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How Cheap are “Cheap-Riding” Allies?

It’s a sign of the strange times in which we live that Donald Trump’s longest-lasting impact on policy-making may arguably occur in the realm that he is most unqualified to comment on: foreign policy. Specifically, Trump’s willingness to question the efficacy of U.S. military alliances such as NATO has emboldened skeptics of U.S. global engagement to scramble to recast well-worn anti-alliance arguments and ride the unforeseen wave of relevancy all the way to the West Wing.

Image courtesy of DoD, © 2010

Image courtesy of DoD, © 2010

Alliance skepticism, most notably doubts over the benefits of NATO membership, is not a new phenomenon. Curiously, however, alliance critics have not taken the opportunity Trump has offered to substantially update their arguments for a new millennium. Instead, they have ignored recent empirical work that attacks the foundations of alliance skepticism and, as a result, limited the effectiveness of their arguments.

Alliance skeptics have generally rested their stance upon two interlocking propositions: 1) U.S. alliances endanger American interests because they raise the risk of the United States becoming “entrapped,” or pulled into a foreign war that otherwise it would have preferred to avoid; and 2) these alliances allow allies to “cheap-ride,” leaving the United States to pay more for defense while allies spend on other priorities.

Recent research has cast serious doubt on the first of these assertions. Michael Beckley, a professor of political science at Tufts University, has examined the notion that there is a high risk of entrapment from U.S. alliances and finds little to no supporting evidence for the claim. Although alliance skeptics have sought to fire back, asserting that this is due to the unique bipolar dynamics of the Cold War and thus not generalizable, such counter-arguments fail to delineate any new clear-cut cases of entanglement to support their claims.

Despite these academic advances, some alliance skeptics have failed to rise to the challenge and update their arguments. Instead, they’ve resorted to dusting off old anti-alliance arguments without providing additional intellectual heft. For instance, in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Doug Bandow, a senior research fellow at the Cato Institute, attempts to sidestep the criticisms of Beckley and others by making a “cheap-riding”-centric argument. In his view, “Defending prosperous, populous, industrialized nations around the world transfers wealth from U.S. taxpayers to their counterparts overseas. In effect, the Pentagon has become the federal government’s largest source of foreign aid, turning security assistance into a form of international welfare.”

There are a number of problems, though, with Bandow’s analysis. First, he fails to sufficiently differentiate between two separate issues, the “unfair financial burden” the United States is bearing relative to its allies (an accusation of “cheap-riding”) versus the increased costs that the United States must pay to maintain a force structure capable of defending allies. Second, he provides neither clear evidence of “cheap-riding” behavior nor indicates the relative benefits that allies gain from such behavior.

One of Bandow’s major assertions is that “Every overseas commitment requires additional forces. If Washington decides to defend another nation, it needs more personnel and weapons to do so.” This is flawed logic. It is true that the capabilities the United States requires to defend allies—such as long distance lift capabilities and a logistics system with a truly global reach—are costly. Still, these costs are not necessarily due to alliances in and of themselves, but rather to the broad way in which the United States defines its national interests.

Bandow himself would most likely agree with this argument. He writes that “If the Pentagon wants to fight two wars rather than one, the Department of Defense requires a larger force structure. If the U.S. government wants to mount humanitarian operations, promote democracy, rebuild failed societies, and engage in other forms of overseas social engineering, it must create and maintain enough units to accomplish those ends.” Yet, the question of whether the United States should define its national interests broadly or narrowly, and what force structure it needs to protect those interests, is entirely divorced from the question of what alliances the United States should pursue. Alliances are not a necessary corollary to broad definitions of national interest.

For instance, if the United States were to define preventing Russian aggression in Eastern Europe as one of its core national interests, it would require a very similar force structure to what it currently has. Whether or not the United States has a formal alliance with countries in Eastern Europe is essentially irrelevant if it would be forced to come to their defense for other reasons, such as balancing against the rise of a potential regional hegemon. In other words, the alliances that the United States has are at best intervening variables to help explain U.S. defense spending but do not have a substantial independent effect on such spending levels.

Furthermore, it does not logically follow, per Bandow’s argument, that more allies lead to greater U.S. defense expenditures. It is doubtful that the United States would need to acquire greatly different capabilities to protect a greater number of allies as opposed to a lesser number. The question then becomes one of capacity, as opposed to capability. More alliance commitments could require the United States to maintain higher troop levels than it would with fewer such commitments. Still, this would mainly be the case if there was a high probability that these commitments would be tested simultaneously. Depending on the nature of the commitments, the United States could in theory separately fulfill the same alliance commitments with the same troops. Finally, even if Bandow’s logic holds, there is no guarantee that additional costs for additional allies are: 1) high, 2) increase exponentially or linearly, and/or 3) are cumulative.

Another major problem with Bandow’s argument, and those of other alliance skeptics, is a lack of clear evidence that allies are in fact cheap-riding. In short, they fail to demonstrate how big an issue this actually is. Just because the United States spends a lot of money on defense to help fulfill alliance commitments doesn’t mean that allies are in fact spending less than they normally would. The most widely cited evidence of “cheap-riding” by allies is the failure of many NATO states to fulfill their treaty obligations to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. And yet, this number is wholly arbitrary, reflecting neither a consensus on the minimum defense spending requirements broadly or specifically speaking for NATO countries. It is a politically motivated number without any empirical basis.

Making the case that “cheap-riding” exists thus requires a much higher burden of proof than alliance skeptics provide. Approvingly citing Trump, Bandow unintentionally notes the difficulty of any such venture. He writes that there are additional expenses “when allied nations are discouraged from contributing more to their own defense,” though he acknowledges that “The price of any particular commitment [to the United States] is difficult to determine.” If the United States can’t even figure out how much a particular alliance costs, then it is certainly just as difficult to assess how much other states gain.

The burden of calculating both the costs of cheap-riding to the United States and savings by alliance partners should fall the heaviest on alliance skeptics. The inability to provide clear evidence for the problem they propose casts doubt on the broader validity of their argument. Skeptics must first establish baseline models of defense spending that take into account individual state circumstances in the absence of alliances. Only then can they compare the predicted spending level to actual levels and determine if “cheap-riding” is occurring, and at what level. It should be noted that Bandow provides little to no empirical evidence for his assertions, and certainly none of this rigor.

Ultimately, the inability of alliance skeptics such as Bandow to substantively update past arguments means they are trapped in a double bind. First, having made a weak initial case, any later evidence they do provide will be ill-received, particularly if Trump loses. The toxic nature of Trump’s campaign may make both elites and the general public less likely to consider any ideas, even related to foreign policy, that have been tarnished by association. Secondly, even if Trump wins, his willingness to shift policy positions means that there is no guarantee that he will actually enact the policies he embraced on the campaign trail. Thus, alliance skeptics may have grasped at coattails and be left holding the entire jacket as Trump wriggles free based on his own inscrutable calculations. Already disliked by the majority of the mainstream foreign policy establishment, alliance skeptics such as Bandow may have already hit their high point of relevancy and face an unenviable and lengthy fall from grace.


Alexander Kirss

Alexander is a PhD student in the Political Science Department at George Washington University. He moonlights as a defense consultant and writes broadly about the intersection of U.S. defense policy, foreign policy, and domestic politics, with a focus on organizational and structural issues. He has previously been published in War on The Rocks, Real Clear Defense, and The National Interest. You can connect with him on Twitter @fpclickbait for far more than just clickbait.
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