Rational and Reckless Alliances

It makes sense for Europe to lean on America for protection. East Asia is a different story.

Critics have complained for decades about the willingness of America’s allies to free ride on the security efforts of the United States. U.S. demands for greater burden sharing by NATO’s European members were prominent during the earliest years of the alliance. At one point, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles even threatened that Washington would conduct an “agonizing reappraisal” of the commitment to Europe’s defense if more serious efforts were not forthcoming. The European allies correctly concluded the threat was a bluff, and they continued making only very modest investments in their own defenses, despite periodic grumbling from U.S. officials in the years that followed.

America’s allies and security clients in East Asia engaged in similar behavior during and after the Cold War. Japan’s self-imposed limit of spending no more than 1 percent of the country’s gross domestic product on defense (a limit that had Washington’s full blessing, if not insistence) symbolized the pervasive dependence on the United States for protection.

As a new Cato Institute infographic and video demonstrate, allied free riding has grown even worse in the past few years. Today, the United States spends nearly 5 percent of its GDP on the military. The rest of NATO spends a paltry 1.3 percent, South Korea 2.6 percent, and Japan still just 1 percent. And the trend in the major European powers, even such countries as France and Britain that once made respectable outlays (in the area of 3 to 4 percent), is toward stagnation, at best.

But as much as U.S. officials, members of Congress, and various pundits might complain, such behavior is predictable and rational. Washington has insisted on being the “indispensable nation,” actually encouraging dependence on the part of other nations to preserve the U.S. leadership role in both Europe and East Asia. Allied governments and taxpayers have been happy to pocket the benefits of a multi-billion-dollar annual subsidy, even though it meant relinquishing decision-making autonomy on key security issues.

Despite the humbling aspects of such dependency, for the European allies the benefits outweigh potential disadvantages. Europe is now a quiescent strategic backwater. The only plausible conflicts that could erupt on the continent are spats on the scale of the Balkan wars in the 1990s—and even such relatively minor outbreaks are unlikely. Europe’s principal problems consist of economic strains and some drives for autonomy by disgruntled provinces or regions. Examples of the latter include the simmering ethnic division in Belgium, the continuing discontent in the Catalan and Basque regions of Spain and Scotland’s bid for greater self-rule. Increased military spending would have little relevance to such problems.

The Middle East’s turmoil could negatively impact European countries, but the NATO allies expect Washington to continue being responsible for shielding the continent from such effects. The United States also is Europe’s ultimate insurance policy, on which the Europeans pay no premiums, against the unlikely event that Russia turns aggressive and ends the continent’s new, happy status as a strategic backwater. Given all the pertinent factors, it is not only rational but nearly risk-free for Europe’s NATO members to persist in their low levels of defense expenditures and free ride on the United States.

Such behavior in East Asia, though, is far riskier. The security environment in that part of the world is the opposite of Europe’s boring quiescence. North Korea’s behavior is the most prominent source of tension and instability, but there are others. China’s territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, and other neighbors over islands in the South China Sea, and its even more worrisome quarrel with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, involve more than a little potential for trouble. And lurking in the background, albeit mercifully quiet for now, is Taiwan’s unresolved political status.