USS Rushmore and USNS Walter S. Diehl on patrol in the South China Sea in 2014
GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump frequently claims that America is being suckered by its allies. America’s supposed allies sit back and enjoy favorable trade imbalances and economic growth while it pays for their defense. The bottom line? America is not winning anymore. This opinion is not limited to the ravings of the Donald, however. In fact, the idea of free-riding allies coasting off of America’s defense efforts comes straight out of academia. In Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (2014), MIT professor Barry Posen argues that a less-involved United States in global affairs would lead to more security for America with less defense spending and less harm to its troops. Were the U.S. to bring more men and women and materiel back home, its allies would be forced to increase their own spending on defense, striking a more equitable distribution of responsibility for global security. Such extra-regional restraint would save the United States billions while providing it with more security than it currently has. Moreover, given the dangers associated with a China predicted to achieve economic and military parity by mid-century, Posen urges the implementation of restraint now, before the dangers of American withdrawal become too great.
Restraint purports to enhance American security by making U.S. allies work harder for their own security. If U.S. allies do more, then America will supposedly get better protection from overseas threats for less money and less direct risk to its soldiers. This strategy appears wise by any standard, so it is understandable why Trump is using it to attract voters to his foreign policy platform. Unfortunately, the proponents of restraint base their theory on the untested maxim that by doing less America’s allies will do more. On the contrary, the unilateral withdrawal of support necessary to implement restraint would be disastrous for U.S. foreign policy.
In Europe, restraint would lead to a reduction in defense spending and squabbles among European countries over basic security priorities (similar to the ones that are occurring now about refugee resettlement). This would be a perfect mess for Russia to exploit by sowing discord within the NATO alliance. In East Asia, restraint would disrupt the current strategy of engagement — the pivot to Asia — that is aiding numerous Asian countries in their efforts to rearm as they attempt to deter China. It would be both foolish and harsh to abandon a working strategy and demand more of our Asian comrades.
The Pillars of Restraint
The main premise of restraint is that the United States, due to its favorable geography and strong economy, already enjoys unprecedented security. The only thing that could significantly harm U.S. interests is the rise of a peer competitor in Eurasia, which — China’s rise aside — is unlikely to happen for the next 30-40 years. During these intervening decades, Posen argues that the United States should gradually wean its allies off of its support, so by the time the U.S. is no longer the lone superpower, it will have friends who are stronger and more able to shield it from the potentially aggressive aims of a stronger China or a reborn Russia. Presuming its implementation, this strategy offers little reason why the United States should continue spending over $600 billion on its military, more than the next seven countries combined. The U.S. can get just as many, if not more, security benefits with less money spent on defense.
The villains in a world of restraint are free-riding allies, countries who use U.S. power as a way to get defense on the cheap. One example is Great Britain, whose once great Royal Air Force managed to send only six Tornado jets for a long-range strike in Libya in 2011. Indeed, Britain’s steady sequestration of its military budget since 1990 caused President Obama to threaten British Prime Minister David Cameron with termination of the countries’ special relationship if the U.K. failed to keep its military spending at 2% of GDP. Another case of defense apathy is Germany, where soldiers have been forced to train with broomsticks due to equipment shortages – a situation hardly becoming of a nation that gave rise to the military genius of Karl von Clausewitz and Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. Other NATO allies haven’t fared much better. Even though Obama cites the efforts made by European countries in the campaign against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya as a key moment in the “anti-free rider campaign,” the European coalition participating in Operation Unified Protector notably ran short on precision bombs a month into its campaign in Libya, and was forced “to buy, at cost, ammunition stockpiled by the United States.”
These troublesome partners, with their seeming allergy towards all things international security, have required the United States to pick up the slack in defense spending. Even worse, their bumbling intelligence operations recently made it possible for ISIS to conduct a special operations-style terrorist attack in the EU capital. In a world of restraint, Posen argues that such egregious security lapses among our allies would be a thing of the past. Without the United States to back them up, countries in East Asia and Western Europe would learn to carry their own weight in order to balance against hostile and potentially hostile regimes such as China, Russia, and North Korea. Pulling back from its leadership role would allow the U.S. to negotiate proportional burden-sharing arrangements with its allies, giving it more defense with less money and less risk to its armed forces – or so the argument goes.
