Free Riding on American Power

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson conducts tactical maneuvering exercises in the Strait Of Magellan, March 15
The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson conducts tactical maneuvering exercises in the Strait Of Magellan, March 15 (US Navy/Daniel Barker)

Over at Defense Tech, Greg points out that a debate is underway about the question whether Western Europe and parts of East Asia are “free riding” on US military power.

Michael Auslin, director of Japan Studies with the American Enterprise Institute, started the discussion earlier this month with a contribution entitled “Three Strikes against US Global Presence” in which he warned of the “coming end of America’s overseas basing and ability to project power.” He seems rather to overestimate Japan’s unwillingness to allow a continued US military presence on its soil, but his fear that ever burgeoning financial commitments at home will inevitably diminish American prowess, at least in part, is credible. Add to that two ongoing wars in the Middle East, and even the world’s only superpower is hard stressed to maintain global predominance.

China, Iran and Russia will take advantage of the situation, notes Auslin. As these powers seek to increase their influence, “the free flow of capital will be constrained,” while other countries are forced to strengthen regulation in order to pay for their own defense. Decades of “instability, increased conflict, and depressed economic growth and innovation” will ensue.

At The Economist the argument was made that China and Russia have actually very little interest in upsetting the status quo. They fare all too well under a regime of free trade. As I have previously opined, Western commentators are quick to dread foreign power blocks while they, in fact, are more likely to promote the institutionalization of Western values than undermine them. The end of American ascendancy may be inevitable, but only when globalization — or “Americanization” — is accomplished. As Thomas Barnett wrote in December, there is little need for American hegemony when culturally and economically, American influence is paramount.

If a less American world isn’t necessarily a more dangerous one, what of NATO’s and Japan’s “free riding” on America’s might? Most of Western Europe does rely on American protection, allowing it to spend excessively on economic subsidies and welfare programs. There is more reason to their apparent pacifism however. As Greg notes at Defense Tech, Western European countries simply haven’t faced any serious security threat in recent decades so why should they have bigger armies?

The potential of European might is slim therefore, at least for now. If America slowly starts to withdraw, Europe will have to respond and accept a new Atlantic order in which it stands on a more equal footing with the United States. But that is something for the distant future. The US is unlikely to undercut its foreign commitments any time soon so both Europe and Japan will continue to enjoy sitting safely under its massive defense umbrella for probably decades to come.


  1. The problem of being the hegemony is you have to maintain the status quo in order to keep your own position, and in order to do that you need to defend the world order as it is. US commentators have been asking ‘why don’t these lazy foreigners defend themselves?’ since the 50s, and quite simply it’s because they don’t have to, the US is forced to provide it anyway, or hand over the keys to someone more willing to work in close security partnerships and provide the model for world order. Britain had a very similar problem across the Empire in the 1850s – 1900s.

    Conversely, since the 1980s, US commitment to physical (and therefore expensive) security in Japan and Western Europe has fallen dramatically. US unit numbers have fallen in Germany, and are likely to keep doing so. These troops are then ‘replaced’ with ever more advanced technological solutions like missile ‘shields’ and so on. In the extremely unlikely event that something kicks off and Russia invades Western Europe after a US withdrawal, it’s the US which would suffer most when a huge percentage of its trade is transatlantic. NATO needs the US, but the US also needs NATO. That’s the point of these security partnerships. Japan likewise, but given Obama’s fawning over the Chinese premier I’d imagine they’ve had enough, and in any case could give the Chinese a bloody nose enough if pushed.

    As your man notes, though, the reason Western Europeans tend to have a more pacifistic, ‘enlightened’ view of conflict and IR, is because it’s all joined at the hip these days with Economic and political unions, thus preventing war within Europe. If Germany was still charging about, that’d not be the case and France would have a massive military capability. They don’t as they don’t seem to need it. US withdrawal from its current security commitments, from a European perspective, wouldn’t necessarily mean an increase in defence spending and power, however. The strategic culture of Europe is no longer one of military action in a similar way to the US, and that would take some time to regenerate.

    ‘American ideals’ in economics and ideology aren’t 100% proof and dominant, with the decline of US hegemony, the rest doesn’t necessarily remain; the two are linked. US Soft power goes hand in hand with its premier military and political position. I’m also unsure that Russia and China would want American values increased, despite their commonality in market practices at this moment in time. Both may benefit from the status quo, but we’re being overly-optimistic to expect rival states to not seek to further their own interests, even if that means adjusting the status quo in their favour. Hypothetically, In 100 years, when American power is on the wane, rivals aren’t going to wait about if they see an opportunity. They may not use any form of violence to get that, but never-the-less to think that the world will always be American because it is now, and will be no matter what economic and political state it will be in, in the future, seems naive. The very fact you say the world is ‘Americanised’ at the moment proves my point. Free market practices, liberal politics and generally the western mindset prevailed when the Dutch ran the show in the 1500 – 1700s (hollandisation?), and then the British from 1700s – 1900s (Britishisation?). American cultural influence will last as long as America is a place to be looked up to, economically, politically and militarily, after that, it will shift. That’s the law of hegemony.

  2. Perhaps we need a better understanding of what I mean with “American values”. When I talk of free market economics, liberal government, etc., note that these have all been more or less institutionalized through platforms not necessarily dominated by the United States: the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, even the UN to a certain degree. That’s not to say that they’re universally agreed upon, nor that they won’t ever go away anymore, but I’m inclined to believe that even if/when American power wanes, this global order will remain in place because virtually all of the countries that matter have a stake in maintaining it.