Taxing Americans to protect — and occupy — the Europeans

Doug Bandow Senior Fellow, The Cato Institute
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Advocates of Big Government are forever creative in concocting new justifications for old programs. Supporters of more military spending are no different. One of the most unique arguments is that a bigger Pentagon budget is necessary to simultaneously protect and suppress the Europeans.

By no serious measure can U.S. military outlays be seen as inadequate. In real terms the U.S. spends twice what it did a decade ago and more than it did at any time during the Cold War, Korean War, or Vietnam War. Washington’s expenditures are roughly as much as those of the rest of the world. America dominates the globe more thoroughly than any previous power, including the Roman and British Empires.

Nevertheless, the neoconservative lobby wants even greater military spending. Proposals to cut America’s lavish military outlays trigger screams of horror. Imagine what would happen if the U.S. only accounted for, say, 40 or 35 percent of the globe’s military spending. Imagine if America’s navy was only equivalent to the next 10 instead of 13 navies. Imagine if Washington relied on its allies instead of allowing them to always rely on it. The horror!

Why Americans should forever subsidize its wealthy, industrialized friends is hard to understand. But analysts at the Heritage Foundation have developed a truly unique argument regarding Europe. In their view, the U.S. must simultaneously subsidize and suppress the European continent.

The Heritage Foundation’s Sally McNamara warns that cutting U.S. force levels in Europe “would gut Washington’s defensive and deterrent capabilities, undermine America’s commitments to its European allies, irretrievably damage the NATO alliance, and ultimately harm American strategic interests.” That’s quite a claim after so many Europeans spent so many years treating their militaries and NATO with casual disdain, doing little to create effective armed services capable of fighting real wars. It would make more sense to question Europe’s commitment to its American ally.

Virtually every European nation has been reducing military outlays in recent years, a trend reinforced by the 2008 financial crisis. Most European states have only reluctantly contributed to the mission in Afghanistan, and only then by sending troops to where they weren’t needed. Even Great Britain, Washington’s most serious military partner, is planning potentially substantial cuts in its military. Just who is failing to demonstrate their support for the trans-Atlantic alliance?

Not that this should come as a surprise. The alliance was created in the midst of the Cold War, when war-torn, demoralized Western Europeans faced a Soviet Union which was steadily expanding its control over Eastern Europe. Even then the Europeans routinely under-invested in defense. After all, the U.S. was protecting them. For years European leaders would pledge to meet NATO spending targets and then welsh on their promises, explaining that they had domestic needs to meet, political opposition to overcome, and economic problems to resolve.

Today, facing serious economic rather than security threats, the Europeans are even less inclined to devote money to their militaries and to use those militaries in real combat. For years ambitious European statesmen have discussed developing a separate international identity and creating an independent military capability, but the result remains little more than talk. EU “President” Herman Van Rompuy and “Foreign Minister” Catherine Ashton battle mightily with each other as well as the European Parliament and European Commission over who has authority over what, yet the EU has done nothing to cause anyone outside of the continent to take the organization seriously as a political let alone military entity.

For 65 years Americans have generously paid for Europe’s defense. It is time to terminate the free, or at least very cheap, ride. The U.S. faces an annual federal budget deficit of $1.3 trillion, a national debt of $13.5 trillion, and total unfunded liabilities for Social Security and Medicare of some $100 trillion. Ending military welfare for Europe — which possesses a larger economy and population than America — is the least Washington can do under the circumstances.

Well no, say some conservatives. America’s defense dole must be eternal, with the Europeans forever enjoying their lavish social welfare systems while America handles the continent’s security concerns. Why is this?

The first argument from the Heritage Foundation’s Baker Spring is that “Under the Obama Administration’s core defense budget, U.S. forces will not be available to defend Europe if they are heavily engaged in the Middle East and South Asia — as they are now — or in East Asia.” It might seem impertinent to ask, but so what? Shouldn’t the Europeans defend Europe?

The European Union’s population is about 500 million, 50 percent more than that of America. The EU’s collective GDP is about $2 trillion bigger than America’s. Total EU military spending runs about $300 billion, second in the world and far bigger than any other power.

So why not expect the Europeans now, finally, after 65 years, to defend themselves? Why should Americans, busily engaged in wars elsewhere, have to bail out their bigger, more populous, and wealthier friends — apparently forever?

If America doesn’t spend a lot on a big military, warns Sally McNamara, also of the Heritage Foundation, Washington would be “unable to prevent a hostile power from dominating Europe.” Spring cites the costs of World War II as a reason to keep the Europeans on the defense dole: “Compared to the cost of freeing Europe again from another hostile power at some point in the future, investing 4 percent of GDP now to avoid such a circumstance would be a humanitarian and financial bargain.”

