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Social Sci LibreTexts

17.4: A World Full of Free Riders?

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  • The United States does not always act alone. Often it is in a coalition of one kind or another. Some of the coalitions are authorised by United Nations Security Council mandates such as those in Somalia and Haiti. Others are under NATO auspices, as in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya. Others are the product of the recruitment of ‘coalitions of the willing’, such as those formed for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 when the United Nations would not approve the war. Coalitions are important because they add political legitimacy at home and abroad to interventions with a high risk of substantial casualties and long-term costs. The American public typically sees the participation of other nations as an endorsement of its own leaders’ wisdom in deciding to intervene. That being said, as Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated in their initial phases, the United States is perfectly willing to act on its own when it feels there are serious threats to its security. This is also the case when there are complications or delays in gaining international approval and assistance. Acting alone is often referred to as ‘unilateralism’. Strong states such as the United States can be prone to acting unilaterally because they do not always feel bound by shared rules or norms. However, this can have consequences and it is more common for states to at least appeal to multilateral principles and practices so they do not incur the wrath of the international community. The issue with the United States is that, arguably, it has the power to withstand any such criticism.

    American politicians complain occasionally about the burdens the United States carries, but not often and not with conviction. NATO was created to contain the westward spread of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The principle of NATO is that it offers a collective security guarantee for all of its members. If one member is attacked, all others are treaty-bound to respond to the aggression. In the Cold War context, this was to deter any communist attack on Western Europe so that communism would not spread any further. However, it has expanded greatly since the end of the Cold War, even absorbing many former republics of the Soviet Union. NATO endures in the post-communist era because collective security is a positive thing for states, especially those newly independent states that fear Russian resurgence. But, few of the newer or older members of NATO meet the alliance’s goal of allocating 2 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to defence. Instead, they are safe in the knowledge that the United States, which invests nearly twice that, will be there to do the heavy lifting when a crisis arises.

    This raises the larger issue, which is that it appears to some in America that other rich states find excuses to do little for global security or even their own defence. Japan and Germany, the world’s third and fourth biggest economies, seem to prefer to be on what is now mostly a voluntary parole for their Second World War crimes. Japan spends about 1 per cent of its GDP on defence. Germany does participate in some United Nations and NATOsponsored operations, but largely avoids a combat role. Both nations are shielded from nuclear threats by a US deterrence policy that promises them protection from challenges by other nuclear powers. The United Kingdom and France, the fifth and sixth largest global economies, do contribute to global security somewhat in proportion to their wealth. Both, however, have found it hard to prioritise military spending as they embark on domestic austerity policies in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. South Korea has an economy just outside the world’s top ten. It is at least 25 times richer than North Korea on a per capita basis and has double the North’s population. Yet it leaves the task of defending itself primarily to the United States. South Korea rarely participates in coalitions to help others, and when it does, as in the case of Afghanistan, it sends non-combat troops. The Scandinavian countries, particularly Demark and Sweden, are exceptions, but Spain, Italy and a halfdozen other developed countries seem to prefer to opt out from most of the hard work in international coalitions. Going beyond Western nations and those with historic ties to the United States; China and India are big in many dimensions but both are absorbed with their own security interests. China has the world’s second-largest economy and India the ninth. Both are greatly expanding their military power, but both limit their participation in international peacekeeping efforts and global security issues. China’s recent focus has been on asserting itself as Asia’s dominant power, causing unease among its neighbours who had grown accustomed to a more inward-looking China.