Why Can't Our Allies Defend Themselves?

While America pours billions into defense, our NATO allies and Japan are getting a free ride. But how can we get them to pay for protection they think is unnecessary?

Aerial View of The Pentagon, Headquarters of The US Department Of Defense over Arlington, VA on April 22nd, 1986. Credit: Photo By USAf/Getty

Aside from denouncing drug smugglers, the most popular new theme of this year's presidential campaign is bashing our allies – the feckless Germans and Japanese, even the Danes, Norwegians and Spanish. Every candidate, including the squishy vice-president, has demanded or at least suggested that our NATO allies and Japan pay for a larger share of our mutual defense.

"The Japanese case is scandalous," says one authority in the field. "The political and psychological excuses that Japan has sold a succession of American administrations, including this one, for not sharing the defense burden equitably are little more than a gloss on a policy of chronic freeloading. "It is galling to be lectured by those whom we defend about the need to control our budget deficit. Indeed, if we were to reduce our defense effort to, say, the level of Germany, we could balance the American budget this year."

This is the historic contradiction facing the American empire: The United States is financing the defense of its economic competitors, assuming costs and risks that they refuse to accept. Meanwhile, they are trafficking with the 'enemy,' even selling the reds high-tech hardware for modern weapons systems. The long-term consequences for America are clearly visible: The economy gets steadily weaker, deeper in debt and less competitive while our supposed allies ride the advantage by investing their capital in productive enterprises. The allies, it seems, do not take the Cold War "threat" as seriously as American political leaders do. For the Europeans and the Japanese, it's a good deal, and they have no incentive to change. For Americans, it's not such a good deal. As Representative Patricia Schroeder first observed long ago, "We have all the burdens of empire and none of the benefits."

Some of the harshest observations about our allies, such as those quoted above, do not come from Pat Schroeder, Jesse Jackson or dovish left-wing wimps but from Mr. Hawk himself – Richard Perle. Recently retired as assistant secretary of defense for international security, Perle was the bristling intellect of Reagan's Pentagon. No one believes more fervently in the Cold War struggle. No one plotted more skillfully for the Reagan arms buildup. Now Perle acknowledges that when he was in government, he spent a lot of energy hiding the freeloading of our allies.

In congressional hearings, Schroeder pinned Perle down on how the Pentagon covered up for the allies. Congress has ordered the military to make an annual assessment of defense-burden sharing among the allies, but Perle admitted that the numbers have been cooked. The reports, he said, are "an exercise in thinking of ways to put the best possible gloss on some pretty dismal figures. I know it because I superintended it – and looked for statistics to make the allies look good."

Perle's ex post facto candor is a hopeful development. Not because he wants to bring U.S. troops home from Europe (he doesn't), or because he now admits the Soviet threat has been exaggerated by hawks like himself (he admits no such thing), but because when people like Richard Perle begin to come clean on this issue, it indicates that opinion leaders are finally acknowledging the absurdities of the Cold War strategy they have pursued for 20 years.

Uncle Sucker may be slowly waking up. Dare we hope that the next president will actually do something, like bringing home many of the 350,000 troops still stationed in Europe 40 years after World War II? Maybe. But only maybe. Campaign rhetoric is cheap. Resolving the Cold War contradictions will require great courage.

Pat Schroeder decided for various reasons not to run for president this year; she is laboring instead to influence the next president on this central question. As chairwoman of the special panel of the House Armed Services Committee on defense-burden sharing, the Colorado Democrat has been holding hearings, collecting hard evidence on the inequities, hoping to focus the debate that is sure to face the next administration. For years, Schroeder has been one of the lonely voices on the Armed Services Committee complaining about the bloated defense commitments of the United States and the free ride Europe and Japan have enjoyed. Now at last others may be ready to listen.

Instead of stacking the deck with like-minded witnesses, as congressional inquiries usually do, Schroeder is attempting to hear from both hawks and doves. The final report will have more impact when it reveals that a lot of stalwart cold warriors, like Perle, are fed up, too.

