Defending the World, Bankrupting Ourselves

After decades of American protection, our friends can form their own alliances to confront any adversary.

The argument for leaving 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014 is more or less reasonable on its face. The Kabul government is fragile; our gains might be reversed; the Afghan military is not ready to stand on its own. Here's the unreasonable, unavoidable part: If we don't leave then, we probably never will.

The lesson of the past several decades is that once Americans establish ourselves to assure security, we stay as long as it takes and then stay some more. World War II has been over for 67 years, but we still have 37,000 troops in Japan and 53,000 in Germany.

At one time, these forces could be justified as a counterweight to the Soviet Union, but the Cold War is ancient history. The Korean War ended in 1953, yet 28,500 American troops remain in South Korea.

Going over the fiscal cliff may not be good for the economy, but it might have one valuable result: forcing Americans to reassess our enormous defense budget.

Taking $492 billion away from the Pentagon over the next decade wouldn't be hard to do if we forced other nations to take more responsibility for their own defense—and used the opportunity to reduce our overall troop strength. What's hard, and expensive, is our vast array of overseas commitments.

Why do we maintain these deployments? Partly out of inertia, partly out of a feeling they can't do any harm and partly from an incessant fear that anything that happens anywhere poses a potential danger to our security.

This last factor is hard to overstate. Earlier this year, Dartmouth College political scientist Benjamin Valentino constructed a poll that was carried out by YouGov. When respondents were asked if they think the United States "faces greater threats to its security today than it did during the Cold War," 63 percent said it does, with only 14 percent disagreeing.

"It's astonishing to me," Valentino told me in an interview in his campus office last month. Not only are we no longer under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, he notes, but we have few actual adversaries. Many Americans are aware that we spend more on the military than the next 17 countries combined. What they may not realize, says Valentino, is that "of the next 10 biggest military spenders, all but two (Russia and China) are allies." You have to go to No. 25, Iran, to find a real enemy.

In world history, he says, "there is no precedent for the strongest power to have allies among so many other military powers. Russia and China are only quasi-adversaries." Iran and North Korea are military pipsqueaks, with or without nuclear weapons.

Al-Qaida is a terrorist threat, but it never had any hope of defeating us—only of terrorizing us. And it hasn't been able to carry out an attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.

Our enviable strategic position gives us plenty of room to reduce defense outlays without compromising our safety or inviting attacks on our allies. It's hard to see any remaining military threat to Germany or the other countries of Western Europe that our forces ostensibly protect. Nor do we need troops there for one of NATO's original purposes: to keep the Germans under firm control.

Japan and South Korea may face genuine threats (China and North Korea), but they have ample resources to manage them. Japan has the world's third-biggest economy. South Korea's economy, which ranks 15th, is 80 times bigger than North Korea's.

But our allies punch below their weight. The U.S. spends 4.7 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. Japan spends just 1 percent, and South Korea 2.8 percent. In Germany, the figure is 1.3 percent. They have no reason to spend more as long as they can free-ride.

Would our permanent pullback from Europe and Asia change the strategic environment? Certainly. But after decades of American protection, our friends can form their own alliances to confront any adversary, present or future.

Worries about China and uncertainty about U.S. intentions have already moved Japan in that direction. "We want to build our own coalition of the willing in Asia to prevent China from just running over us," Yoshihide Soeya, director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Keio University, told The New York Times.

We could foster more such efforts by our allies to work together to defend themselves. Or we could go broke doing it for them.

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  • LTC(ret) John||

    And the stuff in Germany is expensive. Should have been closed years ago. Korea can really be scaled back, and the ROKs can fill the void, if they so desire - if not, well, good luck!

    No need to toss the alliances over the side, but the expense, sure.

  • Matrix||

    Germany, yes. The cold war is gone, and Russia is not the super power it once was. Korea? I'm not so sure at this point. Perhaps scale back our commitments in Japan, though.

    I wouls say leaving a small contingent in Germany would be okay, mostly as a layover for trips elsewhere as well as having a hospital for troops wounded in the ME. But we don't need as large a presence there as we currently have.

  • R C Dean||

    My impression of Korea is that our presence there is militarily irrelevant, that we have troops there as a "tripwire" so if the Norks go off the reservation they will be attacking American troops, too, making it easier to go all in.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    Not quite irrelevant - there is supposed to be enough to hold and bring the steel rain on the Nork positions quickly, to keep down the initial damage/invasion flow. But it still could be scaled down and replaced by ROKs.

