Everybody loves burden sharing

By Daniel DePetris

Our country is divided, and policy has become more partisan than ever before. There is one concept, however, that people with vastly contrasting foreign policy belief systems can largely come to terms with: It’s far better for our allies (most of which are wealthy nations) to increase their own defense capabilities and embrace more of the security burden rather than relying on the U.S. to protect them.

Defense hawks, establishment types, realists, non-interventionists, and deficit hawks disagree on pretty much everything, but burden sharing isn’t one of them. 

Nobody would argue against U.S. security partners and treaty allies picking up the slack, increasing their defense budgets, and taking more responsibility for their own defense because there aren’t good arguments on the other side.  Encouraging self-sufficiency is a no-brainer.

When 57 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that the U.S. should let other nations get along with one other the best they could, it didn’t mean that the American people have become any less interested in world affairs or global engagement. Rather, it was a clear indictment of the last 16 years of foreign policy, a period of time when the majority of Americans simply grew sick, tired, and wary of plunging trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of troops into missions that have resulted in little to no strategic effect. When over 50 percent of Americans believe that the last sixteen years of U.S. foreign policy have failed to keep America or the world more secure safe, U.S. policymakers would be derelict to ignore the public sentiment. The American people by and large want a significant change in how the nation conducts its business overseas, where restraint and pragmatism are even more important factors than saving the world from every conceived ill or injustice. This includes asking — if not demanding — U.S. allies to step up to the challenge and take far more responsibility in resolving the problems in their own regions.

There’s a reason why burden sharing is a popular idea in the American psyche: There aren’t any losers.

It’s good for the United States, which can save taxpayer dollars that would otherwise be spent on sustaining a substantial U.S. military footprint to protect another country. It’s a positive development for America’s partners, all of whom would benefit from modernizing their own armed forces and improving their preparedness in anticipation of a future crisis. And it’s a marked improvement for the entire U.S. alliance system, an architecture that has lasted for more than seven decades on the backs of a single country — the United States.

Fortunately, some pivotal U.S. allies are signaling they’ll get with the program.

Despite its pacifist constitution, a remnant of the scars from WWII, the Japanese government has recently attempted to condition and educate its public as to the reasons why Tokyo must evolve and develop a greater capability to deter attacks and defend itself—the ever-changing security situation in Northeast Asia demands it.

Some Japanese lawmakers are arguing for an offensive missile system that would be have the capacity to strike North Korean targets. This debate would be almost impossible to imagine decades or even years ago.

Dire worries about North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs have also convinced South Korean politicians to deploy a U.S.-made, anti-missile defense system (THAAD) to defend Seoul and its other major population centers from a possible missile attack.  An increasing amount of South Korean lawmakers are even resurrecting a nationwide debate about whether Seoul should acquire an independent capability — a discussion that, while heated and controversial in South Korean politics, indicates that at even close U.S. allies are beginning to talk about boosting their self-suffiency. .

U.S. partners around the world still have a long way to go. NATO, the transatlantic security alliance that has upheld the peace of Europe since the early years of the Cold War, remains so dependent on Washington providing most of the capability, manpower, and technology that the slightest decrease in American assistance would have a dramatic impact on the alliance’s capacity.

Outside of the U.S., only 4 of NATO’s 28member states spend two percent of GDP on their military — and of those four countries, only two (the U.K. and Poland) spent at least 20 percent of their budgets on equipment rather than personnel costs.


As an organization, NATO is just beginning to get out of the red after years of declining defense budgets. Some countries, like Germany — Europe’s economic behemoth — remain hesitant to meet their NATO commitments, even though they signed up to NATO benchmarks a short three years ago.  

There is, in short, a lot of work to do. But regardless of your individual foreign policy beliefs, advocating for widespread burden sharing from our wealthy allies across the globe is a policy around which everyone in Washington can rally. There rarely are times when a black-and-white, win-win situation presents itself in national security policy, but demanding stronger allies who are capable of sharing more responsibility for security in their own neighborhoods is surely a big exception.  

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on May 4, 2017. Read more HERE.