"The basic fact is that we keep grabbing the check," Schroeder said, and the figures back her up. About $170 billion of the Pentagon's 1988 budget of $285 billion goes to NATO. The United States devotes 6.9 percent of its gross national product to defense; the NATO allies devote only 3.5 percent. The disparity between the spending of the United States and Japan is much worse, because Japan spends only about 1 percent on defense. Each American citizen has $1,002 spent on his or her behalf on the military. For each German, only $359 is spent. For each Italian, only $187. For each Japanese, only $103.

In fact, the imbalance is probably even worse. Schroeder has found evidence that the allies pump up their defense costs with dubious accounting. The Japanese are the most outrageous offenders, counting as defense spending the rent and taxes theoretically lost on the real estate for American bases. They even count environmental damage caused by military installations. "Can you imagine if we put that in our estimate?" Schroeder asked. "God knows what percentage of our GNP we'd have in defense spending."

Even more infuriating is how the allies squeeze extra dollars out of the U.S. military presence – demanding foreign-aid bribes in exchange for allowing American bases on their soil. "The base agreements are outrageous," Schroeder said. "We've had base fights with Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey – all in NATO – and they each put the gun to our head and say, 'Want to keep the bases here? You've got to increase foreign aid by x percentage.' Turkey even gets to renegotiate those base rights every year. I don't know what genius negotiated that deal, but every year we give Turkey the option to shoot at our feet and say, 'Tap-dance, Uncle Sam!'"

A new NATO charade has developed during the Reagan years: defense spending posing as foreign aid. "This is bad stuff," Schroeder said. "Our foreign-aid budget has become a defense supplemental, because it's not geared to the economic needs of these countries – it's geared to the basing needs of the military."

When the poorer nations on NATO's southern flank shake down Uncle Sam for extra dollars, the wealthier NATO countries in northern Europe look the other way – as though these arguments have nothing to do with their own security. Germany, for instance, could increase developmental aid for Turkey or the others as an indirect form of burden sharing. Japan could do the same. The idea of rearming Japan still frightens other Asian nations, but Japan could easily pick up the tab, say, for rebuilding the ruined Philippine economy – thus easing the burden on the United States. Instead, financing of allied bases is viewed as an American problem.

The allies' indifference is all the more clear since Spain decided to kick out the U.S. 401st Tactical Air Wing – an element of NATO defenses on the southern flank. No other NATO nation has been willing to take the 401st in. "Everywhere we've gone," Schroeder said, "we point out that we have 72 F-16s looking for a home. We kept saying, 'Which one of you is going to take these planes? If they weren't really needed... why didn't you tell us? We could have brought them home a long time ago.' Everybody thinks you're the skunk at the garden party by asking that question. They just hem and haw and whine."

The economic consequences of America's generosity will also be part of the panel's report. For instance, while we're paying for troops and armaments, the allies are spending 23 percent more than we do on health. America's infant mortality rate is higher than that of 11 of the 16 NATO nations – that is, worse than everyone's except those of Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal and Turkey. The same skewed priorities apply to education.

Furthermore, while we stand up to the Soviets, our allies are busy selling them technology and, more important, lending them billions in joint commercial ventures. Richard Perle is rankled by this, too. "Japan has emerged as the largest single source of Soviet-bloc credits," Perle complained. "The Germans, who cannot get their defense budget up to half of ours, are eager to expand their financial relationship with the Soviets."

The long-term disadvantage for America is most obvious in the resources devoted to civilian research and development – the wellspring for future economic strength. The United States spends $17 billion on civilian development – and $47 billion on military R&D. Among our allies, the priorities are reversed. They spend two-thirds of their research capital on technology and products that will sell in global civilian markets. They are investing in ideas and people while we are investing in weapons.

And thanks to Reagan's defense buildup, these outrages are getting worse, not better. American politicians of both parties have been pleading with Europe and Japan for nearly 20 years to assume a larger share, but despite a lot of diplomatic chatter, the opposite has occurred. In 1980 the allies spent 81 percent of what America spent on the military. By 1984 they were spending only 47 percent. The allies did increase their defense budgets – but they couldn't keep up with the Gipper.

