While many Asians have welcomed the election of George W. Bush, leading Europeans are nervous. In particular, they fear that President Bush will reduce their continent’s free defense ride, especially as the Balkans begins to explode vet again. But it is time to expect Europeans to behave like adults in securing their own interests.

The Clinton administration was good to Europe. It expanded NATO, brokered the deal preserving an artificial Bosnia, managed the war in Kosovo, and deployed a significant garrison throughout the Balkans. At the same time, it continued to guarantee the security of populous, prosperous states that face no obvious military threats.

But that wasn’t enough for the Europeans. The pre-election suggestion by Condoleezza Rice that the United States should pull its troops from Kosovo set off ill-concealed panic across the continent. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld subsequently sparked another round of hand-wringing by talking about bringing America’s forces home from Bosnia.

Lt. Gen. Carlo Cabigiosu of Italy, commander of KFOR (the Kosovo garrison) argued, “politically, no doubt, for the project of restabilizing the Balkans, the U.S. is very important.” A host of unnamed European officials whirred to American newspapers that Washington’s presence was “vital.”

Clinton administration officials naturally agreed. Outgoing Secretary of State Madeleine Albright lectured her successor about the importance of preserving America’s dominant role. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) complained that withdrawal would be “an absolute disaster.”

Still, at the very moment that Europe is pleading helplessness in the Balkans, the same officials are chortling about their newly dynamic economies. Jean- Claude Trichet, governor of the Bank of France, contends: “The European outlook, barring proof to the contrary, is one of growth. In the United States, there are signs of a fairly considerable slowdown.”

The euro is climbing in value; socialist leaders, like those in France and Germany, have become tax-cutters. Despite continuing government resistance, corporate restructuring is occurring. Exports are climbing, and Europe is expected to outgrow America in 2001.

This raises the obvious question: Why must Washington continue subsidizing Europe’s defense? The European Union has a much larger population than the United States; it also has a comparable economy. Today, Britain, France, and Germany each spend about as much on defense as does Russia.

Nor can Serbia compete. Europe has 1.6 million men under anus-enough to garrison the entire Balkans, if desired. The Europeans’ combat effectiveness is far less than that of the United States, but they could remedy that. Indeed, the Europeans are talking of creating a more serious defense capability, which made the Clinton administration nervous.

The lack of any genuine security threat in Europe has left NATO enthusiasts talking about America’s “global responsibility” and the importance of being “engaged.” At the last NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels, Defense Secretary William Cohen sputtered about “unity” and the importance of avoiding an “R.U. caucus.” Jessica Fugate of the Council on Foreign Relations says that NATO is important “so that we are not alone when crises arise.”

What kind of crises? Fugate warns: “risks to European security remain, which are multifaceted and multidirectional, such as international criminal networks, and thus hard to grasp and assess.” For this, America must remain the dominant partner in a transatlantic military alliance, maintaining 100,000 troops in Europe? To fight crime?

The issue is not isolation versus engagement, but what kind of engagement. The United States possesses the strongest military, largest economy, and most dominant culture on the planet. Rather than feeling threatened by every minor civil war or social disturbance, she can remain secure, choosing when to intervene. That is, she can exercise the sort of discernment and selectivity implied by real leadership.

Real leadership also means devolving security responsibilities upon populous and prosperous allies. The Cold War threats to America and its allies have largely abated; moreover, the capabilities of the latter to defend themselves have dramatically increased. They haven’t bothered to do much more, however. Almost four years ago. Gen. John Sheehan, then Supreme Allied Commander of the Atlantic, warned of “the technological gap between the United States and Europe. Soon the other members of NATO will be little more than constabulary forces, with the United States possessing the only genuine modern army.” He was right. Even the Europeans were embarrassed by their appalling performance in Kosovo, fielding just 10 to 15 percent of America’s combat capabilities. That reflects lack of effort, not resources. They are fully capable of doing much more.

They won’t, however, because they don’t believe they need to. They perceive the potential risks differently. Most importantly, they recognize that Washington is determined to protect them—even if they do nothing. To continue smothering Europe in America’s military embrace will only encourage continued irresponsibility.

True, the Europeans are pressing to create a 60,000-man rapid-deployment force by 2003, but there is little in the continent’s past behavior to suggest that the plan will become more than talk. Such a force will require real resources, something the Europeans have not been willing to provide, as long as they can rely on America.

U.S. officials recognize the problem without acknowledging the cause. Former Defense Secretary William Cohen complained that, “At a time when the United States is embarking on the largest sustained increase in defense spending in 15 years, some allies have announced only modest increases, while others are either barely maintaining spending levels or are reducing investments in defense.” German officials have told John Hulsman of the Heritage Foundation that their military spending may drop to just 1.1 percent of GDP, one third of U.S. levels.

America’s untoward generosity creates another problem: It encourages Europeans to hand off their problems to America—problems such as the Balkans, which is growing ever messier, with ethnic Albanian guerrillas operating in Macedonia and Serbia, or an expanding European Union.

Last year, European Commission President Romano Prodi, while visiting Latvia, said that the European Union would issue security guarantees for all E.U. members, four of whom are not members of NATO. Given the absence of any E.U. military—let alone an effective one—the enforcement burden will inevitably fall on America, as would protection of more distant states, such as the nine Central and Eastern European countries that have requested to be admitted to NATO in 2002.

The same problems are evident with U.S. policy in the Far East. China may pose the most potent potential long-term threat to America; however, the chief danger would be to Washington’s dominance in East Asia, not the American homeland. The best way to discourage aggressive behavior by Beijing is to encourage those states with the most at stake to take over their own defense.

A sophisticated Taiwanese military would help deter Chinese adventurism. Japan could create and maintain the air and naval forces necessary to defend both itself and nearby sea lanes. If the Philippines is determined to spar with Beijing over the Spratly Islands, it needs to develop a serious navy. And so on. The United States should stand back and act as a distant balancer, instead of immediate meddler. But the Asians will not take on new defense responsibilities if we continue to dominate.

Washington should begin devolving security responsibilities to its allies. The Balkans is the obvious place to start. The Europeans argue that they already provide more than 80 percent of the troops and 90 percent of the financial assistance in the region. That means that they could provide 100 percent without any strain. Indeed, where better to begin deploying the nascent rapid-deployment force?

Moreover, U.S. forces have cause to leave—and quickly. Kosovo and Macedonia are catastrophes ready to erupt. Bosnia is little better—an artificial state marked by pervasive corruption and festering hostility that survives only through a foreign military occupation. Any untoward incident, like the Mogadishu shootout in Somalia, will generate overwhelming public demands to withdraw, with the Bush administration left holding the bag.

There is no reason for the United States —which, unlike its allies, carries global burdens —to garrison every local trouble spot, especially when neighboring states have both more interests at stake and sufficient resources to act.

NATO is “the greatest alliance in history,” argued Secretary Cohen. Secretary of State Colin Powell calls it “sacrosanct.” But an institution so wonderful should be capable of adapting, both in terms of perceived threats and the resources available to meet those threats.

Washington should encourage development of a truly independent European defense capability. Then the Europeans could handle civil wars in the Balkans and the security of E.U. members. And the United States could worry about the big stuff, such as the reemergence of a serious hegemonic threat.