Europe is at war and American hawks are busy. The Atlantic Council’s Matthew Kroenig argued that "the most consequential strategic question of the 21st century is becoming clear: How can the United States manage two revisionist, autocratic, nuclear-armed great powers (Russia and China) simultaneously?" To do that he wants to double military outlays.
Notorious neoconservative Elliott Abrams was even more apocalyptic. He worried about "the risk presented when a fully rearmed, aggressive Russia and a rich, aggressive and technologically advanced China tell us that the international order that has lasted since 1945 must end, and American predominance with it." He, too, would greatly hike military spending.
Abrams also would continue to subsidize defense dependents in Europe and the Middle East, since "abandoning allies and interests anywhere will weaken all our alliances everywhere." Yet all nations adjust policies to reflect interests. And all great powers recognize that some commitments and relationships are misguided and too expensive to keep. Moreover, he argued that we should continue to promote freedom, except, apparently, in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where the US allies with murderous tyrannies to promote brutal aggression.
After World War II the US took on the duty to protect both Europe and Asia. The Pentagon sought enough manpower and hardware to fight two major wars at once. In practice, Washington figured it would be fighting essentially alone.
However, the justification for this position disappeared long ago. Western states recovered economically. The Soviet Union dissolved. The People’s Republic of China long lagged badly. Yet Europeans continued to cheap ride as the US expanded its defense dole, adding military midgets, such as North Macedonia and Montenegro.
Even more scandalous has been the behavior of Asian allies. For decades Japan has spent just one percent of its GDP on the military while complaining about threats from North Korea and China. The Philippines barely bothers to raise a military. Former defense minister Orlando Mercado complained that his nation had "a navy that can’t go out to sea and an air force that cannot fly." Little has changed since then.
Washington does need to change its foreign and defense policy. But not in the direction suggested by Kroenig and Abrams. Instead, it is time to shift responsibilities onto Asian and European allies and friends.
That long has been, and remains, easier in Europe. By almost any measure Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been a disappointment if not disaster for Moscow. He inadvertently unified NATO, prompted the US to increase force deployments along Russia’s borders, caused outside European states to consider joining the alliance, sparked multiple European governments to hike military outlays, and triggered widespread and extensive financial sanctions against Russia.
Putin also inadvertently showcased the limits of the Russian armed services. They have significant firepower but suffer from important weaknesses. While raw numbers of troops and tanks would suggest that Moscow could defeat any European nation, poor logistics, maintenance, morale, and training make Russia look substantially less threatening.
No doubt, Moscow will learn from its mistakes and address its military’s shortcomings, though it might be short of money to refurbish its force. Nor should Russians be underestimated if defending their country from attack. However, looking ever less plausible are scare stories of a revived Red Army driving across Europe to the Atlantic.
Imagine sitting at Putin’s long table and proposing an invasion of the Baltics or Poland. He evidently recognizes that his intelligence and military officials misjudged Ukraine. He apparently has scaled back his objectives in Ukraine. Despite persistent claims that he wants to reconstitute the Soviet Union, he did virtually nothing toward that end for more than 22 years, and Kyiv does not appear to be heading back to Russia. Happy talk about Moscow’s opportunity to conquer Europe would likely receive an unsympathetic reception.
Moreover, countries that most people fear would be Russian targets are members of NATO, giving them the Article 5 guarantee. Whatever members’ past reluctance to act in Europe’s east, the US and others have since insisted that the allies would defend all NATO territory. All also have watched Ukraine fight tenaciously and blunt the Russian offensive.
In short, at the very moment when the threat to Europe appeared to increase dramatically – due to Moscow’s assault on Ukraine – the real danger looks substantially less. Moscow’s conventional capabilities badly lag those of America. Collectively Europe’s armed forces are disappointing, but those nations have geography and distance on their side. The Russian army appears too small to conquer and occupy all of Ukraine, let alone much beyond.
Of course, Europe’s quantitative inferiority is embarrassing. For instance, the United Kingdom, fielding one of the continent’s best militaries and spending more than two percent of its GDP on the military, has just 148 main battle tanks. The good news, however, is that Europe could do much more. And many countries have promised to do more. Although enthusiasm for improving their militaries might fade over time, that is less likely to happen if the US does not step in to "reassure" its allies. The best incentive to get the Europeans to do more is for America to do less.
Strangely, some analysts believe that more welfare encourages dependents to work more. Wrote Kroenig, the allies "will not do it on their own if the United States threatens to leave Europe." Will they surrender instead? There is a reason the Europeans and Japanese have been cheap riders for decades. They didn’t need to do more. Indeed, every time Washington sent a high official to "reassure" allies that America would always be there to do everything no matter how little they did, they had less reason to do more.
Thus, contrary to the recommendations coming out of the Blob, or US foreign policy establishment, Washington should reduce, not increase, its commitment to Europe’s defense. Today is a moment of unique vulnerability for Moscow. Its military is tied up in Ukraine. Adding targets would only yield greater failure. Which makes this a good moment to press the Europeans to follow through on their promises to do more militarily. Fearing Russia more and recognizing that American support will shrink would combine for a powerful incentive to reverse past dependence on the US.
At the same time, Washington should reduce its role in Asia from lead to back-up. The US has obvious interests in the region, more significantly economic than security. However, the PRC poses no direct threat to America: no one imagines a Chinese armada descending upon Honolulu or Los Angeles. Indeed, the US military advantage remains enormous.
America is the most secure great power ever, with vast oceans east and west and only two neighbors north and south, both weak and pacific. In contrast, China shares land boundaries with 14 nations and has ocean contact with several other states, several of which Beijing fought in wars both short and long over the last century. Military domination of Asia, let alone Eurasia, beyond Beijing’s means. Even if Washington does not have sufficient superiority to coerce the PRC, Washington can easily prevent the PRC from coercing America.
