What the Europeans Might Learn from Korea about Free-Riding on US Power


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For almost 40 years, since the Nixon doctrine, the US has complained that its allies free-ride on its power. The US does heavy lifting like fighting in Afghanistan or building a huge and costly military against the USSR. The Europeans enjoy the benefits, without providing much for the costs. Stephen Walt has made this argument in IR theory, as has Robert Kagan more popularly. Kagan particularly is the best-known proponent of the idea that the EU is ‘post-modern’ and focuses on soft power. By contrast the Russians are playing the ‘modern’ nation-state game of power politics in Eastern Europe, and the Middle East is ‘pre-modern’ insofar as supranational identities (Arabism, Islam) and sub-national identities (tribes and clans) contest the state and make state function very difficult. I like to think of Europe as an ally for the US and concerned about terrorism, Russian misbehavior, N Korea, etc., but it increasingly looks like Kagan is right. My thoughts are here and here.

This well-worn argument strikes me as wrong though in Korea. I am repeatedly impressed at Korea’s willingness to go along with US military ventures for the sake of global public goods provision. I go to conferences a lot here and constantly hear about the US as a ‘strategic partner’ for Korea, and that Korea must move into things like peacekeeping. My students genuinely seem to be aware of what the US provides here and that Korea should make a reciprocating effort. Consider the last line of this Korean op-ed about the current ‘what to do in Afghanistan’ debate: “The Korean government has to consider its obligations as a responsible member of the international society and find a way to help reduce the suffering of the people of Afghanistan from a humanitarian point of view.” Find something like that in European op-ed.

It is true that the Koreans went to Iraq, because they need the US against N Korea. And Poland signed up because of Russia. France and Germany have the luxury of Poland as their front-yard, so they can play hard-to-get. But it is also clear that ‘old Europe’ just doesn’t want to contribute to collective goods that much any more. Their defense spending is atrociously, irresponsibly low; only 5 out of 28 NATO members meet the ‘required’ NATO defense spending minimum of 2% of GDP (see Table 3 of this NATO 2009 defense spending report). Germany, supposedly a great power, spends just 1.3%. They like US power when things get hairy, but they are quite content to free-ride otherwise. Bush was a gift to western Europe in that his belligerence allowed them to duck the war on terror. But now Obama can’t get them to contribute either, and he was supposed to initiate a new era. European restrictions on troop behavior in Afghanistan mean too many European troops are just glorified policemen. Consider the ridiculous German reaction to the civilian deaths of a recent anti-Taliban airstrike. The deaths, of course, are regrettable, but ‘collateral damage’ is ‘normal’ in war and permissable under international law. But now the Germans want to leave. It is a European luxury to say ‘we can’t participate in any dirty operations at all.’ That just bucks the burden and blood to the US. The Europeans can retain their moral purity while enjoying the benefits the US military gives by trying to win (whatever that means) in Afghanistan. It is very poor form and smacks of deep selfishness.

By contrast, I find Koreans far more understanding about the costs of global order maintenance. Maybe this is because they live next to NK and every male has to serve in the military. But I find a moral shame at the idea of Korean free-riding that I do not when I talk to Europeans. The Europeans I meet here (a lot inevitably, because foreigners in Korea clump together) are quite content with the Der Spiegel-Le Monde image of the US as imperialist bully, and when I mention NATO obligations, I might as well be talking about space travel. The idea that European NATO members are treaty-obliged to help in Afghanistan (they are – Article 5 of the Washington Treaty was invoked after 9/11) falls on tone-deaf ears. For shame! The Europeans are natural US allies, because of high cultural and political similarity, and Islamic radicals target all of us. Yet Koreans seem to realize better the costs of the US commitment in the war on terror, and they feel some sense that the should help. I find this reversal stunning and disappointing.

9 thoughts on “What the Europeans Might Learn from Korea about Free-Riding on US Power

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  5. C’mon – I know NATO Article 5 was invoked after 9/11 but that was to go after Al Qaeda. The war there now is against the Taliban. I don’t think it meets the standard of collective defence any more. Maybe not since 2006 and the big ‘move to the south’.
    And on the ‘ridiculous’ German reaction, they killed a bunch of civilians INSTEAD of killing the enemy. As far as I know, collateral damage is when you kill civilians IN ADDITION to killing the targeted enemy. Public uneasiness with this would seem natural, dare I say healthy.
    In the article you mention ‘global public goods’ in a generic sense, but the examples (Afghanistan, Iraq in 2003 terrorism, Russian ‘misbehaviour’) , all relate to selective interventions, not all of which turned out to be in that wide a public interest. More specifically, I’d be interested to hear what global public goods you think the US upholding in a consistent way?

    Love the blog. Keep up the good work.

    • Ok. Maybe I overspoke, but just about every SecDef since the 50s has complained about burden-sharing in Europe, and my sense is that the Koreans take it more seriously, no? Germany and Japan’s defense spendign is around 1% of GDP…

  6. If your point is merely a comparison then the figures speak for themselves. But if you are trying to suggest ‘low figures = shirking global public goods’ then you haven’t quite made the case. As you seem to concede, the difference is the Europeans don’t have a North Korea type factor in their calculations (not since 1989 or 1991 anyway). If you were them, wouldn’t you cut back after your NK went away?

    • Yes, but what about the Libya or Ivory Coast scenarios this year? You still need power projection capacity for that.

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