  • BakedPenguin||

    A North Korean invasion would make it as far as the Kimchee restaurants in Seoul. Discipline would break down as soon as they smelled all that food.

  • Brett L||

    Yeah. I believe that. Concentrate troops around restaurants and grocery stores. Let the Norks eat their fill, then see if they want to fight or surrender and have a second filling meal in one day.

  • Rick Santorum||

    Wonder how those European "paradises" will hold up once they're funding their own military.

  • BakedPenguin||

    How they doin' now?

  • Pro Libertate||

    That's an excellent point. Without what amounts to a huge U.S. subsidy, the current collapse would've happened years ago.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    But they don't need militaries in Europe! They grown more socialist and therefore evolved beyond such brutish things as violence on a national scale!

  • Pro Libertate||

    Then they don't need our military there or in other places where European interests are greater than ours, either, right?

  • NoVAHockey||

    DeMint resigning to head Heritage.

  • Brett L||

    The GOP's conversion to DemLite at the Federal level is now complete.

  • Randian||

    I support defense cuts, but let us not pretend as if liberals such as Steve Chapman here have any interest in fiscal sanity. This is an ideological push.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I support all cuts, even of stuff I generally don't hate as much.

    I've been thinking about Matt's criticism of the proposed slogan (and his poor Latin pronunciation, which shall be avenged by my soon-to-be-good-friend, John Cleese). How about returning to the well and using this, if "fuck" is too much: "It's the spending, stupid." Or "No, it's the spending, stupid."

  • ||

    liberals such as Steve Chapman

    I thought he was just an idiot.

    Not all idiots are liberals you know.

    But yeah the military needs to be cut.

  • The Derider||

    If you're unwilling to make common cause with people you don't completely agree with, political change will prove impossible.

  • sarcasmic||

    I thought the point of having bases in Germany was to the troops could go get laid by German ladies (or hookers) who can't resist a man in uniform.
    At least that's what the recruiter told me.

  • T||

    It's a new coed military now, sarc. It's so Jane can go pick up Europeans.

  • Homple||

    No time to think about this. We must lead from behind to Syria. Forward!

  • mtrueman||

    This is a Libertarian position? That Iran is "a real enemy" and Japan and Germany should increase their military spending? Colour me unimpressed, my friends.

    I've said this before, why vote Libertarian when Democrats and Republicans who mouth exactly these platitudes are a dime a dozen.

  • ||

    Japan and Germany should increase their military spending?

    ...

    Democrats and Republicans who mouth exactly these platitudes

    You are an insane person if you think Dems and Repubs say they want the US to withdraw its troops from Japan and Germany.

  • mtrueman||

    You are a bad faith person. I mentioned not any withdrawal of US troops. I ask you to reread my comment. Here it is again:

    mtrueman| 12.6.12 @ 2:16PM |#

    This is a Libertarian position? That Iran is "a real enemy" and Japan and Germany should increase their military spending? Colour me unimpressed, my friends.

    I've said this before, why vote Libertarian when Democrats and Republicans who mouth exactly these platitudes are a dime a dozen.

  • ||

    1. Chapman is not a libertarian (nor is Benjamin Valentino, the person being quoted)

    2. I ask you to re-read your own reference: "Many Americans are aware that we spend more on the military than the next 17 countries combined. What they may not realize, says Valentino, is that "of the next 10 biggest military spenders, all but two (Russia and China) are allies." You have to go to No. 25, Iran, to find a real enemy.

    In world history, he says, "there is no precedent for the strongest power to have allies among so many other military powers. Russia and China are only quasi-adversaries." Iran and North Korea are military pipsqueaks, with or without nuclear weapons."

    The whole point that was being made here is that there is no real significant threat.

    3. Japan and Germany can do whatever they want. The only point being made is that we should not be subsidizing their defense.

    These are not platitudes, only realities.

  • mtrueman||

    Whether or not the author of the piece or those he quotes is a Libertarian or not is not relevant. Reason magazine is Libertarian and so are a good portion of its readers. I see nobody in the comments taking exception to the points I made, if anything, they are being reinforced.

    I don't understand your second point. Is it that Iran is a real enemy of the USA? I would never have taken that to be a Libertarian position. If you insist it is, then I will have to reconsider my views on the nature of Libertarianism.

    US troops are not based overseas because the host countries don't spend enough, as the author implies. UK actually outspends US in military budget on a per capita basis and still hosts I don't know how many 1000s of airforce personal.