Europe: A House Divided
Restraint is likely to fail in Europe because the two alliances necessary for the collective defense of Europe, the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), are not strong enough to stand up to Russian aggression on their own. There is too much discord among the economic and political interests of European countries for any meaningful deterrence of Russia to emerge. Furthermore, Russian aggression is just one of many security threats facing Europe, which include home-grown terrorism, problems with gathering intelligence, the refugee crisis, and the potential closing of the Schengen Area. This latter development would end the free movement of goods and people across the borders of EU countries, destroying one of the Union’s central pillars and symbols of unity. Thus, conceiving of Russian aggression as the only security challenge facing Europe obscures several other pressing defense concerns. Yet even when taken by itself, the threat of Russian revanchism reveals a number of shortfalls in Europe’s security apparatus.
To start, the current NATO alliance is vulnerable to a Russian incursion into the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia — all of whom are NATO members. During 2014-2015, analysts at the RAND Corporation concluded in a report that NATO simply does not have enough air power, armored vehicles, or troops to defend against Russian invasion of the Baltics. Defending these states would require NATO to secure the “Suwalki Gap,” the northeastern corner of Poland wedged in between the Russian province of Kaliningrad and the Russian ally Belarus. Stocked as it is with Russian anti-aircraft weaponry, three infantry brigades, and the 50-ship Baltic fleet, the enclave of Kaliningrad makes access to the Baltics by air or sea extremely troublesome. Thus, the best way to get U.S. or NATO personnel and supplies to the Baltics in the event of a Russian attack would be by engaging in heavy fighting through the narrow Suwalki Gap.
Yet would the United States, Great Britain, and France be willing to fight tooth and nail for the sake of Latvia? Probably not, which means that the vulnerability of the Baltics could have huge implications for the integrity of NATO itself. Imagine the damage to NATO’s reputation as an effective alliance were it to shirk its fundamental mission of protecting its own members from Russian aggression. Yet this is precisely what would happen if Russia conducted the same type of unconventional “hybrid warfare” invasion of the Baltics that it is presently conducting in Ukraine. Were Russia to attack the Baltic countries, NATO would be unwilling and unable to come to their aid, killing the NATO alliance.
Despite this gloomy assessment, the report argues that a force of seven brigades — three of which heavily-armored — adequately supported by air and naval power could be enough to defend the Baltic states. With little expert dispute over the need for such an increase in military force, the real question – aside from issues of resolve – is who should pay for it. Proponents of restraint would want European allies to pay for the bulk of this increase, but given the increasing discord and mutual suspicion among European countries, this may just be wishful thinking.
Important to keep in mind is the extent to which nationalist and far-right movements are threatening to undo the EU. With the National Front led by Marine Le Pen in France, the Jobbik Party and the regime of Viktor Orban in Hungary, and the Law and Justice Party in Poland all making gains, the pillars of democracy and cooperation on which the EU was founded are being eroded. The threat of Brexit, moreover, demonstrates the vulnerability of the EU in the face of rising nationalism. U.K. Justice Secretary Michael Gove said in a statement supporting the “Vote Leave” campaign that “I believe our country would be freer, fairer and better off outside the EU.” It seems that the strength of nationalism is rearing its head once again, and this time it threatens to disintegrate the EU.
Divisions created by nationalism and the far-right explain in part the difficulty of such burden-sharing arrangements as called for by proponents of restraint, but there are still other factors as to why Europe’s strongest countries have refused to clamp down on Russia. For example, the UK’s reluctance to condemn Russia after the Litvinenko Inquiry, which found that Vladimir Putin “probably” ordered the assassination of the KGB defector and British intelligence consultant Alexander Litvinenko, reveals how highly Britain values its trade ties with Russia. That the poisoning of a British citizen by a foreign government elicited only a tepid slap on the wrist reflects a level of indifference and submissiveness unfitting of a nation steeped in the legacy of Churchill’s inspirational speeches and Margaret Thatcher’s iron tenacity.
However, the U.K. remains America’s strongest military ally in Europe. In 2011, it contributed over 1300 airstrikes to the campaign in Libya, the second most of any country and 25 percent of the total. When ISAF involvement in Afghanistan was at its highest, the U.K. was the second highest contributor to the NATO-heavy coalition force with 9500 troops (though the United States provided 90,000 troops at the time). The U.K. is also the only Western European country to spend 2% of its GDP on defense. The U.S. and the U.K. engage in a wide range of joint operations at each other’s war colleges and military facilities, underscoring the fact that the two countries have one of the strongest bilateral military relationships in the world. If the U.K. cannot be counted on to oppose Russian aggression, then which ally in Western Europe can?
