The time is long overdue for American officials to put the American people first.
Is Europe threatened or not?
For months, the United Kingdom has been leading the charge against Russia over Ukraine. When serving as foreign secretary, Liz Truss, recently ousted as prime minister, hired a Beatles tribute band to lobby Secretary of State Antony Blinken to take a tougher stand toward Moscow. Then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson even more ostentatiously played uber-hawk when visiting Ukraine, mimicking Winston Churchill, about whom Johnson wrote a biography. London’s message appeared to be “Follow Me!”
Alas, it was all for show. Johnson called on NATO allies to “dig deep” on defense, but refused to hike British military outlays. He promised to do so in the future, but the value of his promises was always heavily discounted. As Johnson’s chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak refused to endorse increasing military outlays to 3 percent of GDP. Under short-lived Prime Minister Truss, reported the Times, Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt was “considering keeping defense spending at about 2 per cent until 2026-27, but committing to increasing it significantly to hit the target of 3 per cent by 2030.”
Of course, future commitments mean nothing. Although Hunt survived the initial purge by now Prime Minister Sunak and remains budget chief, the latter has not endorsed higher military outlays. To the contrary, when calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to signal London’s continuing support for Kiev, Sunak suggested the opposite.
An unnamed Ukrainian complained that Sunak said “virtually nothing about defending Europe except that there will be budget cuts in national defense.” Other observers also expect reductions. The Atlantic Council’s Ben Judah cited Sunak’s focus on balancing London’s books: “He’s interested in the economy, finances, Britain’s ability to be kind of a start-up nation … and stabilizing the markets at a difficult time.”
Even if Sunak did promise higher military expenditures, British politics is anything but stable. There is no guarantee that Sunak and his cabinet will survive until the elections due two years from now. If the vote was held today the Labor Party likely would triumph. Even if Sunak wins another term for the Conservatives, budget exigencies and political necessities would trump unenforceable promises made today.
Of course, the new government presumably believes that London’s budget problems require defense cutbacks. But U.S. finances are worse, much worse. Yet Americans are still expected to bail out most everyone on earth as Washington rushes toward fiscal Armageddon.
Consider the Biden administration. It just announced that good times are coming, with the deficit running “only” $1.4 billion in the 2022 fiscal year, which ended on September 30. This was, the president insisted, great news because it was just half the previous year’s deficit. Listening to the president, one would imagine that, like a modern Horatius at the Bridge, he heroically defended the federal Treasury from the looters and pillagers laying siege to Washington.
Last year’s red ink total was the fourth largest in American history, trailing only those in 2020 and 2021, which were filled with Covid bailouts, and that of 2009, run up amid the financial crisis. The drop from last year reflected the easing of the Covid pandemic, not a sudden burst of federal fiscal sobriety.
Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, observed: “We borrowed $1.4 TRILLION last year. That is not an accomplishment—it’s a reminder of how precarious our fiscal situation remains.”
Indeed, the president wanted to spend even more, much more. Only the Democrats’ narrow congressional margins prevented passage of the original “subsidize everyone on earth with everything plus the kitchen sink” version of the Build Back Better bill, which would have poured more money into the hands of Washington’s usual suspects. Breaking apart his original proposal did not prevent the president from still hoping to pass the Full Monty, opining: “So I think we can break the package up, get as much as we can now and come back and fight for the rest of it.” Had he succeeded, the deficit would have been much higher.
The national debt owed to the public—which excludes the fake Treasury borrowing from the Social Security Administration—already has hit 100 percent of GDP and is heading toward the record 106 percent set in 1946 after World War II. The Congressional Budget Office figures the ratio could hit 185 percent by mid-century unless Congress makes serious deficit cuts, about as likely as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton kissing and making up.
The accumulated red ink will only worsen over time. Warned CBO: “Debt that is high and rising as a percentage of GDP could slow economic growth, push up interest payments to foreign holders of U.S. debt, heighten the risk of a fiscal crisis, elevate the likelihood of less abrupt adverse effects, make the U.S. fiscal position more vulnerable to an increase in interest rates, and cause lawmakers to feel more constrained in their policy choices.” Imagine a Greek-style crisis, this time involving the world’s largest and most important economy.
