United States presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders may differ on many things, but they are unanimous in their feeling that the United States should not be the world's policeman and that America's allies should not get their defense on the cheap from American taxpayers.
Whether or not Trump and Sanders ultimately win their Party's nomination is not as important as the fact that their views represent a large and growing part of the U.S. electorate.
For the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, this is a perfect storm.
NATO was established in 1947, when the United States, Canada, and ten European countries signed the North Atlantic Treaty that committed the United States to the defense of Europe from the Soviet Union. A quote by NATO's first Secretary-General is now the stuff of legend. When asked what the Alliance was for he famously said that NATO is meant to keep the Russians out, the Germans down and the Americans in, referring to America's historic wariness for getting entangled in European power politics and global alliances.
Less well known is another quote: this one by NATO's second Secretary-General, Dwight Eisenhower, who, in his remarks upon assuming the Alliance's command in 1951 extolled NATO, but warned that the NATO project will have failed if U.S. troops remain in Europe after ten years.
But, 65 years after Eisenhower's remarks over 60,000 U.S. troops remain in Europe, and 3,000 - 5,000 more, with their armored equipment, are headed there at a further cost to Americans of $2.8 billion a year.
General Eisenhower knew that America was the only Western country that could serve as Europe's shield as the Europeans rebuilt their shattered economies after the destruction of the Second World War. But he also knew that with America's financial and military support, it would not take long for Europe to again become an industrial powerhouse. American companies could then start trading again with a newly rebuilt Europe, and Europeans would have the resources to take care of their own defense.
Rebuilding Europe with American aid and European ingenuity was a noble vision that was realized, many times over through the European Union, the richest grouping of countries in the world. The EU collectively has the world's biggest single market, largest Gross Domestic Product and share of world trade, and a modern infrastructure that puts the creaky American roads, bridges, airports and railroads, to shame.
In only one aspect do the Europeans lag behind. Even though they collectively spend around $300 billion on their defense, they still cannot defend themselves. This is a lot of money to spend on defense, especially given the European lack of interest in assuming a global security role. By comparison, the U.S defense budget prior to 9/11, was around $390 billion, which was then sufficient to project U.S. military power everywhere on earth.
The trouble is the Europeans have not melded their militaries and defense -- industrial base as they have other sectors of their economy. The result is a plethora of duplicate weapons programs and military organizations that consume Europe's defense funds, but have left Europe without the ability to defend itself, even against enemies that the Europeans should be able to fight with one hand behind their backs.
For instance, during the 2011 war against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, the European members of NATO ran out of ammunition in a week, and could well have been trounced by a middling power if the US had not gone to Europe's assistance, at a cost to the American taxpayers over a billion dollars.
But why should the Europeans make the hard decisions necessary to streamline their defense sector when Uncle Sam, the self-professed Leader-Of-The-Free-World has given them a defense credit card with no spending limit? They can have their cake and eat it too: not pay for their own defense while spending on social and infrastructure programs that Americans can only dream about.
Every few years an American Defense Secretary appears in Europe, scolds the Europeans, warns them to develop a stronger defense establishment before the American Congress gets tired of paying for Europe's defense.
The Europeans put up with this periodic tongue lashing, appear embarrassed, promise to change their ways, but never do. Why should they? They know that after all is said and done, America will always be there to fill in for the Europeans' lack of commitment to defend their own borders, in return for being known as the Leader-Of-The-Free-World!
The trouble is, two of the leading U.S. Presidential candidates have caught on to this charade, and the American people are not far behind. I suspect, what has become a perpetual American commitment to defend an ever richer Europe, is about to end.
Can anything be done to end this commitment in an orderly manner? I believe there is.
A new U.S. President will assume office in January 2017. He or she should invoke General Eisenhower's sensible quote, and give fair warning to the Europeans that within ten years the United States will remove all its troops from Europe; more than enough time for the Europeans to pool their considerable resources to create a Europe-wide defense structure. And as a way to show seriousness of purpose, the new U.S. President should immediately turn over all key NATO positions to Europeans. Then, the United States should follow through and begin an annual draw-down its forces from Europe, perhaps a tenth of the total every year.
It is past noon for America's closest and richest allies to pay for their own defense and security. The United States will always come to the aid of its European allies if there is ever a Big Bang, a world war, but absent that arguably remote eventuality, it is high time for the Europeans to carry their weight in the transatlantic alliance.