What is happening, in other words, is that global “policing” duties (and their associated costs) typically assumed by the U.S. are being picked up by allies. Yes, they are being picked up grudgingly — with self-serving complaints about abandoned U.S. leadership whispered to journalists as if to goad a prideful Washington back into action. Yes, chronically underfunded allied militaries may stumble out of the gate. But the fact remains that when and if the U.S. steps back from some of its policing role — when it “leads from behind” — other powers will step into the breach.
None of this should come as a surprise; it’s how incentives work. When the U.S. “leads from front” (i.e. does the fighting, dying and paying for regional security operations) other states will naturally seek a subordinate role. The only way to incentivize states to do more for their own defense is not to lecture or beg, but to make it clear that they are on their own.
This is, of course, the very outcome that America has for decades labored to avoid. The idea of strong, regional powers acting independently from Washington’s directive was threatening during the Cold War, since “independence” could tilt a state toward the Soviet bloc. In the post Cold War world, Washington clung to the strategy under the theory that the more states were dependent on the U.S. government (and taxpayer) for their protection, the safer the world would be. In reality, it enabled prosperous allies like Japan and Europe to fund domestic programs while the U.S. picked up the defense tab.
Today, the Obama administration is reversing course, but only tentatively.