During the late winter and early spring of 2013, yet another crisis involving North Korea occupied the attention of U.S. officials and much of the news media.  Not only did Pyongyang conduct a nuclear test, but the government of Kim Jong-un issued shrill threats against both South Korea and the United States.  South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, paid an official visit to Washington in early May, where she and President Obama solemnly affirmed the solidarity of their countries in the face of Pyongyang’s saber-rattling.

Only a few critics in the United States bothered to ask why the United States was on the front lines of a quarrel halfway around the world involving two small states on the Korean Peninsula.  But in many ways, Washington’s “mutual” defense treaty with South Korea, ratified in 1954 shortly after the Korean War, is a textbook example of what has gone wrong with America’s security strategy.  Cato Institute senior fellow Doug Bandow notes that absent the alliance with South Korea, “Washington wouldn’t even notice the DPRK (North Korea).”  Bandow is correct when he concludes that the alliance “is a bad deal for America.”

But the commitment to defend South Korea is hardly the only arrangement warranting that description.  Since the end of World War II, the United States has acquired a breathtaking array of dubious security obligations.  Some take the form of official alliances, with NATO being the most prominent.  Other commitments are more informal but still entail a very real pledge to protect another country.  The relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia fall into that category.  Today, the United States has obligated herself to defend literally dozens of countries, including such strategically and economically irrelevant ministates as Estonia, Slovakia, and Ecuador.

Some of the commitments may have made sense during the Cold War, when the United States faced a rapacious military superpower determined to spread its influence on a global basis.  But even in the Cold War era, Washington’s willingness to defend all manner of allies and clients created worrisome risks for the United States and encouraged unhealthy dependent attitudes on the part of countries who took shelter behind the American security shield.  Those problems have grown worse since the end of the Cold War.

American taxpayers bear needless financial burdens, as the United States continues to subsidize the defense of wealthy allies, who then often use the savings to create and sustain bloated welfare states.  An even worse consequence, though, is that Washington’s security commitments entangle America in conflicts that she could otherwise avoid.  The explosive situation on the Korean Peninsula is a current, graphic example of both drawbacks.

Despite having North Korea as a hostile neighbor, both South Korea and Japan have exceedingly modest defense budgets.  Seoul spends only 2.5 percent of its annual gross domestic product (GDP) on the military, while Japan still adheres to a self-imposed limit, adopted decades ago, of devoting no more than 1 percent to defense.  The comparable figure for the United States is nearly 5 percent—even though the American homeland is located in a region with no significant enemies.  The differences in per capita financial burdens are equally striking.  It costs each South Korean $581 per year for defense and each Japanese just $470, while every American has the whopping burden of $2,333.

Japan and South Korea are hardly the only U.S. allies to engage in security free-riding.  The average defense spending levels for the European members of NATO is 1.5 percent of GDP, and the annual burden on the typical citizen of a European country is $503.  Moreover, the trend is toward still lower defense budgets—even among such key allies as Britain and France.

Free-riding is more dangerous in East Asia, though, because that region’s security environment is far more unstable than Europe’s.  It would seem irresponsible for Seoul and Tokyo to maintain such parsimonious defense budgets in that setting, but those governments assume that the United States will neutralize any threats—and do so on her own dime.  Washington has done nothing to disabuse them of that notion.  To the contrary, U.S. officials offer repeated assurances of their undying determination to protect America’s allies.  President Obama typified that pattern during President Park’s May visit when he pledged to defend South Korea against any North Korean threats.

Washington has actually discouraged independent defense initiatives on the part of its allies.  During the 1970’s, Seoul had an active nuclear program until the Carter administration warned of diplomatic and economic sanctions if it continued.  But Washington’s response wasn’t all stick and no carrot.  One reason why the Carter administration abandoned its plan to withdraw the remaining U.S. troops from South Korea was to give Seoul an incentive to remain nonnuclear.  The partial withdrawal of U.S. forces during the Nixon administration had raised doubts among South Korean officials about the reliability of Washington’s commitment to their country’s defense and was a key reason why Seoul started a nuclear development program.

