Turkey’s Arms Purchase Should Jolt US Alliance Policies

by , October 30, 2013

Sending a shock wave through the U.S. military-industrial complex, NATO ally Turkey passed up the usually dominant American defense industry in favor of an obscure Chinese defense company for a contract on a long-range missile defense system. Unlike the American Patriot system, the Chinese system, produced by China Precision, is not easily compatible with existing NATO air defense systems, and China Precision is even under US sanctions for selling technologies that the US government says could help Syria (Turkey’s new nemesis), Iran, and North Korea develop unconventional weapons. One would think that Turkey would have made sure its primary security guarantor – the United States – was happy, given that a civil war is raging in neighboring Syria and occasionally spilling into its territory. Yet the US quest to be "Big Man on Campus" and retain "influence" in Europe after the Cold War has allowed its NATO allies to get away with even more then they did back then.

During the Cold War, the United States subsidized its allies’ defense while they got rich. Instead of building up their own defenses to counter the Soviet Union – a much more likely threat to Europe and East Asia than to the United States – they were able to divert scare resources into their civilian economies to compete with US commercial industries. Despite the United States heavily subsidizing their security, many allies failed to fully open their markets to US products. In some case, the United States had to accept allied protectionism as the price for stationing protection forces in allied nations! And all this sacrifice from American taxpayers to maintain the "influence" of the American foreign policy elite in allied countries. What exactly does this influence get the taxpayer? Not much apparently.

If during the latter part of the Cold War, the then-rich allies could have done more for their own security, thus relieving some of the American burden, the burden sharing situation worsened as the security situation improved after the Cold War ended. With the collapse of the principle threat – the competing Warsaw Past alliance and the Soviet Union – US allies felt less insecure and thus able to take further advantage of the United States, which became more insecure about its loss of clout in Europe and East Asia.

Lord Acton once perceptively said that the NATO alliance kept the Soviets out, the US in, and the Germans down. The same could be said about the centerpiece of US policy in East Asia – the U.S.-Japan security alliance. Because the Soviet Union is now in the dustbin of history and Russia is a pale threat replacement (China is rising but has much ground to cover to catch up to the Soviet threat), the latter two functions are all that’s left. Some Europeans and Asians still remember World War II and have lingering fear of a resurgent Germany (especially since its reunification) and Japan, respectively. Yet these countries have been good, almost pacifist, members of their regional neighborhoods for almost 70 years. Thus, such fears are irrational, and the United States should say, "get over it" to these nations’ neighbors.

These obsolete and entangling alliances have indeed kept the United States "in" these regions with a significant military presence long after the Cold War ended. To maintain its clout within these areas, the US needed to retain the alliances in a less threatening post-Cold War world. Thus, even after the Soviet Union’s demise, the United States strengthened the U.S.-Japan alliance (doing so again recently) and expanded NATO in Europe both in function and to defend yet more countries.

These alliances not only suck up US cash by keeping US defense budgets excessively high to fund rich allies’ security, they provide no incentive to such countries to spend more on their own defenses – a phenomenon called "free riding." Even more important, these outdated alliances have become permanent and ends in themselves – any US alliance should be temporary and serve US security interests at the time – and impede US flexibility in foreign policy in a changed era. Outdated alliances prior to World War I helped drag European countries, and eventually the United States, into a war nobody wanted and that led to a calamitous twentieth century – ultimately causing World War II and the Cold War.

Current US alliance policy has gotten so ridiculous that America is now borrowing money from China to subsidize the defense of rich East Asian allies in their quest to militarily counter…well…China.

After the Cold War ended, the United States should have taken advantage of the more favorable security circumstances and abrogated these obsolete alliances. To avoid getting dragged into unneeded wars in the future – potentially even with nuclear-armed powers – the United States should terminate such entangling alliances to increase its flexibility in an ever-changing world.

Read more by Ivan Eland