It is unlikely that other Western European countries with strong commercial ties to Russia will be able to do so, given the reflexive costs of the sanctions regime imposed against Russia. In fact, the heads of some of Germany’s biggest corporations – such as Siemens, Volkswagen, Adidas, and Deutsche Bank – have publicly expressed opposition to increasing sanctions on Russia, which could prevent them from accessing a key growth market. A similar backlash among business leaders is occurring in Italy, whose trade with Russia (including exports and imports) accounted for 30 billion euros in 2013. In 2014, Italian exports to Russia fell by 1.25 billion euros, or 12 percent, and that number continues to decline, drawing the ire of the Italian business class.
The countries most sensitive and responsive to Russian aggression seem to be those of Eastern Europe, with Poland, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania increasing defense spending and becoming more willing to regard Russia as a threat. However, the United States cannot rely on these four countries to deter Putin, as they are still too weak to mount an effective challenge against a Russian invasion. The U.S., therefore, must instead use its presence in Europe to spearhead new efforts and aid current initiatives aimed at cracking down on Russian revanchism. Only once several more European countries have stepped up their defense spending will Europe’s collective strength be enough to deter Russia, at which point restraint may prove to be a wise policy. But implementing restraint at this time would leave Europe a mess of tepid rhetoric and futile deterrent efforts that would do little to stop Russia from grabbing more territory.
Fortunately, rearmament and cooperation on mutual defense are on the rise in Europe, but this does not necessarily imply that restraint will be a viable strategy. This increased focus on defense is the result of American pressure and a more dangerous threat environment. After all, Obama had to pressure the U.K. to spend 2% of its GDP on defense in 2015. Germany, for its part, was so embarrassed by its equipment shortfalls that it increased defense spending by 8.4% in 2015. Germany has also taken the unprecedented step of sharing forces with the Netherlands by having Dutch forces from the 43rd Mechanized Brigade join the German First Tank Division for lack of trained personnel and equipment on both sides. More alarming, however, is the recognition that such minimal efforts would not even have occurred had Russia not invaded Ukraine or had terrorists not attacked Paris or Brussels.
Given the state of U.S. public opinion about European defense, is it politically feasible for the United States to guarantee Europe’s security in the future? On the one hand, many Americans are fed up with paying 73 percent of the costs of the NATO alliance, a frustration that has given Donald Trump’s complaints about free-riding allies such wide currency. At the same time, however, Americans are hesitant to withdraw troop presence from Europe or reduce overall military spending. A Gallup Poll in February 2015 showed that 32% of Americans think that the country spends too little on defense, while 66% want spending to remain at least at its current level. In addition, 42% of Americans think the military is not strong enough. Negative public opinion about European allies is surely a barrier to increased involvement in Europe’s defense, but the data show that Americans do not necessarily want a military withdrawal from Europe, just a better terms (and dividends) for their investment. This leaves room for the American public to support a strategy of engagement so long as it succeeds in getting European countries to invest more in defense.
Thus, with the EU’s future wavering and increased defense efforts happening only with American impetus, now is the time for the United States to guarantee Europe’s defense. European countries do not seem up to the task of taking over the United States’ central, coordinating position within NATO at the present moment. It would be disastrous if the U.S. temporarily withdrew its security umbrella before Europe was able to settle its refugee crisis or agree on fundamental steps toward resisting Russian aggression. Moreover, as we will see in East Asia, engagement by the United States makes efforts to bolster defense more effective by encouraging greater military spending and participation in multilateral institutions.
Willing and Able: Partners in East Asia
In contrast to Europe, America’s allies in East Asia seem much more willing to spend their fair share on defense. Does this mean that the United States can pack up its things and implement restraint in the region? No. The increase in defense efforts by U.S. allies in East Asia has occurred primarily in response to increased U.S. engagement in the region. Indeed, as part of its “pivot to Asia,” the U.S. has made concerted diplomatic overtures to several East Asian countries, and has provided military hardware to many old and new regional partners. The U.S. is also in the process of cementing its economic ties to the Pacific by finalizing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the world’s largest trade agreement to date. U.S. strategy in East Asia contravenes the doctrine of restraint in every possible way, and yet in so doing defense spending and defense-related diplomacy have increased on the part regional allies. Therefore, the results of this “pivot” show that engagement rather than restraint is the best way to strengthen the alliances of international politics.
