December 9, 2022 Reading Time: 7 minutes

For the past 77 years, the US has defended the so-called free world. Not all by itself, but almost so for much of the time.

Even today, Washington does more than Europe to defend Europe. None of the continent’s traditionally great powers, Britain, France, and Germany, fields even 300 tanks. The US deploys more ships to the Pacific than Japan possesses to defend itself. Despite having 50 times the economic strength and twice the population of the North, South Korea’s army is smaller and possesses fewer tanks. Worse, Washington threatens to use nuclear weapons in any conflict involving these nations and risk incineration of the American homeland.


The problem only seems to get worse. Washington now is spending far more than its European partners collectively to subsidize Ukraine’s defense, even though Kyiv’s future matters far more to them. Moreover, early European promises to do much more militarily were forgotten once the US stepped in so heavily.

In shock after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, most European nations promised to up defense outlays. That, however, was then. Similar promises have been routinely broken in the past. Already, Germany has carefully redefined its earlier pledge to bolster its military. The latest government in London, despite its “special relationship” with America, announced that it plans to cut military outlays. Nathalie Tocci of the Istituto Affari Internazionali recently observed: “in light of the dramatic deterioration of the Continent’s security environment, these recent defense efforts remain underwhelming.”

So much for Europe’s growing up and taking over adult security responsibilities.

Yet the more the US does, the more its defense dependents whine. Europeans recoil at every mention of Republicans’ taking control of the House of Representatives and Donald Trump’s again running for president. What if Washington stops paying most of the bill for Ukraine’s defense? What if America’s troops go home? Whatever would the helpless and desperate allies do?

The latest complaint is that the US is profiting from the continent’s misfortune. An anonymous European official told Politico: “The fact is, if you look at it soberly, the country that is most profiting from this war is the US because they are selling more gas and at higher prices, and because they are selling more weapons.” Shocking! Of course, America has paid the bulk of Europe’s defense bill for nearly eight decades! And currently, contemplates the risk of nuclear war with Russia over Ukraine.

Japan and South Korea are equally bad. They are wealthy nations that believe the US should nevertheless forever defend them. Their officials constantly whine about their “fear of abandonment.” There has been a crescendo in complaints about America’s refusal to rush into war with Russia to defend Ukraine. Tokyo and Seoul, which hide behind America’s nuclear shield, suddenly realized that Washington policymakers prefer not to trigger radioactive self-immolation when America’s vital interests are not at stake.

The two governments, whose military outlays fail to match the threats they claim to face, want the US to do more to “reassure” them. Add more troops and weapons. Install tactical nukes. Engage in “nuclear sharing,” giving non-nuclear powers a share in planning for their use. And make more promises of eternal affection, dedication, and love.

However, with the People’s Republic of China’s embarking upon a major nuclear buildup and North Korea’s continuing to expand its nuclear arsenal, the risks of defending South Korea and Japan are growing substantially. It was one thing to threaten to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear North Korea or small-nuclear PRC. Beijing now appears to be planning a nuclear arsenal near America’s in size. And the North could accumulate a couple hundred warheads over the next few years, which would place it at the same general level as India, Pakistan, and other modest nuclear powers. Neither Beijing nor Pyongyang could successfully launch a first strike at the US, but both could threaten Gotterdammerung if the US confronted them.

All this is occurring as the US government speeds toward de facto bankruptcy. Washington’s accumulated debt has broken $31 trillion. Debt held by the public (rather than other government agencies) runs 100 percent of GDP, will soon break the record set after World War II, and will approach 200 percent by mid-century, absent an unlikely turn toward fiscal reform. America’s allies complain about hard times. The US is going broke paying its allies’ bills. Yet if they have their way, Americans will be digging ever-deeper to sustain what has turned into a permanent military dole.

Unfortunately, US officials appear to have forgotten that their primary responsibility is to the American people. Washington’s ends should focus on protecting this nation. In short, the US doesn’t have the right to do whatever it wants—such as committing aggression against Iraq based on an ostentatious lie, and supporting murderous Saudi/Emirati attacks on Yemen for essentially no reason at all. In both cases the US government has contributed to the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians for no defensible reason.

Alliances are not an end in themselves, but a means to protect American security. Military commitments should be made to defend the US, not provide welfare to other states, irrespective of how friendly they may be. Moreover, military policy should adjust to new circumstances.

