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Defending Countries that Don’t Defend Themselves

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Defending Countries that Don’t Defend Themselves"

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Iceland Review reports that “Former Minister of Justice Björn Bjarnason described the Iceland Defense Agency as ‘remnants of times past’ and said it might even complicate defense relationships with other nations. The Coast Guard should be focused on instead.” Doug Bandow responds:

It may well be true that Iceland doesn’t have many enemies. But if the Europeans don’t believe they need defending, then isn’t this another good reason to bring home America’s troops? Certainly there’s no reason for the U.S. to defend countries which don’t bother to field militaries themselves!

This seems wrong on a number of levels. For one thing, it’s odd to leap from an observation about Iceland—population 320,000—to broad conclusions about “the Europeans.” Iceland is not only tiny, it’s not really located on the European continent, and it’s definitely not a member of the European Union. In fact, overall European defense spending is quite robust:

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I don’t think anyone would characterize China or Russia as countries that “don’t believe they need defending” and Europe commits substantially more funds. Meanwhile, much as you could use Europe’s alleged unwillingness to defend itself as a reason to withdraw from our NATO commitments, the reasoning works equally well the other way around—if Europe is as well-defended as I say, then why do we need to help defend them? But if the argument works equally well either way, then it also works equally poorly. At the end of the day, the issue of the advisability of our multilateral defense relationships doesn’t hinge on this issue. I would say that the partnerships are valuable, well-worth maintaining, and that ultimately it makes more sense to see the existence of the partnerships as a reason that we could afford to be more restrained in our defense spending rather than as something that we ought to eliminate in the name of restraint.

Specifically with regard to Iceland, I think the main thing that a large country (the United States) ought to ask of a small country (Iceland) with which we have a defense relationship is precisely not to try to field a full-scale military. A full-spectrum Icelandic military would necessarily be far too small to ever be useful to the United States. And given the existence of the U.S. defense commitment, it’s also unnecessary. Far better for us to have Iceland specialize in the hopes of developing some useful capabilities. A small island nation of 320,000 people, for example, really might be able to raise a reasonably robust Coast Guard capable of performing services in a portion of the North Atlantic that are useful to a variety of nations—Ireland, the United Kingdom, Norway, Canada, the United States—whose shipping lanes pass through the area.

Indeed, in general this is the kind of thing we would do well to see more of from our European allies. More specialization, especially among the smallest NATO members.

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