Christopher Preble observes that our allies won’t assume greater burdens for their own defense until the U.S. follows a strategy of real restraint:
In a long-awaited book, MIT professor Barry Posen explains that America’s allies “make their defense decisions in the face of extravagant United States promises to defend them. They will not do more unless the United States credibly commits to doing less.”
To achieve this, we should reduce the number of U.S. troops stationed permanently abroad and actively encourage other countries to take responsibility for their own security. The resulting strategy, which Posen calls restraint, would be less costly to implement and maintain, and would be less likely to entangle the United States in conflicts that do not engage the nation’s core national security interests.
It is important to understand that this is not at all what Obama has been doing. That is incidentally why Obama’s West Point speech was so unsatisfying to many proponents of a restrained foreign policy. Obama offered some rhetorical nods to the importance of restraint, but he uses the word to refer to decisions not to use force. Between all of his different “reassurance” tours to Europe, Asia, and the Near East, Obama has helped guarantee that free-riding allies and clients will continue to take advantage of U.S. commitments to do as little as possible for their own defense. While some of the ideas in Obama’s speech were obviously preferable to the more hard-line hegemonist worldview stated in Kagan’s essay, Obama was still articulating a strategy of only slightly cheaper hegemony. The West Point speech was billed as a rejection of overreaching, but it still accepted a role for the U.S. that is far too expansive and expensive.
Avoiding unnecessary wars is essential to foreign policy restraint, but a restrained foreign policy isn’t defined solely by keeping the U.S. out of new conflicts. It is also supposed to be a foreign policy that scales back the extent of the U.S. military presence overseas. At present, allies and clients have no reason to provide more for their own defense. For all the supposed worrying about U.S. reliability these days, the trouble is that allies and clients are too confident that the U.S. will continue to provide for their defense. That is why they see no reason to devote any more of their own resources to that end, and it is also how the U.S. ends up being pulled into doing things that its allies and clients want done but nonetheless can’t do on their own. Until that changes significantly, allies will continue to be overly dependent on the U.S. and the U.S. will be stuck with the burden of defending states that can afford to do much more to defend themselves.