The background of alliance free-riders

Japan is getting increasingly worried about Donald Trump’s comments on alliance free-riders, especially in regard to Japan. While my sympathies don’t lie with the current republican frontrunner, his comments are worth being discussed.


Why do alliance free-riders exist?

Most of the US’ current alliances date back to World War II and the close aftermath. Being the leader of the West and its superpower, and not having suffered any destruction by the war on its mainland, America started to deliver military aid to her allies in Europe and Asia to bolster their defenses against communist aggressions. In both the NATO as well as its alliances in Asia, the States played the role of the older brother who is already earning a decent wage while the younger sibling was still in school. Nations like South Korea were devastated from both the Second World War and the Korean War and simply didn’t have the means to buy everything they needed themselves. Given the geopolitical situation of a gigantic Soviet army that showered communist regimes around the world with weapons, the US didn’t seem to have a choice in that matter.

Thus, buying tanks yourself and giving them as a present to your allies was a cheaper and better alternative to manning the tanks yourself. But despite that, the Allies still needed active protection by US forces. Starting there, the US alliances only grew more into a system where the US shoulders a disproportionate burden of the defense, especially in those nations in direct proximity to the communist bloc.

But where this seems unfair, it also had an important function. By relieving the countries still ravaged from the Second World War from the burden of pouring huge amounts of their meager budget into defense, these countries were able to set up social security programs and welfare states. The rationale behind this was, that countries who help the poor are less likely to vote communist in a time, where a communist takeover by democratic means was a real possibility in countries like Italy or France. So by ensuring the defense of those countries herself, the US helped these countries to set up the means to stay within the western block.

Still, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Other countries were deliberately kept in a disproportionale military level because of their history. To ensure peace and stability in Asia and Europa, it seemed wise not to make the rebuilt militaries of Germany and Japan increase to a size where they could threaten their neighbours like they did just a few years earlier. It seemed a wiser geopolitical choice to just have own troops protecting Japan than having Japan create an army big enough to defend itself against any possible aggression by the People’s Republic of China, North Korea and the Soviet Union .

Leading NATO has a price.
Leading NATO has a price.


Should the US accept any more alliance free-riders?

So while there were three reasons to this, the economic situation of allies, the need of the countries to spend money on the society to prevent a communist takeover and the historic implications of having recent aggressors rearm to an impressive size, times have changed.  Donald Trump has a point when he points out that the US will likely have to start World War 3 when Japan is attacked but that Japan doesn’t have to help the US at all.

But this doesn’t tell the whole story, as it ignores things like the Republic of China offering troops to fight the communists in both Korea and Vietnam, South Korean troops fighting alongside the US in Vietnam and being part of ISAF in Afghanistan or Japanese troops helping to scure Iraq, most of the alliances still appear to be mostly one sided.

If the US wants to keep her stand in the world, she might be forced to continue providing selected allies with military aid. Had the Philippines a navy to speak of, the People’s Republic might not have forced them off several reefs and islands in the South China Sea. Providing defensive weapons to nations who can’t afford said weapons will cost the US money, but may very well help saving her from spending blood instead.

Allies with strong economies who are actually economic competitors are another story. Still, the US’ problem is that it simply can’t end those alliances at will without causing severe damage to her geopolitical interests. While nations like Australia and Britain have always done their part, others were more reluctant to pay back the security provided by US troops with assistance for US efforts with both military and diplomatic means. But what is America’s choice? Insisting on Germany to spend the promised two percent of her GDP on defense is fruitless, unless it is accompanied with pressure of some kind. So unless the US is willing to threaten leaving NATO, what means does she have? Increased pressure on allies may push them to a point where they see a negative balance in the costs and benefits in the alliance with the US and abandon said alliance. Such steps would not just diminish America’s global influence but also weaken her security. Without a US alliance, most nations will have to either bow to the demands of other big powers like Russia and China or try to set up their own alliance system which will become a competitor for the US. The EU unsuccessfully works on this project for some years now.

In the end, America might be forced to actually return to Rumsfeld’s “old Europe” and “new Europe”, where the US sees some members of her alliances as active and contributing members who are encouraged and assisted while others are mostly ignored. While this helps strengthen partners like Poland, it doesn’t change the fact that other NATO members just relax in the security system paid for by the US tax payer. The US can encourage those nations, she can plead to them to spend more on their defense, but if they keep unresponsive to diplomatic means, abandoning the alliance is no real option.

In the end, accepting alliance free-riders might just be without any real alternative. Nations who don’t feel threatened enough will be unwilling to contribute more in most cases. Abandoning the alliance with them is no alternative, as they might very well seek an alliance or rapprochement with America’s foes instead. This is the price of being the sole superpower who works with a system of voluntary alliances that aren’t based on a kind of Breshnev-Doctrine, where the leader of the alliances keeps its members in line by force. It is either this or isolationism which will give America’s enemies the time and means to strengthen their position to a point where they will be able to actively threaten the US herself.


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