Save Money by Ending Costly Alliances

obama korea

President Barack Obama uses binoculars to view the DMZ from Observation Post Ouellette at Camp Bonifas, Republic of Korea, March 25, 2012. (Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Continued U.S. economic sluggishness, induced by a massive national debt in excess of $15 trillion, should be causing soul-searching in the American foreign policy community about which unnecessary alliance commitments can be shed to save money. Yet, predictably, interest groups supporting empire continue to tout “American leadership” in “strategic” regions of the world.

For example, at a recent forum titled “America: New Energy Superpower?” at the Center for the National Interest—a somewhat restrained source of foreign policy analysis, by U.S. standards—one presenter declared that the United States should continue to defend Persian Gulf oil because no other country had the ability to do it.

I noted that if the United States continues to provide other nations’ security, they have no incentive to provide their own. After all, if someone offered to pay your mortgage, why would you pay it? Furthermore, even in the absence of military power to protect Persian Gulf oil, petroleum supplies are unlikely to be permanently reduced or cut off even if a war occurs in the region. Oil is a lucrative business, and higher prices provide a great incentive for Persian Gulf and other oil producers to find a way to get their oil to market.

Finally, modern developed economies have shown their resilience when faced with high oil prices, and classical economists of the 18th and 19th centuries showed that empire was not cost-effective—that is, it is cheaper to simply pay episodically higher prices for things such as oil than to build even more expensive military forces to secure something that doesn’t need securing. But empire is more “patriotic” and “glamorous” than common sense. Even if some armed might is needed in the Gulf, the wealthy Gulf nations can afford to provide more of it than they do. They provide so little now because the United States is willing to cover the bill.

Similarly, a recent report on the much-touted air war to oust Libya’s leader Moammar Gadhafi showed that our NATO allies remain deficient in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, logistical assets such as refueling tankers, and precision guided weapons. The allies have again pledged to correct some of these longstanding failures, but even if they fulfill their promises this time—which is problematic given that the health of most of their economies is worse than that of the U.S.—it will take years. They are in no hurry because the United States has provided such assets whenever the alliance goes to war: again, why pay when someone else is paying? This episode illustrates that the United States continues to subsidize reasonably wealthy allies around the world who face poorer adversaries.

That is certainly the case with U.S. policy toward Korea. South Korea now has more than 40 times the GDP of the North. And destitute, Communist North Korea’s long history of engaging in unpredictable, belligerent saber-rattling to gain more food aid and cash from the West has been repeated so many times that the United States should have learned by now. Of course, hawks say that taking a harder line against the North would produce better results. For example, the United Nations Security Council just imposed more sanctions after North Korea attempted to launch a long-range rocket, thereby allegedly violating an agreement to suspend its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for more Western food aid.

Yet the North Koreans are developing long-range missiles principally to threaten the United States because it militarily supports, with troops on the ground, their South Korean nemesis long after South Korea could afford to defend itself. If the United States left South Korea to provide for its own security, faraway North Korea would have little reason to target the U.S. with whatever weapons and delivery means it developed. Thus, why should the United State continue to beat its head against a wall trying to bribe North Korea to be nicer? That is South Korea’s problem, and if the militarily incompetent North could ever successfully marry a nuclear weapon to a long-range missile, it likely would be deterred from any attack on the United States by the most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world.

Even in tranquil Europe, more than two decades after the Cold War ended, the U.S. still has 40,000 troops. That total will drop to about 30,000 by 2015, but the United States just can’t bring itself, no matter how low the threat, to completely withdraw its imperial military presence from anywhere.

Ivan ElandFinally, Israel is richer than its foes and has 200 to 400 nuclear weapons, so why should the U.S. continue to give that wealthy nation $3 billion a year in military assistance?

In all of these areas—the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, East Asia, and Europe—the financially strapped American Empire can no longer afford to provide unnecessary and camouflaged welfare to rich allies.

Ivan Eland
The Independent

Republished with permission.

Posted: Tuesday, 23 April 2012


  1. harry wood says

    no one adddressed our advantage to having military forces stationed around the world. Yes, we do offer a security blanket type arrangement with others, but that blanket also offers the US advantages. If all our military might were in one place, we would be less safe than being spread around the globe.

  2. JoeWeinstein says

    Eland gets cheap thrills beating a nearly dead horse here.  Notice though that he can’t bother to tell us how much altogether do these supposedly costly alliances cost or what percentage of federal outlays that comes to. 

    Apparently he equates being an ‘ally’ of the US to being a recipient of US ‘military aid’ – which in turn he assumes amounts to the ‘ally’ sponging off of the USA to ‘buy’ the ‘national security’ that the ally could or anyhow should afford on its own.  Examples may exist, but he gives none, where such an ‘ally’ in fact really depends for its legitimate ‘national security’ on USA aid.   

    So there seems to be little to stop Congress from following Eland’s suggestion and simply discontinuing all military aid.  What is unclear is whether Eland sees any value in having genuine alliances, which express and support a long-term commonality of interest – with or without aid.  If he DOES see value in them, then his article should say and be titled simply:  End Military Aid.  If he does NOT see value in them, then it’s beside the point that some alliances currently involve military aid; he should just say:  End Alliances. 

    Eland is of course being simplistically deceptive.  Nominal ‘alliances’ as well as ‘military aid’ are both tools of policy which may have little to do with genuine alliance.  For one thing, almost all ‘military aid’ is in effect a subsidy of US defense industries, because generally such aid can be spent only on US-sold hardware.  And some nominal ‘alliances’ – the ones that involve basing for US troops or ships or aircraft – may be viewed indirectly as additional devices to give the US government excuses to give our armed forces stuff (not necessarily only wars) to do, so as to subsidize our defense industries and armed forces employees.  

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