Nevertheless, Washington would prefer to prevent the unlikely conquest of major allies – Australia, Japan, and South Korea, most importantly. Yet the PRC has threatened none of them with war. Their best protection would be doing more for themselves. For example, the Republic of Korea is vastly stronger economically than North Korea and has been upping military outlays and developing capabilities that reach beyond the peninsula. Tokyo’s ruling party expressed plans to double military outlays, which, if realized, would make the country a much more difficult target if Beijing’s intentions turned malign. Australia, too, is doing more. And these countries are looking nearby for associates if not quite allies, most notably India. Washington could remain in the background, playing enabler and cheerleader
More likely to trigger conflict are manifold territorial disputes in regional waters, but none constitutes a vital interest worth war to the US. There is no cause to effectively lend the American navy to other nations, however friendly, to fight over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Scarborough Shoal, or the Paracel Islands. Proclaiming that otherwise worthless pieces of rock are covered by US security guarantees might deter China. But if not – Beijing might not believe Washington or conflict might arise inadvertently, the result of overly-aggressive pilots or ship captains – the US would have to decide between war and retreat. American policymakers should remember that the ultimate objective is to protect the US, not US allies. Doing the latter is only a means to the former.
Although the future is uncertain, nothing so far suggests imminent Chinese interest in risking its ongoing economic, diplomatic, and cultural advances by shifting to territorial conquest. Even the 2020 Galwan Valley bloody border clash with India was about the ill-defined boundary, not a prelude to general war. The only exception is Taiwan, which the PRC considers to be part of China; its return would effectively end what has been called the Century of Humiliation, during which other nations – Japan, America, and European states – chopped off parts of moribund imperial China.
Taiwan is a democratic, capitalist society entitled to chart its own course. However, it sits barely 100 miles from the PRC, roughly the same distance as Cuba from the US. While American forces would have to deploy nearly 7000 miles distant, the Peoples Liberation Army could use scores of mainland military bases. Projecting power over such a distance is far more difficult and expensive than deterring its use. Support from US allies would be critical, but even encouraging talk today does not mean South Korea, Japan, and Philippines would risk making themselves into military targets of their permanent neighbor.
It would be difficult to justify US military intervention, despite the attractiveness of Taiwanese society. It matters not for American security (imagine Beijing claiming that Cuba was a vital interest). Rather, an independent Taiwan inhibits Chinese military operations in Asia-Pacific waters. That is an advantage for the US, but the Chinese leadership and people care far more about the issue, which means they are willing to risk and spend far more. Most US wargames indicate that Washington would lose a war with the PRC over Taiwan. Reversing that judgment likely would require an enormous expenditure, which could end up accounting for an inordinate share of a rising defense budget, a significant annual commitment for uncertain benefit.
Even overcoming the PRC’s current advantages, a major preoccupation of the Pentagon today, and claiming victory might not be permanent – rather like Germany a century ago, China likely would treat a loss as temporary and immediately begin preparing for the next round. And any conflict could, even if very unlikely, go nuclear. Never has there been a major conventional war between two nuclear powers, one reason Washington has been so careful to avoid a military confrontation with Russia over Ukraine.
The better alternative would be for Taipei to adopt a porcupine defense. But that requires significantly increasing its own military outlays, instead of relying on America; purchasing the right weapons, such as anti-ship missiles, rather than high-status aircraft; and convincing its own citizens to join the military, instead of expecting the America cavalry to stage a last-minute rescue. Most important, perhaps, Washington should communicate to the Taiwanese government and people that their future is in their hands and they rely on America at their own risk.
The good news is that Russia’s surprisingly poor military performance in Ukraine and Europe’s equally surprising support for sanctions against Moscow likely have chastened Beijing. The PRC does not want to go to war if it can achieve its ends otherwise. Now Xi Jinping and the rest of the Chinese Communist Party leadership must wonder if Chinese military and intelligence officials have been telling them what they want to hear and China’s armed services are prepared for amphibious operations, perhaps the most difficult task facing any military.
Moreover, Washington and other Asian states should explore the potential for a diplomatic modus vivendi – with China, the US, and Taiwan stepping back from confrontation and de-escalating what has become a dangerous flashpoint. The PRC has waited for decades to retake Taiwan. Beijing might decide waiting a little longer makes more sense than risking everything in a botched military operation.
After World War II, many democratic and friendly states were vulnerable to Soviet subversion and assault. Hence Washington’s policy of containment. Thankfully, the justification for this policy disappeared: the USSR collapsed, the Warsaw Pact dissolved, Eastern European nations raced westward. Had Washington and its allies behaved differently, not treating Moscow as a defeated nation through NATO expansion and more, Russia likely would not have reemerged as a threat. But Putin has helpfully demonstrated that Moscow, though certainly not a paper tiger, nevertheless is not equipped for continent-wide aggression. Russia remains a problem, but one that could and should be managed by Europeans, not Americans.
China is a greater challenge, but not primarily military, for the US, at least. In the first instance friendly states should do more for themselves. After all, their independence is more important to them than America. And Washington must distinguish between intense preferences, such as for democratic Taiwan, and vital interests, defending the US from existential threats.
Ultimately, Russia’s criminal aggression against Ukraine offers a reminder why US security is best served by remaining outside of unnecessary conflicts, not making other nations’ wars America’s own. It is well past time for Washington’s allies and friends to take over their own security and confront whatever threats exist. The American people defended much of the world over the last eight decades. Now it is time for them to retire.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.