Consider the arms purchases made by U.S. allies since the pivot was announced. An overlooked but important part of the pivot was the easing of the arms embargo against Vietnam in 2014, as well as a commitment voiced by Defense Secretary Ash Carter to building up Vietnam’s maritime security capacity. Sure enough, this U.S. effort to build a closer defense relationship with Vietnam “over the next 20 years” is exemplified by the recent $18 million transfer of patrol boats and Vietnam’s effort to shop for night vision technology, radar systems, and aircraft. President Lyndon Johnson would roll over in his grave to learn that the Vietnamese Communist government is now a valuable friend, but that is the effect of U.S. engagement. The $18 million arms deal and the greater cooperation on defense between the two countries does not happen without U.S. involvement.
Despite the brutal memories from its period of U.S. colonization and voting to kick American soldiers out of a naval base in 1991, the Philippines recently allowed the United States to begin using eight military bases in the country as part of a new enhanced defense agreement between the two countries. Singapore also signed an enhanced defense cooperation agreement with the United States in 2015, underscoring the cooperation between the U.S. military and the Singapore air force already existing. Plus, for a country that foreswears entering alliances, a “broad framework for defense cooperation in…military, policy, strategic and technology spheres, as well as cooperation against non-conventional security challenges, such as piracy and international terrorism” sounds an awful lot like a change in policy. Even Malaysia and Indonesia are getting in on the act, buying weapons and deepening their defense cooperation with the U.S. Among the nations of Southeast Asia, an American commitment to engage, not restrain itself, in the region has led to its allies being able to expend greater efforts on defense and engage in bilateral cooperation.
The same holds true for America’s bigger allies in the region. Japan recently passed a bill reinterpreting its constitution so that it could beef up its military capabilities. One of the tenets of post-WWII Japanese Constitution was pacifism, or that Japan would renounce using war as a means of settling international disputes. The United States allowed Japan to maintain Self-Defense Forces (SDF), but they could not be used beyond the Japanese islands. Recently, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Diet passed a law reinterpreting the allowance for self-defense as permitting “collective self-defense,” and this lets Japan provide military assistance to its allies in case they were attacked. In addition, Japan can export military technology abroad, lifting a decades-old arms export ban in 2014. After years of keeping its military on the home islands, Japan is entering the world stage of defense cooperation.
Again, U.S. engagement in the region is aiding this development and creating stronger multilateral ties among allies in East Asia. Japanese efforts to increase the role of its military are backed by the United States due to their ability to help Japan meet its obligations under the U.S.-Japan security treaty and contribute to deterrence against China. The recent developments in turn have allowed Japan to team up with the Philippines — who is conducting their own military modernization program in response to China’s expansion — to enter into a defense pact aimed at deterring Chinese aggression in the West Pacific. The changes to allow Japan to export military hardware may allow it to land a $36 billion deal to sell Australia an entire fleet of submarines. As the United States has revealed in its encouragement of Australia to accept the Japanese offer over bids by France and Germany, this deal would have implications beyond military hardware. It would underline the international political developments which have taken place which could make Australia buy subs from the same country which attacked Sydney Harbor less than 75 years ago.
South Korea pays about $867 million to station U.S. troops on its territory, which is slightly more than 30% of the costs of putting U.S. troops on the peninsula if you include the salaries and benefits of all 28,500 personnel, but even they have reached out to the United States to help them do more to contain China. South Korea requested that the United States deploy THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) in the country. This missile defense system intercepts incoming ballistic missiles and destroys them in mid-air. As one would imagine, South Korea wants THAAD in order to protect itself from a North Korean nuclear missile. However, considering that the range of the radar which tracks the incoming missile reaches far beyond the Korean Peninsula, THAAD can also be pointed at China, making it a deterrent to the projection of Chinese power in the Pacific. South Korea having THAAD would be the geopolitical equivalent of Poland using THAAD to defend against Russia, and American assistance could allow this bold step to happen.