But precisely who threatens to conquer Europe? Few Europeans are cowering in terror at the prospect of foreign conquest.

The most logical candidate is Russia, but it makes a pitiful replacement for the Soviet Union. The proud Red Army is a shell of its former self. Much of the Red Navy rusted away in port. The Russian military was able to beat up on hapless, irresponsible Georgia, but that about exhausted Moscow’s capabilities.

Although Vladimir Putin is a nasty character, his ambitions for Russia look far more limited than the designs of hegemonic communism. Border security and international respect, not global conquest, appear to motivate him.

And whatever his ambitions, his country’s capabilities are far more limited. The EU has more than ten times the GDP and three times the population of Russia. European military spending is about five times as much. The idea of a Russian attack, let alone a successful Russian drive to the Atlantic, is the stuff of paranoid fantasy.

Beyond Russia, who else threatens Europe? Ukraine? Serbia? Germany? Alliances should reflect international threats, which change over time. If that was not the case, the U.S. would be deploying armored divisions along its northern and southern borders to guard against a Canada allied with America’s historic enemy, Great Britain, as well as a revanchist Mexico determined to reclaim territory lost in the Mexican-American War. It makes no sense to forever tax U.S. citizens to shield well-heeled allies from phantom threats.

But the Heritage analysts worry about another possibility: the Europeans actually might defend themselves! For instance, McNamara warns that reducing U.S. nuclear weapons on the continent may cause “European nations [to] seek alternative security insurance either in the form of nuclear weapons or alliances with other nuclear powers.”

In fact, France and Great Britain already are nuclear powers. Exactly why America should worry if more of its democratic allies constructed nuclear weapons rather than relied on the U.S. to risk Washington for Rome or Berlin is not clear.

And with whom would the Europeans ally if not the U.S.? The list of other nuclear powers is short: China, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia. It is hard to imagine the EU ending up under, say, the Chinese or Israeli nuclear umbrella. But if the Europeans wanted to do so, well, why should Washington object? Surely the U.S. doesn’t plan on launching nuclear strikes on the continent.

Ah, but the Europeans might become America’s next enemy. Explains Spring: “Politically, some voices in the EU are calling for a unified Europe to serve as a counterweight to the U.S. in global affairs. In this context, the EU could emerge as the dominant power in a Europe that is hostile to the United States. An EU hostile to the United States will pose a serious challenge even if its internal control of Europe is tenuous and its military capacity is limited.”

The notion that NATO is directed not at protecting Europe, but at occupying the continent to prevent the Europeans from following independent policies is perhaps the most bizarre notion of all. Since when have the Europeans not followed their own course?

Throughout the Cold War the Europeans did what they wanted. European states routinely opposed American policy initiatives around the globe, from China to Vietnam to Central America. Even as Washington was defending the continent from the Red Army, the Europeans defied the U.S. to build a natural gas pipeline to the Soviet Union. France refused to allow the overflight of U.S. aircraft to bomb Libya. In succeeding years the Europeans have taken very different positions regarding the United Nations, global warming, Israel, Taiwan, international regulation, and more.

The desire to turn the EU into a counter-weight to America is well-established among Eurocratic elites despite America’s present role on the continent. Europeans who perceive few if any serious security threats aren’t likely to moderate their ambitions because the U.S. continues to station forces in Europe. And despite endless and endlessly grandiose proclamations from Brussels, there is nothing in Europe’s behavior to suggest there is the slightest chance of the Europeans developing antagonistic ambitions, creating an effective continental military, using that military for aggressive ends, and challenging America in a serious way.

The EU may be the first post-national nation state, a political aggregation built on ideological whimsy and endless process without the slightest popular support. The Lisbon Treaty could pass only by preventing most Europeans from voting on it. The notion that the EU poses a real, discernible, serious threat to America — in contrast to occasionally disagreeing with the U.S. on some issues — is fantastic.

Anyway, if Washington really is committed to democracy, it must accept the fact that its allies might follow an independent course. Hoping to turn a liberating military force into an occupying military force is a perversion of American policy. If U.S. garrisons are not needed in Europe to defend America, they are not needed and should come home.

Great Britain’s Lord Palmerston warned against nations having permanent friends rather than permanent interests. Americans have many reasons to remains friends with Europeans. But that doesn’t mean the bankrupt American government should maintain permanent alliances, with the Europeans or anyone else.

The Cold War is over. The U.S. is overextended, both militarily and financially. The Europeans face few security threats and are more than capable of defending themselves. It is time for Washington to adjust its military spending, alliances, and force deployments accordingly.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, he is the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire (Xulon).