The U.S. smothering strategy has extended far beyond discouraging allies from building their own nuclear arsenals.  Washington has kept a tight rein on South Korea’s conventional military capabilities.  Just last year, Seoul had to secure permission from a reluctant Obama administration merely to extend the range of South Korean missiles so that they could reach targets deep inside North Korea.

A similar wariness, if not outright suspicion, about independent military initiatives is evident with respect to Washington’s other alliances.  U.S. officials have routinely insisted on the primacy of NATO in Europe’s security affairs.  Both the Clinton and the Bush administrations pressed the European Union to focus on economic integration and not to become even a limited substitute for NATO regarding the continent’s security.  The underlying fear was a dilution of Washington’s influence in Europe.  Whereas the United States is the undisputed leader of NATO, she is, of course, not even a member of the European Union.  Insisting on NATO’s continued central role was a way of ensuring Washington’s continuing primacy in the transatlantic relationship.

Worries about Japan’s greater strategic independence have been even more apparent.  During the administration of George H.W. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker went out of his way to urge members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to reject a modest Japanese proposal to coordinate regional security policies.  Tokyo’s unpardonable sin was to suggest a diplomatic mechanism that did not include the United States.  Later in the decade, two Pentagon reports stressed the importance of preserving U.S. military preeminence in East Asia, lest some other nation (meaning Japan) might take the leadership reins, and do so in a way that would be both disruptive and inconsistent with America’s policy preferences.

Washington’s policy of encouraging its allies to remain dependent on the United States for their security is dangerous in several ways.  Fostering allied free-riding causes those countries to maintain smaller and weaker militaries of their own than would be the case if they had to be responsible for their own defense.  That, in turn, can whet the appetites of potential aggressors like North Korea.  There is an inherent difference in credibility between primary deterrence, defending one’s own country, and extended deterrence, the willingness of a major power to risk war to protect an ally or client.  Primary deterrence has a high level of credibility—if the country has sufficient military capabilities—because there is little doubt that a nation will fight to protect its own territory and people.  There is always an element of doubt about extended deterrence, though.  A potential aggressor will always wonder whether a country would actually be willing to suffer the consequences of war merely to defend a third party.

The risk of a challenge to Washington’s array of security guarantees is ever present.  That is true even in a relatively quiescent arena like Europe in the 21st century.  Although Russia does not seem to harbor the expansionist ambitions of its Soviet predecessor, there are areas of tension, especially regarding relations with the three Baltic republics, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.  Those countries, especially Estonia and Latvia, have large, Russian-speaking minorities—the descendants of Russian settlers brought in during the decades of Soviet occupation.  There have already been nasty diplomatic quarrels between Moscow and the Baltic governments over discriminatory treatment of the Russian speakers.

That should be a parochial issue of little or no concern to America.  But because the Baltic republics are now members of NATO, Washington is obligated under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty to regard any attack on one of them as an attack on the United States.  In other words, the United States could find herself embroiled in a war with a nuclear-armed Russia purely to defend a small client.  Although Moscow likely considered it credible that the United States was willing to risk war to keep Western Europe’s major powers out of the Soviet Union’s orbit during the Cold War, Russian leaders have ample reason to doubt Washington’s willingness to risk war with a noncommunist Russia over a petty dispute involving a Baltic state.  That situation virtually invites a challenge, and nasty wars have erupted throughout history because of such miscalculations.

The danger that a probe of Washington’s security commitments might occur is more acute in East Asia.  North Korea’s aggressive behavior is the most likely source, and South Korea’s persistent underinvestment in defense could encourage Pyongyang to challenge the status quo.  Seoul could easily build a robust, intimidating defense even without developing a nuclear deterrent.  South Korea now has twice North Korea’s population and a modern, technologically sophisticated economy some 40 times larger than that of the decrepit Stalinist state.  Instead, Seoul has chosen to remain dependent on the United States for key portions of its defense, especially air and naval power.  That may make sense from a purely financial standpoint, but it is high-risk behavior that could plunge South Korea—and the United States—into a disastrous war.