Nor do they want to keep up. The allies clearly are not as scared of the Soviets as America's cold warriors are. Otherwise, they would be doing more to defend themselves. After 40 years of experience, they are confident that America will do it for them.

"I honestly think the bottom line is that the allies have a wonderful deal – the best of both worlds," Schroeder said. "They can say to their own people, 'We have a different threat assessment of the Soviet Union than the Americans do. We think the Americans sleep with a night light. We think they're a little cracked. They overreact. We're going to trade with the Soviet Union and open doors. But on the other hand, if the Americans turn out to be right about the Soviets, we have an insurance policy that we don't have to pay for – the American troops are here.'"

How can the United States get out of this without weakening national security, without destabilizing our alliances? While Perle agrees that America's allies are freeloading, he is against threatening them with American troop withdrawals. "I don't think Europe will respond," he said. "If Europeans don't respond, then we are worse off than we were before."

But Perle's reasoning begs the question: If European allies would be unwilling to fill the hole left by American withdrawals, doesn't that mean they simply do not take the scenarios of Soviet attack as seriously as we do? Perle concedes this.

Yet Perle and other hawks would continue to do for them what they won't do for themselves. Why? Perle thinks that the United States should push harder for increased defense spending by the allies but that ultimately we must take care of the allies. "[Truman's secretary of state] Dean Acheson once compared it to dealing with unruly grandchildren," Perle explained. "You want your grandchildren to behave, to be responsible, but you don't want to destroy them."

His metaphor of "unruly grandchildren" reveals more about the mind-set of the American government than it does about the allies. For 40 years the architects of American foreign policy have seen themselves as wise parents, presiding over irresponsible children, instructing them and correcting their errors. Imperial leadership is a heady role to play, and they do not wish to give it up.

"We have an empire, and it feeds our ego," Schroeder said. "When these other countries say to our political and military leaders that you are the world leader, these guys straighten their backs and say, 'That's right – we're Big Daddy. Climb on my lap, tell us what you need, and we'll take care of it.'"

The diplomacy and strategic planning of downsizing the far-flung American military presence would be difficult, but not the biggest problem. The big sticking point is not in Europe or Asia but right here in American politics. Anyone who looks at the trade statistics knows that the Japanese and the Europeans are not helpless children. This is not 1945. It's time for Big Daddy to face up to the new realities.

On a tour of European capitals, Schroeder was surprised at how many foreign experts see the question in these terms, too. "Many said to us, 'Look, you naive fools, the only way it's going to happen is when you guys just do it.' As long as they can get one more bite out of the apple, nobody is going to voluntarily say, 'We will pay more money, we will raise our taxes and cut our services.'"

The British dismantled their empire – too late to save their ruined economy – essentially by assigning defense responsibilities to various allies and former colonies. Schroeder thinks a bold president could do something similar – announcing to our allies that they are now "senior partners" in the alliance and awarding them new responsibilities for their own defense.

Trouble is, this sort of swift and sure solution would require a bold president, and the prospects are for a cautious one. If a president moves forcefully to correct the military balance sheet and restore our economy, the predictable voices will accuse him of "wimping out." The prestigious Eastern newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, will label him an "isolationist." The military-industrial complex and the army brass and lots of other powerful interests will swing into action to block any substantial disarmament.

The easier route for the next president, the one more likely to be pursued, is to nibble around the edges of the issue, to plead earnestly for help from our allies, to try for minor defense adjustments – and to allow the economic deterioration to continue. The truth is that America can't afford its empire anymore, not without burying itself in debt. Eventually this will be painfully clear to everyone. The question is whether or not Uncle Sucker will wake up fast enough to avert the bitter downward spiral that engulfed Great Britain.

Schroeder is not optimistic. "Getting out of this requires discarding ego gratification," she said. "There is a question whether democracy can ever do that."