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Now Is No Time to Abandon Our Allies

America's allies are "free riders" in part because we want them to be.
March 13, 2023
Now Is No Time to Abandon Our Allies
Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a joint press conference, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in the Benjamin Franklin room of the State Department on June 01, 2022 in Washington, DC. During the news conference Blinken and Stoltenberg spoke on the addition of Finland and Switzerland to NATO, security aid to Ukrainian forces, and global food security. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

I have nothing but affection for my former colleagues and friends at the Cato Institute, so it gives me no pleasure to point out that on one of the most important issues in the world today, libertarians find themselves in remarkable alignment with the nationalist-MAGA right.

A report by Cato’s Justin Logan argues that the way to bolster U.S. alliances is to create uncertainty about our commitment to them. The essay paints a stark picture of U.S. allies’ free riding on the efforts of “Uncle Sucker”: While the United States has accounted for only 36 percent of allied GDP since 1960, it has contributed more than 61 percent of allied defense spending. He notes, correctly, that defense spending by our allies such as Japan or Taiwan has tended to increase when their security environment worsens.

As a result, Logan suggests the United States should encourage all our allies’ security environments to deteriorate; to “stop reassuring our allies,” start withdrawing our troops stationed overseas, and make “it clear that U.S. attention to Europe is likely to wane.” No, seriously. “The only way to produce more equitable burdensharing,” Logan writes “is to make allies doubt the strength of the U.S. commitment: the stronger the belief in the U.S. commitment, the harder it is to get allies to defend themselves.”

There are several flaws in Logan’s analysis. The first is that U.S. defense spending includes costs of operations in which major allies declined to participate, notably the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. Those two conflicts together cost, in monetary terms alone, between $9 and $10 trillion. Neither France nor Germany, two significant NATO allies, participated in either one.

It seems spurious to castigate them as free riders in part for staying out of wars that libertarians in particular would identify as mistakes, and which were largely irrelevant to the true purpose of our allies’ military expenditures anyway. NATO’s first secretary general, Lord Hastings Ismay, famously quipped that the alliance’s purpose was to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”—not to defend South Vietnam or deal with Saddam Hussein.

The second problem is that our defense spending includes the cost of the American nuclear triad—a system which even the other NATO nuclear powers, France and the United Kingdom, lack. In 2019, the United States spent more than $35 billion to maintain its nuclear arsenal, but during the period Logan analyzes, which included the peak of the Cold War competition, the figure was surely much higher, especially as a percentage of GDP.

Surely Logan is not suggesting that Germany and France ought to join every U.S. war abroad and match what the United States spends on its nuclear arsenal. But even then, his suggestion to “muddy” the signals about our alliance commitments is penny wise but pound foolish.

Signals of uncertainty would be read not only by the delinquent country that we would like to see step up. Many different constituencies would like Europe to act “autonomously” of the United States, starting with the Russians and the Chinese, through France, to a myriad lesser actors, such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary. “In a war on Europe’s borders,” he complained recently about U.S. assistance to Ukraine, “the Americans have the final say.”

As a result, even if Logan’s idea resulted in more “equitable” burden sharing, it would do so at the expense of making the international environment facing the United States—not just our allies—more dangerous and unpredictable. It would incentivize our allies in good standing to look beyond Washington for security, while encouraging our enemies, most notably China and Russia, to start crossing our red lines and expose them as hollow.

Had NATO’s deterrent effect, for example, been weaker due to deliberately ambiguous U.S. messaging, Europe could easily have seen a war not in Ukraine but on the territory of NATO members. Russia’s military may have been exposed as rotten in the current war, but it is unlikely that Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania could have effectively stopped a Russian invasion. The United States would then face the unenviable choice of fighting an actual war against Russia in Eastern Europe or cutting our allies loose and dramatically devaluing partnership with America in the eyes of our allies and prospective partners, not to mention the associated economic and political costs the United States would bear. Considering what Russia’s war against Ukraine did to worldwide energy and agricultural markets, it’s chilling to think what a war with an America-less NATO would do.

