Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Be Careful What You Wish For

The United States doesn't have the power to fully police the world. And the American people want more restraint in America's troop commitments. But threats are growing.

The world we built after World War II that does benefit America. And rising Chinese power plus rising Russian hostility means that America can't react to their threats and police the world (well, we never could, truth be told, even in the post-Cold War era). Is a solution to popular demands for more restraint abroad and the need to resist China a policy that enables American allies in the Asia-Pacific region to carry more of the burden?

By passing some responsibilities to formal and tacit allies who already have an interest in opposing Beijing -- Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India, for example -- the United States could feasibly scale back its own overseas commitments while still meeting its objective of limiting China’s international ambitions.

I'd almost say "nice work if you can get it," but be careful what you wish for. Really, this is an updated version of "leading from behind," no?

The fact is that in the post-Cold War world America accepted a larger defense role than our allies in order to restrain our allies from dragging us into wars that they start. Our war reserve stocks freed allies of the need to maintain similar stocks, knowing we could resupply them in war (assuming we agree with fighting that war).

I noted that Pakistan started a war with India in 1965 by using American ammunition intended for training to build up a war reserve stock. I recently noted the Suez Crisis of 1956 in a different context.

But that's what can happen when you pass on responsibilities (and capabilities) to oppose another country:

Welcome to the flip side of "leading from behind."

When we want allies who can fight without us taking the lead--wait for it--we get allies who can fight without us in the lead.

So they might fight in Vietnam. Or invade Egypt.

Do we really want to put allies in the position of being able to drag us into war by allowing them to begin a war they may think will be short and glorious?

Maybe we do. Maybe the risk is worth taking given the scale of China's economic, scientific, and military rise. But it is a risk to consider.

This really is a balancing act to get allies to spend enough on defense to help both of us win a war; yet not have them spend so much that they can independently start a war that drags us in.