With this future looming, why is the U.S. spending so much more on the military than Europe? Why is America rushing so many more troops to Europe? And why is Washington providing so much more aid to Ukraine than Europe? When will the Europeans live up to their promises to do significantly more?
Silly question. The answer is never, at least as long as the U.S. rushes in. The Europeans are not stupid. When hawkish presidents and members of Congress put other nations’ interests before those of America, there is no need for Europeans to take defense seriously. In that sense, at least, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed nothing.
After the initial shock of war, many European governments impulsively declared that they would up military outlays. However, Washington immediately charged in, adding troops and spreading cash. When it became obvious that U.S. policymakers would not insist that Europeans step up, but instead hand the bill, as always, to American taxpayers, the continent quickly adapted. The United Kingdom pushed its promises well into the future, when they will be conveniently forgotten and discarded, Germany redefined its promises, and most other governments stopped talking about big increases.
The problem remains fundamental. Most Europeans don’t feel much threat, despite the horrific combat engulfing Ukraine. And they expect America to do whatever is necessary to protect them.
Indeed, in a poll that found positive attitudes toward NATO, most European publics surveyed showed little interest in going to the defense of their neighbors. Uniformly, more Europeans believed the U.S. would come to their aid than supported assisting their European neighbors. Only a third of Germans, made more secure during the Cold War courtesy other nations’ garrisons to guard against a Soviet attack, would aid their neighbors militarily. Even lower proportions of the populations of other countries backed fulfilling their allied obligations, while expecting Americans to race to their rescue.
Washington’s disproportionate commitment to Europe’s defense persists even with the U.S. still entangled in the Middle East, expected to provide bodyguards for pampered royals in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. No matter that the Saudi regime treats America and its president with contempt. Washington continues to arm the Kingdom and United Arab Emirates as they commit murder and mayhem against the most impoverished nation in the region, Yemen. And U.S. troops continue to illegally occupy territory in Syria, mimicking ISIS in pirating that nation’s oil, while being targets for Iranian, Russian, and Syrian forces.
Finally, China looks more dangerous than ever after Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power. Although he would prefer to peacefully achieve his objectives, most notably the absorption of Taiwan, few doubt his willingness to use force. Washington could, and probably would, find itself alone in any conflict. A Europe that won’t defend itself certainly won’t fight Beijing, while neither South Korea nor Japan want to become permanent targets of their very large neighbor, whatever friendly rhetoric they might today direct America’s way.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine was an act of unjust aggression and Washington rightly helped Kiev defend itself. However, Ukraine’s defense matters far more to Europe than America. After spending decades cheap riding on the U.S., European governments should have taken the lead, doing far more, both to support Kiev and bolster their own defenses.
The fact that they didn’t requires Washington “to lead”—perhaps the most repeated yet misused phrase by U.S. officials, who wander the globe needlessly sacrificing American lives and wealth—but in the right way: by informing European officials that Washington is going to be doing less as it seeks to control its finances and revive the U.S. economy. That should begin by withdrawing the extra U.S. forces rushed to Europe after Moscow’s invasion, when observers imagined a quick Russian victory and threats against other countries, and cutting back financial aid to Kiev, turning that responsibility over to Brussels.
No doubt, Europeans would complain that the timing was not convenient. But America’s defense dependents will never believe any transfer of responsibility to them to be convenient. The U.S. can’t wait to take tough steps to shrink its perpetual budget deficit. The upcoming congressional elections offer a convenient opportunity to reorder Washington’s fiscal priorities.
For decades the Europeans have put themselves first, assuming America would always be there. Even with war at their continent’s edge, they refuse to take their defense seriously. Ukraine is primarily a crisis for Europe, not the U.S. The time is long overdue for American officials to put the American people first.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.