The point of America’s expansive role in the world, and of our alliances, is not to “share” our burden. Indeed, “sharing” the burden is one way of describing American foreign policy in the 1920s and 1930s, in which the United States sought to engage the world without committing itself to anything, and relied heavily on the British and French Empires to manage things. It didn’t work.

Make no mistake: Global leadership is costly. However, it affords U.S. policymakers tools to reshape the world in a way that is aligned with our long-term interests. The benefits to the United States of an international order sustained by U.S. primacy are manifold, from the role of dollar as a global reserve currency, to trade liberalization, to decolonization, to a miscellany of international institutions designed to rebuild the world in our image, which induce cooperation on any number of subjects that are of interest to us. One great example is nuclear non-proliferation, which was as much as anything a policy by which the United States agreed to take on a disproportionate share of the burden of nuclear deterrence in exchange for our allies—Germany and Japan most notably—not developing nuclear weapons.

Most importantly, however, our alliances keep the United States out of costly wars by preventing them from materializing in the first place. The United States joined two global conflicts in the first half of the 20th century, not because of explicit treaty obligation, but simply because standing aside was politically intolerable. Both instances involved extraordinary sacrifices. Besides the human cost, U.S. defense spending exceeded 40 percent of GDP in 1943 and 1944. NATO, alongside a network of other tripwires around the world, has been developed to prevent similar catastrophes from happening again, with extraordinary success.

Logan talks flippantly about Russia’s war against Ukraine. Russia’s “dismal performance” against its neighbor supposedly proves that the Kremlin is a minor threat to Europe. “In Ukraine, the Europeans, savvily, have passed the buck yet again. The Americans, out of profligacy and inertia, have caught it.” What this “realist” account conveniently ignores, of course, is that defense spending is going up considerably in practically all NATO countries in Europe—arguably as a result of what is seen as a dramatically worse security environment. With as much as 4 percent of GDP allocated to the defense budget this year, Poland will outspend the United States in percentage terms. This is a useful test of Logan’s idea: It’s good that Poland will spend more on defense, but is it worth the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives? If the American security commitment to Ukraine had been greater, instead of weaker, the genocidal war may have been averted.

This is where the implications of Logan’s argument most directly echo the nationalist-MAGA right. The likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Sen. J.D. Vance have made their position explicit: They don’t care about Ukraine. For them, the unprovoked, genocidal war in Europe is just “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” Logan’s idea, though he doesn’t say so explicitly, comes close to making the same point, suggesting that inviting more such catastrophes may be a price worth paying as long as America’s allies pony up a little more.

Of course the Europeans, particularly the Germans, should do more. Yet, before February 24 of last year, very few predicted the extraordinary transformation of Europe’s energy markets as a result of the Russian aggression, with no Russian gas flowing to Germany since October. The determination to address what had long been a major vulnerability for Europe, together with the impressive unity on sanctions—leaving voices such as Orbán’s in isolation—is a result of Ukrainian heroism and also of U.S. leadership.

Had the United States done less to help Ukraine, it is inarguable that Europeans would have flailed instead of stepping up. The recent debate over the Leopard and Abrams tanks is evidence enough. For the risk-averse government in Berlin, U.S. involvement provided a cover to do the right thing, rather than an excuse not to do it.

Academic proposals to “muddy” the signals about America’s commitment to Europe (or to other parts of the world) to induce our allies to take on a more active role might provide interesting thought experiments. They become reckless and irresponsible at a time when bad-faith actors in U.S. politics are willing to seize on any talking points that would provide a veneer of credibility to their isolationism, protectionism, and ethnonationalism.

At a minimum, advocates of such a policy should be required to answer a simple question: Just how confident are you that your proposal is not a recipe for destabilization and conflict from which the United States would not be able to stay away?

Dalibor Rohac

Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @DaliborRohac.