    US doesn't give a damn about smaller nations developing nuclear weapons, as a close look at the circumstances of North Korea's path towards nuclear weaponry will indicate.

    In any case lack of nuclear weapons or even a military doesn't mean a lack of threat. The Taleban has no super-power sponsorship, no nukes, no navy or airforce and maybe 30,000 men under arms. It is defeating NATO at the moment. Hezbollah is much the same, at only a fraction of the strength of Taleban, and also managed to clobber Israel each time they faced off. A nation, regardless of whether or not is nuclear capable, is threatening when you are intent on occupying it. Is that a Libertarian position or not?

  • mtrueman||

    Nobody is questioning what Japan and Germany can do. What should they do? Do Libertarians believe they should 'punch according to their weight,' as the authors imply?

  • Kyfho Myoba||

    Libertarians don't give a fuck what foreign militaries do as long as they stay home.

  • mtrueman||

    Presumably foreign Libertarians - those in Japan and Germany specifically - do care about what their militaries are up to. Let's not be too parochial here. Or perhaps American Libertarians are a special breed and ideas that guide them can't be expected to guide those of less favoured nations!

  • Atlas Slugged||

    Not sure why you have such trouble with most libertarians position on this. Since no nation is actively at war with us, why are there US troops on foreign soil? Ergo, bring the troops home. Germany, South Korea, Germany etc have robust (?) economies that can pay for their militaries if they choose. Regardless, not the US' problem.

  • mtrueman||

    I get what you are saying. The trouble I'm having is that I thought that Libertarians took a stand against militarism. That shouldn't, in my view, end at the water's edge. If you are against American militarism, then it follows you should be against German and Japanese militarism - it's a matter of principle and libertarians shouldn't be afraid to take a clear stand on this. They shouldn't simply throw up their hands and say they should do whatever they choose. It smacks of moral cowardice.

  • Atlas Slugged||

    libertarians are not advocating militarism across the board. The position is that if Germany wants current troops levels inside their country to remain as is, AFTER the US pulls out all of theirs, then they would need to increase the size of their military. I think many libertarians, myself included, would feel that the perceived threat of invasion is vastly overrated. Do I think Germany needs a lage military? No, I am not promoting militarism. Ultimately do I care a lot about the size of the German military? No, I'm not a German citizen required to pay German taxes.

  • Atlas Slugged||

    Can you cite all these Dems & Repubs who advocate leaving Germany & Korea?

  • mtrueman||

    No I can't. I can however, cite Dems, Repubs, and apparently, to my surprise, Libertarians who believe that Iran is a real enemy, and Japan and Germany should increase their military spending.

  • ||

    I've never seen anybody so keen to conflate two utterly unrelated positions and then make such a huge issue of it when they are actually in agreement with the people they wish to be arguing with. Fuck.

  • mtrueman||

    This article is freighted with a load of assumptions that I take to be inimical to Libertarianism. I looked through the comments, and rather than finding these assumptions refuted, I see them reinforced. I point this out in my original comment, and I'm called insane.

  • Atlas Slugged||

    who do you consider to be the US' biggest military threat? Or at least a top three? I'm guessing most people regardless of political affiliation would list Iran. That being said, I'll buy you a steak dinner if Iran can attack the beachheads of Miami and hold that position for more than 20 minutes.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    The Iranians would arrive in Miami and ask how to enroll in the the Medical School at Miami U. "I vant to be a dochtor."

  • mtrueman||

    Any country can easily make the top three. If Iran is in this group, it is because of US meddling, American policies that include a multimillion dollar budget to affect regime change in Iran, promoting terror attacks inside Iran and, come election time, pro forma threats by candidates to use nuclear weapons against Iran. Does this make Iran "a real enemy?" No, it's artificial.

    I'm a vegetarian, so make that a nut cutlet and you're on.

  • Vippy||

    Iran is making nuclear energy, said so many times and invites the world to come and see but the USA wants more, spreading lies about their nuke intentions. And Americans never learn, they bought the lies of Gulf of Tonkin or WMDs and don't get any smarter. Why are our soldiers told that they are fighting for this country when we destroy the middle class and offer no reason to fight for this country?

  • buybuydandavis||

    Everyone can get all excited about a decreased defense bill, but the world was a much more violent place before Pax Americana. When it's gone, who takes it's place?