Taiwan — which has been a sticking point in U.S.-China relations for years — is also increasing its defense efforts with U.S. aid. When the Communist Party of China took over the country in 1949, the nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan and established martial law. Thanks to the support of the United States, the Communist Party was unable to invade the island, defeat the nationalist government, and annex Taiwan. As a result, the fact of Taiwanese autonomy has festered like a wound to the Chinese military and the Communist Party, reminding them of their unfinished business in the Chinese Civil War. China still claims Taiwan as part of its rightful sovereign territory, and it has not given up the dream of one day controlling the island. So it is no surprise that China does not take too kindly to the results of the recent presidential election in Taiwan. Taiwan elected pro-independence candidate Tsai Ing-wen, who has vowed to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty and who was elected on a wave of anti-China sentiment. Amidst the controversy over the recent election, the United States decided to cement its ties to Taiwan by inking a $1.83 billion arms deal lest China get any thoughts about clamping down on the island. Thus, U.S. actions to promote Taiwanese autonomy in the wake of Tsai’s election can only be seen as a major foil to Chinese ambitions.
At the same time that America’s East Asian allies are expanding their forces, they are also increasingly willing to participate in U.S.-led multilateral institutions. The United States plays a key role in Southeast Asian defense debates every year thanks to its participation in the East Asian Summit (EAS), a forum that is part of ASEAN where Southeast Asian nations meet to discuss their security requirements. Much more significantly, the United States and 11 other East Asian nations were able to agree to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and set domestic economic concerns aside in favour of maintaining strong economic relationships with important allies against China such as Japan, Australia, and Vietnam. The TPP, if ratified, would be beneficial for American relations with Japan in particular, providing long-desired market access in the fields of agriculture and automobiles. The TPP would also ensure that our allies will be on the same page when it comes to securing open commerce in the region. The United States could count on Australia, Japan, Vietnam, etc. to help protect the “sea lanes of communication” (SLOCs) upon which this extensive trans-Pacific trade depends. Having its allies to assist it in carrying out the main objective of U.S. East Asian foreign policy is a fortuitous development by anyone’s standards, and it would take place due to American engagement. In the end, the TPP may not be ratified by Congress, but the fact that the United States and its allies can agree on such a comprehensive deal is a sign of strategic harmony.
Despite alarm bells early on that the United States could not deliver on its promises in the pivot to Asia, there are signs that the strategy is working. A line of willing and able allies from Vietnam to South Korea could prevent China extending its area of control beyond the East and South China Seas. This would help protect “the strategic lines of communication that connect the Pacific Ocean to the vital traffic of the East and South China Seas” — an essential goal of any U.S. foreign policy in East Asia. The engagement and promotion of U.S. leadership inherent in the pivot to Asia is enabling Asian countries’ efforts to arm against China. Sure, the threat from China increases the desire of many countries to bolster their security, but the current increases in defense spending and multilateral cooperation would not be happening without U.S. involvement. If the point of restraint is to get American allies to carry more of the burden, then that job may already be done. The United States counts many East Asian nations among its allies; it would be overly demanding and foolish to seek better ones.
Engagement: How to Win Allies and Influence Countries
The supporters of restraint claim that it will make U.S. allies shoulder more of the burden for defense. If the United States withdraws its troops and weapons from overseas, its allies in key regions such as Western Europe and East Asia will be able do more to contain threats such as Russia and China. It is widely accepted that it would be advantageous if America’s allies did more, but actually implementing a strategy of restraint would have disastrous consequences for U.S. foreign policy. In Europe, a Russian invasion in the Baltic States could be a fatal blow to the existence of NATO. Greater efforts by European countries are needed to provide the military forces necessary to deter Russia, but due to the economic and political division in the EU and NATO, it is unlikely that European countries will be able to implement a system of collective defense on their own. In East Asia, a strategy of engagement in the region is spurring U.S. allies to rearm, and switching to a strategy of restraint could rupture this positive development. This would prove counterproductive to making better friends out of the partnerships America currently enjoys– the central goal of restraint in the first place. The United States could certainly rework its military partnerships, but willfully ceding U.S. global leadership is not the way to do it.
Tyler Bowen is a first-year Ph.D. student at Yale University, concentrating on International Security.
Image Attribution: “USS Rushmore and USNS Walter S. Diehl in the South China Sea” by U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Huey D. Younger, licensed under Public Domain