A few days ago, Mark Steyn had this to say about the American military presence in Old Europe:
Absolved of the core responsibility of sovereign jurisdictions - defense of the realm - Europe decayed, almost inevitably, into a kind of semi-non-aligned status, and persuaded itself that it had developed a higher model of nationhood, not realizing that its lavish social programs were, in effect, subsidized by the Pentagon. This has been bad for Europe - and bad for America, too, in that most of the Democratic Party would like to introduce the European model here, apparently unaware that it depends on a strong America to render it viable.
The Continentals are so insulated from reality they don't even value the US presence in strategic terms. German politicians speak of US military bases mainly as an economic issue - all those German supermarkets and German restaurants that depend on American custom. At the risk of igniting old controversies, the Continentals are the defense equivalents of those wealthy S-CHIP families: They would function better as adult nations if they had to accept the responsibilities of adulthood.
This is, I think, a very interesting geopolitical question: To what extent would Europe re-arm if America suddenly stopped garrisoning the continent? I think Steyn is right that the European model - small military, big welfare state - was originally rendered viable by the U.S. military presence. But I'm not sure that's true any more, now that the Cold War is over and the old national rivalries have given way to an end-of-history moment. What "responsibilities of adulthood" would Germany, for instance, suddenly feel compelled to take on if the U.S. closed its bases? A Franco-German arms race seem pretty unlikely; so does a sudden push to re-arm against the Polish menace to the east. Putin's Russia is a slightly-more-plausible catalyst for continental rearmament, but only by comparison with the alternatives. Moreover, if you look at defense spending around the world, countries like Germany and its neighbors are already spending much more on their militaries than many nations that live in rougher neighborhoods and don't have the U.S. to look out for them. (The much-mocked Italians, for instance, spend more on defense than Turkey, Israel and Iran put together.) It's awfully hard to imagine the absence of American troops from European soil would cause those expenditures to rise much higher.
What's more plausible, I think - so plausible that I'm just cribbing the argument from lots of other people - is that the overall rate of U.S. spending on defense (rather than the location of our garrisons) is so high and so unmatchable that it drives defense spending down for everybody else (not just the Western Europeans). If you can't compete with the hyperpower, why bother trying? (Especially when you can count on fear of the hyperpower's military to prevent the kind of large-scale cross-border attacks that used to be common, and have now all but disappeared.) The Pentagon's budget isn't just subsidizing Europe; it's subsidizing the whole world. And this would be true no matter where we stationed our troops.
Photo by Flickr user klika100 used under a Creative Commons license.