    The smart alecks will say they hope no one does. Be careful what you wish for. The resulting power vacuum will be filled by lots of countries - lots of countries that have a worse historical record than we do. Was a militarized Germany or Japan particularly good for the world? Looking forward to a nuclear Saudi Arabia?

    Power relations are usually decided by contests of power. It will likely be a disaster. Or multiple disasters. In a globalized economy, a flood can balloon hard drive prices for a year. What do you think carpet bombing can do?

  • T||

    Unfamiliar with the argument that soft power and trade increasingly supplant hard power, I see.

  • ΘJΘʃ de águila||

    Is an aggressive, interventionist militarized America (led by would-be Caesars like Bush or Obama) good for the world? With all the advantages America enjoys, is abandoning voluntary commerce, persuasion and isolationism in favor of occupations, deadly sanctions and force a "good" thing?

  • Nuked||

    Tell that to the thousands of innocent people we kill in the ME because we are "protecting the world". We don't really stop any slaughter that doesn't threaten one of our interests.

    North Korea is one of the worst, if not the worst human rights violators in the world but we forget they exist to go after Gaddafi.

    If there ain't an oil well in the area, slaughter away!

  • The Derider||

    North Korea has a large military, a hilly geography that heavily favors the defender, and no significant revolutionary force that we could support.

    None of those things were true of Libya.

  • Nuked||

    I'm not saying we invade there either. Just saying we ignore real human misery if it doesn't give us some sort of strategic advantage.

    The US doesn't invade or meddle for humanitarian reasons is what I'm really getting at.

  • Vippy||

    Back in 2000 Rumsfeld sold nuke material to N Korea and in 2005 he feigned surprise that they actually had a nuke. Same goes for the rest of the world. We sell arms to anyone who pays.

  • waaminn||

    Sounds like a pretty solid plan to me dude.

    www.IP-Hidden.tk

  • The Derider||

    Japan and South Korea may face genuine threats (China and North Korea), but they have ample resources to manage them. Japan has the world's third-biggest economy.

    I agree that South Korea's military could handle the north, but I doubt they could handle China.

    Japan, on the other hand, has a constitution that forbids them from creating a military. I guess this seemed like a good idea when we wrote it for them in 1945. We've been trying to get them to increase military spending for decades, just as another hedge against China and Russia.

  • Sevo||

    The Derider| 12.7.12 @ 8:28PM |#
    "Japan, on the other hand, has a constitution that forbids them from creating a military."

    That would be their problem, wouldn't it?

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  • Vippy||

    Iraq nor Afghanistan asked us to defend themselves. We are bullying the world with old fashioned ways instead of diplomacy.

  • JBinMO||

    "We could foster more such efforts by our allies to work together to defend themselves. Or we could go broke doing it for them."

    I saw we go with option two.

  • Sevo||

    And we get to listen to Euro-trash gripe about 'US cowboys' on their 5-week vacations paid for with the money they saved by not paying for their defense.
    Screw 'em. Let's see if a 'strongly worded letter' is an adequate substitute for a military; close all US military installations in Europe, bring the troops home.

  • TomG||

    I sympathize with the sentiment, but we're still in the same bind as we were in WWII and the Cold War: our prosperity depends on a free and prosperous Europe. If the Europeans screw up their defense, we would have the satisfaction of saying "told you so", but we'd still be left with a basket case in Europe and the economic consequences that that entails for us.

  • TomG||

    US tax payers are clearly tiring of paying for this, American servicemen want to come home, and the huge military has a corrupting influence on the US government. Europe is taking the US for a ride by saving on its own defense and relying on the US tax payer. All of those are good arguments for a withdrawal.

    On the other hand, Europe has millennia of vicious wars behind it, and even post WWII, there have been more genocides, religious violence, communist governments, and military dictatorships. It was only under the guns of the US military and during a period of unprecedented prosperity that Europeans stopped killing each other. And if you listen to European politicians, you still hear a lot of echos of the nationalism and hatred of a century ago. If the US withdraws, Europeans might go back to their old ways, or, just as bad, they might not defend themselves at all and succumb to pressure from the East.

    And the US military also has economic advantages. It's probably what keeps the US currency stable despite massive debt, it gives us a seat at any negotiating table, and it keeps international shipping free and open.

    Politically, I would prefer a US military withdrawal from Europe and Asia. But I'm not sure it would make us safer or save money. I think answering that question requires a much deeper analysis. I do think we should insist that nations like Germany live up to the contractual commitments they made under NATO.

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