By Jake Braunger
Since the end of World War II the United States has considered Western Europe, and primarily Germany, Great Britain, and France to be its most important allies. The United States established bases in Europe and Great Britain, while developing nuclear weapons to protect the continent from any incursions by the Soviet Union. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established in 1949 and would serve as the primary counter to the Warsaw Pact established by the Soviet Union 6 years later. Even while Germany was split and France’s commitment was up and down, it was largely understood that Europe’s three largest nations would be expected to add to the United States’ strategy.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union the European nations would see their importance in Pax Americana lessened. The European military was no longer as formidable without a major enemy and its weakness was showcased during the Yugoslav wars. The United States belatedly entered the conflict to lead joint U.S.-European air operations. The United States and Europeans began searching for a new purpose for the alliance and found themselves needed in Afghanistan and the second Iraq war. However with the exception of Great Britain, the European allies did not contribute as much as desired. Although geographically further away both Japan and South Korean sent troops to Iraq and South Korea also sent forces to Afghanistan.
Now with the United States’ pivot to Asia the allies of the East will be expected to play a similar role as the allies of the West. Although it may have seemed a strange concept during the Cold War, Japan and especially South Korea are right behind the major European allies in global firepower rankings. While Europe continues to decline in military strategic importance, Japan and South Korea have made preparations to carry some of the burden with the United States for decades to come.
South Korean and Japanese Defense Spending
Under the leadership of Shinzo Abe, Japan has decided to increase defense spending to its highest level in 22 years. Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera even stated that this increase is to address growing concerns over a more assertive Chinese military and its disputes over groups of southern islands. It is also likely due to the U.S. plan to remove its troops from Okinawa (something which has been desired by Okinawa citizens for decades). Most of the troops leaving Okinawa will be relocated to Guam with the financial aid of Japan. This removal of U.S. forces should be replaced over time by the increase in Japanese defense spending which has recently been encouraged by the Obama Administration. Japan appears to be ahead of schedule in rolling out state of the art military tech as they announced their first Izumo-class helicopter destroyer earlier this year.
In South Korea, defense spending rose again for the third straight year. The increase is due in large part to the upcoming wartime operational control, or op-con, transfer in 2015, where the United States will hand over war time operational control to South Korea. The purchasing of additional stealth aircraft and the expansion of the ROK navy should help South Korea feel more confident in its new role. South Korea is also currently considering aircrafts carriers for the future as the Chinese and Japanese navies continue to make advances as well.
Europe’s Defense Spending
While Japan and South Korea have been adding to their military might, most of Europe has been reducing their own. Even in light of the recent military action in Libya, the hostility from Iran, and the continual war in Afghanistan, Germany, Great Britain, and France are expected to continue cutting defense spending through 2015. At the end of the Cold War European allies made up one third of the total defense spending in NATO; but now that number has shrunk to 20 percent. Although some of countries are attempting to share defense resources it is unlikely to slow the overall decline of defense spending. Without a threat from a major enemy, such as the Soviet Union, the European allies see fewer incentives to spend tax dollars on conflicts that are moving further from their territory.
Why Eastern Allies Will Continue to Grow in Importance for the United States
There are two major reasons the Eastern allies will rise to replace European allies. The first is the rise of a major power in East and the void of a challenger in the West. China’s rise will disrupt the balance of power in the region where countries like South Korea and Japan have already had a stake in the existing in the international order. China’s choices in the years ahead will play a significant role. If it seeks to reshape the regional or international order, much like the Soviet Union did during the Cold War, nations will be influenced to choose either the established order or a new order. Add to this the third variable which is the rise of India and the potential exists for great volatility. With budget issues expected to constrain the U.S. even during its “pivot” to Asia, its allies will be expected to share a larger burden for defense spending and become more active in the region. With no major threats to European powers, beyond terrorist cells and middle powers such as Iran, defense spending will likely be put towards other national programs instead.
The second major reason is proximity. As the United States continues with its focus on the Asian pivot the European allies will be further removed from threats. During the war in Yugoslavia and the recent conflict in Libya the European allies’ lack of defense spending was exposed. Without the proper equipment they had trouble with logistics and striking at the enemy. If the new challenges are even farther away from European defenses they will be even more limited. South Korea and Japan’s close proximity to China makes them much more important to the United States.
Jake Braunger is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America, Prior to joining KEI he was a political campaign consultant with Rick Santorum for President and Lange for Congress. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from U.S. Pacific Command’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.