There are other potential flashpoints in East Asia.  The Taiwan issue has been mercifully quiet since the election of Ma Ying-jeou as the island’s president in 2008 and his adoption of a more conciliatory policy toward Beijing, but the underlying problem of Taiwan’s political status remains unresolved.  China’s government still insists that Taiwan is rightfully Chinese territory and shows no signs of ever relinquishing that claim.  Yet even the moderate Ma and his governing Kuomintang Party exhibit no enthusiasm for reunification with China unless the latter becomes fully democratic and the sizable cultural and prosperity gap between the mainland and Taiwan can be closed.  None of that is likely to occur in the foreseeable future, and one has to wonder how long Beijing will tolerate an upstart, independent island located just 100 miles off the Chinese coast.  It is a worrisome situation that could turn toxic at any time, and the United States would be involved if China decided to use her growing economic and military power to resolve the Taiwan issue on Beijing’s terms.  Washington has an implied obligation under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1978 to defend Taiwan against coercion.

And then there are the territorial disputes involving islands in the South China and East China seas.  Beijing has had several nasty confrontations in recent years with rival claimants including Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines.  The situation involving the Philippines clearly entails risks for the United States, since Washington has a mutual defense treaty, dating from the late 1940’s, with Manila.

The most worrisome territorial controversy, though, involves the increasingly acrimonious dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over several uninhabited islets (called the Diaoyus in China and the Senkakus in Japan) in the East China Sea.  Not only does the United States have a key mutual-defense treaty with Japan, but Tokyo has pressed Washington to state explicitly that the treaty covers the disputed islets.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other officials finally did so during President Obama’s first term.  As emotions rise in both China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute, the United States could find herself in a military confrontation with China over a dispute that has little or no relevance to America’s own interests.

Sometimes the mere expectation of U.S. support, even when there is no explicit defense agreement in place, has been sufficient to cause client states to engage in provocative behavior.  That appears to have been the case in 2008 when the Republic of Georgia foolishly launched attacks on two secessionist regions that were under Russia’s military protection.  Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili apparently assumed that the George W. Bush administration would come to the country’s aid and force Russia to back down.  Stunned Georgian troops, retreating from the Russian advance, asked Western journalists, “Where is NATO?”  Since Bush-administration officials had enthusiastically supported Georgia’s bid to join NATO, it was a logical, albeit premature, hope.  If Georgia had launched her offensive after becoming a member of the alliance, the United States would have been obligated to aid her new ally—even though that ally was the aggressor.  That is how allies and clients can entangle a security patron in a conflict that doesn’t benefit the patron in any conceivable way.

It is a point that Americans should ponder as Congress passes a measure affirming that the United States will support Israel if the latter decides to attack Iran.  That measure could enable the Netanyahu government to adopt an excessively bold policy, confident that Washington will back its play.  The outcome could be a bloody, expensive war between the United States and Iran, despite the reluctance of Obama-administration policymakers.

An especially bad combination occurs when a U.S. defense commitment encourages overly aggressive behavior by clients who also continue to underinvest in their own defense.  That is what happened with Taiwan during Chen Shui-bian’s presidency, when Taipei’s military budget drifted down toward barely 2.5 percent of GDP even as the government adopted more and more policies that antagonized Beijing.  That disturbing combination seems to be taking place today with respect to Japan and her claims to the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, as Tokyo adopts an uncompromising, even belligerent, position without a commensurate increase in military spending or capabilities.

North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in 1950 seemed to be the initial foray of a communist offensive to dominate all of East Asia.  Today, though, North Korea is a small, isolated country, and Moscow and Beijing, her patrons during the Korean War, have no intention of backing Pyongyang’s disruptive ambitions.  North Korea may pose a threat to South Korea and (to a lesser extent) Japan, but a conflict on the Korean Peninsula has no wider strategic significance.  Moreover, Tokyo and Seoul easily have the capability to build whatever military forces are needed to deter or defeat their obnoxious neighbor.

U.S. leaders need to conduct a thorough reappraisal of Washington’s entire network of security commitments.  It arguably made sense at one time to protect some allies, given the stark, bipolar global geopolitical environment of the Cold War.  But today, most of America’s security obligations entail far more liabilities than benefits.