James Holmes

Why US Allies Shouldn’t Free Ride

Apathy kills in alliance politics. U.S. allies should begin defending themselves if they want America to defend them.

Why US Allies Shouldn’t Free Ride
Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

A collective shrug. That’s the last reaction a free-rider wants from the person, organization, or nation on which it’s free-riding when the going gets tough. The best way to avoid it? Bear your part of the load. Yep, the Naval Diplomat is looking at you, Europe, and Japan, and Taiwan, and anyone else who depends on American military help in times of strife.

Free-riding, of course, is letting others bear the burden or expense of supplying public goods like maritime security and military defense. The United States free-rode on the Royal Navy during Great Britain’s age of naval mastery. Thanks, Queen Victoria!!! Hey, if someone else is willing to pay any price, bear any burden on your behalf, why say no? It’s human nature.

But sometimes defying human nature is the wisest, and safest, course. The United States took up the slack on the high seas as Britain went into decline. During the 20th century the republic made itself the Western Hemisphere’s, and then the free world’s, chief defender. Accordingly, many Eurasian allies now free-ride on the United States. They spend a trifling amount on defense relative to their means — and relative to what America spends relative to its means.

Indeed, we can affix numbers to this bad habit. Many allies dedicate under 2 percent of GDP to their armed forces, whereas Washington spent 4.4 percent of GDP in 2012. U.S. taxpayers shelled out an average of 6 percent of GDP annually throughout the Cold War. Whether an ally matches what America spends makes a rough-and-ready gauge for an ally’s mettle. Few measure up.

Such neglect betokens dangerous levels of trust in America’s capacity to bear the brunt of allied defense. This isn’t kicking the dirt over American decline. It’s simple political reality. There are no automatic commitments to dispatch forces to protect others. If you doubt me, parse the text of the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, or even Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. You’ll find wiggle-room in the closest of international covenants.

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That’s because deploying armed force is and will always remain a political act, subject to the political conditions of the moment. Allies kid themselves if they assume a U.S. president can simply throw a switch in times of trouble, setting the military machinery in motion. Don’t depend on us too much, folks.

Think about it. We ‘Mercans have an ornery culture, doubtless a product of our frontier heritage and the fact that we’re descended from Europe’s wretched refuse. It’s a truism in these parts that the Lord helps those who help themselves. As he walks the streets of Philly or San Diego and gazes across the broad Atlantic or Pacific, Everyman can be forgiven for assuming U.S. allies are unwilling to help themselves. Why should he pick up the tab, or hazard his son or daughter in combat, to make up the difference?

Presidents, diplomats, and congressmen find it hard to buck such attitudes. The most skilled orator finds it hard to summon up public backing for a seemingly unworthy cause. At a minimum it takes time to rally a reluctant populace, while time will be in short supply in Eurasian contingencies. Indeed, delay could mean the difference between victory and defeat. And inducing doubt in a stronger but faraway opponent — and gaining time while its leadership waffles — is what anti-access strategy is all about.

Now, the story is different if it appears the United States is making a matching contribution to an ally stalwartly devoted to its own defense. That looks like philanthropy! If, say, Taipei put 4.4 percent of GDP into the armed forces rather than half that sum, the White House would find the case for intervening in the Taiwan Strait easier to build. It would be succoring a plucky but overmatched ally.

The Naval Diplomat is forever urging Americans to empathize with friends, bystanders, and foes alike. And so we should. Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes — or imagining yourself doing so — is crucial to fashioning wise policy. But America’s allies must do likewise, foreseeing the political dynamics likely to prevail in North America when fighting breaks out in Europe or Asia. That’s doubly important amid economic hardship and manifold claims on American diplomatic and military resources. They should try to make it easy for Washington to help them.

But it’s not all about GDP figures, numbers of men under arms, or inventories of ships and planes. Allied leaders also need to think about political optics, differentiating as starkly as possible between themselves and the adversary. And that means thinking about how they comport themselves vis-á-vis the citizenry and foreign neighbors. What message, they should ask, will some action — or decision not to act — send to American audiences?

Taiwan’s leaders, for instance, should think twice about how they handle the Sunflower Movement, a youth movement that occupied the Legislative Yuan building last spring to protest a Taiwan-China services agreement. Crack down on (mostly) lawful dissent too hard, and Taipei will look as ruthless as Beijing when it crushes or reeducates dissidents. Why, Everyman might reasonably ask, should America protect one group of authoritarians against another, at heavy cost and risk to itself?

Or how about Japan? After reinterpreting its peace constitution, Tokyo appears ready to assume its share of the burden of collective self-defense. It also appears ready to arm itself to fulfill that mandate. For instance, the navy is bulking up the submarine fleet. Such measures are all to the good. And yet. When the prime minister visits Yasukuni Shrine without announcing he’s not there to honor war criminals, or wonders aloud whether Japan really invaded Korea, or appears to question whether apologizing to Korean comfort women was the right thing to do, that implants question marks in the minds of Japan’s friends abroad. Questions about the worth of a cause slow down democratic decision-making — and could make for a halfhearted American response.

Apathy kills in alliance politics. A collective shrug from one’s patron could mean the cavalry starts galloping to the rescue too late to save the day, or never rides over the hill at all. That prospect should give U.S. allies pause the next time they start drawing up defense budgets — or courting controversy at home.