to be deployed outside of northern Afghanistan, far away from Kandahar and other Taliban-infested portions of the country. That was probably just as well: a 2008 Bundestag investigation found that German troops were so out of shape, in part because of excessive beer consumption, that they would be useless in a combat setting. Unfortunately for those forces, though, their seemingly safe, comfortable assignment did not entirely turn out that way. Taliban units infiltrated into northern Afghanistan, and German troops, much to their surprise, found themselves under fire.
Other NATO countries placed various requirements on the use of their forces. In some cases, night missions were deemed off-limits. In others, troops could not be deployed at all in situations in which combat was likely. Such limitations drove U.S. military commanders to distraction. But they merely reflected how unpopular U.S.-led counterinsurgency or nation-building missions in faraway lands have become in most allied countries. Opinion polls among NATO members show majorities — usually strong majorities — opposed to having their troops involved in such interventions.
With the partial exception of Britain, the Iraq War was unpopular in those nations from the beginning and became dramatically more so as the original justifications for the invasion proved false and hopes for a smooth transition to a pro-Western, democratic Iraq proved delusional. There was initially more support among Europeans for the mission in Afghanistan. Indeed, following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, NATO states for the first time in the history of the alliance invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which proclaims that an attack on one member is considered an attack on all. There was little public opposition to that move, even though it was evident that the United States would take military action against Afghanistan as al-Qaeda's principal base of operations.
But as the war dragged on and the violence continued to mount with little evidence of positive results, Europeans became more negative. An opinion survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and several other think tanks in the summer of 2010 found strong support — some 64 percent — in 11 major European Union countries for withdrawing their troops from Afghanistan, or at least greatly reducing their numbers. In several key countries, including Germany and Poland, majorities favored full withdrawal.
The only way that NATO governments could keep their increasingly restless populations from open rebellion against policies that supported the U.S. war in Afghanistan was to place more rigorous restrictions on the use of their troops. But even that strategy has become noticeably less effective in the past year. Europeans want their forces removed from harm's way, and leaders in democratic political systems ignore such sentiment at their peril.
Allied governments around the world have discovered that the hard way. Early on, opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq contributed to the electoral ouster of Spain's conservative government and the victory of the opposition Socialists. More recently, dissatisfaction over his support for Washington's wars played a role in the defeat of Australian prime minister John Howard. Tony Blair's reputation as a U.S. foreign policy lackey undermined his political position to the point that he was forced to give up his leadership of the Labour Party and his post as prime minister.
The combination of declining military capabilities and dwindling public support for murky interventions in the Third World means that Washington cannot count on allied participation in future crusades. Even the loyal Brits are blunt on that point. Despite its new, downsized budget, Britain remains something more than a military pushover. It still has a capable navy and air force as well as a small, but potent, nuclear deterrent. That force is adequate to deter aggression against the British homeland and deal with security contingencies in the European theater. But venturing far afield is another matter. Key elements of Cameron's budget reduction included a 10 percent cut in uniformed personnel and whopping slashes in weapons systems, such as artillery, crucial to ground force deployments.
That sends a signal that London does not contemplate participation in more Iraq- or Afghanistan-style missions. In case Washington misunderstood, Prime Minister Cameron stressed that in the future British forces would be deployed "only where key UK national interests are at stake." Ventures to promote democracy at the point of bayonets in the Middle East or Central Asia are unlikely to fit that description.
Instead of complaining about allies' decisions to look after their own interests, Washington should take heed. As usual, American neoconservatives manage to miss the point. Whining about London's more austere defense budget, Council on Foreign Relations writer Max Boot argues that it "means that even more of the burden of defending what used to be called the Free World will fall on our overstretched armed forces."
But they are overstretched only because U.S. leaders have been following the policy prescriptions of Max Boot and his cohorts. Even the notion of a "Free World" reflects obsolete thinking. A Free World arrayed against what? A Soviet empire that disappeared two decades ago? A motley collection of stateless terrorists? Such rhetoric tries to mask the dubious goal of interventions in strategically marginal places for obscure objectives.
Nation-building missions and armed democracy-promotion ventures are not essential to America's security. We do not need, and should not want, any more Iraqs or Afghanistans. More than 5,000 dead Americans and nearly $2 trillion down the drain ought to deter Washington from pursuing similar schemes in the future.
It was bad enough during the Cold War when the United States appointed itself global policeman, but in recent years our nation has become the world's armed social worker. U.S. leaders will find that to be an increasingly lonely role. Even America's professed allies no longer have the military capabilities or the desire to join us as junior partners. Instead of berating them for a lack of loyalty, we ought to emulate their wisdom and restraint.