Truman National Security Project

Sharing the Burden of National Security

military cooperation
By Christopher Miller | 1.28.13
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For decades America has been arguing that in order for America to do less, our allies will have to do more.  We have been cajoling our international partners to take more action in the world.  There are signs it is starting to work, though the efforts have a certain shakiness that can be expected when using skills with which one is somewhat out of practice. Despite being met with scepticism and derision abroad, this is something the U.S. should welcome.

Following the end of WWII and the end of the Cold War, America’s major allies were content to let Uncle Sam take the lead.  Some, such as Germany and Japan, remain constitutionally hamstrung from taking part in interventions for other than defensive purposes.  There has been some softening in this position.  German troops do patrol Afghanistan and Japanese troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan until 2007.  American influence following WWII created this condition we’re asking them to push aside.

The United Kingdom has shown willingness to use military force to defend interests.  Britain fought alongside America in the Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the broader ‘War on Terror’.  However, Prime Minister David Cameron recently announced further troop reductions, cutting out 5,300 soldiers, making the British military 75% smaller than it was at its Cold War peak.  There is debate as to whether the UK should remain a nuclear-armed power or discontinue its programs.  Every other EU state is reducing its expenditure on national defense as well.

The end of the Cold War caught America and its allies flatfooted.  Failure to adapt culturally, technologically, and bureaucratically led to the intelligence failures that made 9/11 possible ten years on.  The same conditions were repeated in Europe and were exacerbated, in some cases, by a souring of political relations with Washington over the Iraq War.  Economic conditions since 2008 have not made it any more attractive to increase spending on national security despite the continued threat of Islamism and America’s strategic ‘shift to the east’.

But there are signs that America’s allies are answering the call.  Britain and France were the early drivers behind action in Libya, though European military equipment wasn’t as reliable as it should have been and America had to sell them the ammunition.  Britain and France have also been vocal regarding action in Syria.  France has taken the lead in fighting Islamists in Mali with British logistical support.  This hasn’t gone smoothly either with a shipment of supplies held up by maintenance problems with British aircraft.  UK PM David Cameron has called for renewed vigilance in the worldwide fight against Islamism following the Algerian terror attack, though doing so after announcing a third round of military cuts.

Despite bumps in the road, the signs are encouraging.  America has spent the last decade at war in several places thousands of miles away, in inhospitable terrain, fighting on the home turf of an enemy that cannot be easily identified, often with interference from ‘fair weather’ allies.  The U.S. spends more on its national security than any other country, and our troops are the most experienced and professional anywhere.  Though the U.S. has certainly had its own bumps in the road, we’re much more experienced in planning and executing military operations.

Hopefully, our allies will work out their kinks now that they’re getting back into the game.  After 43 years, France has re-joined NATO.  Europe has been carrying its load on the diplomatic front in negotiations and sanctions with states such as North Korea, Iran, and Syria.  Intelligence cooperation continues even with ‘dove’ states such as Germany and Japan.  But it would be naïve from a national security perspective to believe that America should continue to carry the weight of the world when it comes to confronting common enemies.  No state should be wholly dependent upon another state to provide it security.  This has been the condition among America and its allies since the end of the Cold War.

Despite America’s calls for more help from its allies, some criticize this as evidence of a ‘lead from behind’ approach by President Obama.  Republicans have cited European-spearheaded operations as a sign of weakness.  Yet, at every turn, America has provided support to ensure these operations succeeded.  We provided much of the intelligence, coordination, and logistical support. America, the experienced and senior partner, has been the glue that ensured success.  Allowing our allies to take the lead and flex their muscle, something we’re asking them to do, is not a weakness. It should be welcomed as a sign of strength.

But there are problems, defense budgets foremost among them.  America may be facing its own defense cuts due to a self-laid trap.  This is a problem America will have to sort out alone.  But Europe should turn toward defense integration.  Most EU countries are unable to spend large amounts to create, expand, or maintain a functioning military with all the same costly weapons platforms the U.S. can.  We may soon face a European continent with outdated air forces, no heavy armor corps, and undertrained and underequipped troops. Such a force is not worth paying for.

Imagine British, Polish, and Italian infantry supported by Belgian and Dutch tanks and artillery and a Spanish and French air force, all supported by German and Austrian logistics, or a similar constellation, led by a pan-European command structure.  This would be more cost-effective force and create a viable fighting force to match the U.S., as opposed to a collection of tiny under-budgeted and outdated national forces.

America and its allies should not make their budgets or long-term strategic plans based upon the idea that we are entering into an era that will be more peaceful than has been our past.  We should welcome more vigilance by our allies, not cite it as evidence of decline.  Sharing the burden between America and its allies and in turn our allies sharing their burden between themselves is a strategy that prepares for what we may–but hopefully will not—face in future.

Christopher Miller is a Truman Security Fellow.