Many countries have a strong economic connection to America. Potential income loss or other inconvenience, however, is no legitimate casus belli. US economic relations with Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan are profitable, not vital. The oft-cited willingness to trade blood for oil was always obscene, absent a truly existential threat that could wreck the economy.

Of course, any conflict is a humanitarian horror, but seeking to “do good” does not justify plunging the US into war. American lives should not be risked unless their political community has something vital at stake. And one advantage of being a superpower is that few nations are important, let alone vital, to US survival, especially today.

The Republic of Korea mattered to America in 1950, for example, only because of the Cold War. Before that, Washington paid no attention to Japanese control of the peninsula. And despite America’s strong connections with the South, it again isn’t critical for US security, and can protect itself. Ukraine wasn’t even independent until three decades ago. Kyiv was not seen as vital then, which is why it was not invited to join NATO. And why the Biden administration has not treated Ukraine as a member today.

Alliances are serious business, as they are commitments to go to war. In the case of Asia and Europe, that means being willing to combat nuclear powers. There was a sharp intake of breath after the recent, errant Ukrainian missile strike in Poland. The Zelensky government immediately began campaigning to drag NATO into the fight, creating suspicion that Kyiv staged the attack to ensnare Washington. American and European officials collectively exhaled uneasily when the truth came out. The Russo-Ukrainian war continues, however, and this is not likely to be the last potential crisis.

Yet some US policymakers advocate handing out security guarantees rather like luxury hotels put chocolates on pillows, apparently assuming that Washington will never have to fulfill its promises. As former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said a couple years ago, “I think frankly if China understands that we’re serious about [it violating US red lines], China’s not going to do that. They may be a lot of things, they’re not dumb.” (Many in America’s foreign policy establishment also similarly dismiss Moscow’s threats to use nuclear weapons if it ends up in extremis while fighting Ukraine.)

Unfortunately, potential adversaries think the same way about the US. Consider China, which has its own vital interests. It believes that the US won’t dare cross Beijing’s red lines. Indeed, when discussing their view as to who is likely to blink first, Chinese officials have asked: would Americans be prepared to trade Los Angeles for Taipei? The rest of the world no longer is intimidated by US threats.

Indeed, very few of America’s security commitments will ever be worth nuclear war. How many people in the US are prepared to wager their families and homes that North Korea will not attack the South or that the PRC will not attack Taiwan? Who in America wants the president to play a deadly game of nuclear chicken over Ukraine, South Korea, or Japan?

Rather than seek to strengthen “extended deterrence” and reassure allies that Washington is prepared to engage in self-immolation to protect less-than-vital partners, the US should set clear limits on its obligations. It is time for an honest conversation between members of the infamous foreign policy Blob, who have never met a security guarantee that they didn’t want to make, and the American people, who naively believe that the national government should focus on protecting them.

Washington should make clear it won’t be defending countries whose people don’t believe their own nation is worth defending. Among all US treaty allies, only Greece beats (barely) America in the percentage of its GDP devoted to the military, and that is to fight Turkey, not Russia. As noted earlier, with war raging at the continent’s periphery, countries such as Germany and Great Britain are backtracking on their promises to do more. Japan’s outlays remain at a ridiculous one percent, despite empty talk about significantly increasing expenditures. Taiwan is an even worse laggard given the obvious threat posed by China; scholar Edward Luttwak criticized Taipei’s “persistent fecklessness.” South Korea only looks good compared to America’s other defense dependents.

American officials should stop rushing to reassure allies that the US will always, forever, under every circumstance and no matter how little they do, comfort and coddle them. Rather, Washington should begin planning phased withdrawals of US troops from Asia and Europe, giving allies and friends plenty of time to react. If they choose to go naked militarily, that would be their decision. Or they could plan an orderly transition with the US, increasing military outlays, expanding their armed forces, upgrading their arsenals, and improving continental cooperation, all with America’s assistance. The ultimate objective would be collaboration among equals, rather than today’s situation of shameful dependence on Washington.

Nearly eight decades ago, the US stepped up militarily when much of Asia and Europe lay devastated and vulnerable to Soviet aggression and Chinese subversion. That world, however, has long passed. American policymakers should adapt US foreign and military policy to today’s world.

America’s major allies, in the main, are worthy friends: liberal, democratic societies and valuable economic partners with deep cultural and historical connections to the US. That doesn’t entitle them to a cheap ride on the American people. It is time for countries that purport to be part of “the free world” to stop freeloading and do their part to defend the famed liberal international order.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties.

He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry.

He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times.

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