Partners -- not dependents -- in the Western alliance

The United States, under Ronald Reagan's leadership, is expected to assume a more brusque military posture. The question is: Will its allies go along with the growing militancy and bear a fair share of the burden of strengthening the West's defenses? Signs at the moment indicate the new president may find the issue one of the most contentious on his platter. It has already proved to be such for President Carter.

We share the concern. The latest disappointing news for Washington comes from Japan which has just announced a draft military budget for fiscal 1981 which would increase defense spending by 6.6 percent, far less than the US had hoped for. While Japan has been steadily boosting military outlays, it still spends only nine-tenths of 1 percent of its GNP on defense. The comparable figure for the US is 5.3 percent and for France and Britain 5 percent. It scarcely needs pointing out that one factor in Japan's spectacular economic growth since World War II has been its relatively light defense burden because of its security relationship with the US.

Then there are the NATO countries. The alliance has pledged to increase military expenditures by 3 percent annually in real terms through 1986. But the record is far from glowing. West Germany has proposed a 1981 budget that represents a real growth of less than 1 percent. Other European countries likewise have failed to meet the NATO pledge --stresses, the Warsaw Pact continues to build up its conventional military power more rapidly than NATO even if the 3 percent target were met. Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark also have announced military budgets under the 3 percent level of increase.

This is not to say that Japan, West Germany, and others are not making a solid contribution to defense. They are. Nor is "3 percent" some magic figure which, if reached, would automatically assure a stronger and more efficient defense. It is not a matter of mere numbers. Cost-effectiveness is equally important. But the American people, shouldering the main responsibility for the security of the noncommunist world, must wonder whether the Japanese and the West Europeans do in fact care enough about their own security and the Soviet threat to it to pull their own weight in what is said to be a common defense system. It is on their doorstep, after all, that conflict would most likely occur.

The point is that the US is no longer the unchallenged economic and military power in the world. Even while its burdens overseas have not lessened, its ability to carry them has diminished relative to its economy and its resources. This means that its partners, out of a sense of their own sel-interest and of equity, must do more to spread the cost.

Whether this contribution should be made strictly in the military field, however, is something the new administration might give attention to. Since the West's strength is measured as much in economic and political terms as in the number of its missiles and bombs, perhaps the best contribution such allies as West Germany and Japan could make at this stage is to increase their economic and military aid to other countries. Bonn and Tokyo already are providing strong assistance to Turkey, for example, a NATO member in deep economic straits and in urgent need of long-term help. Japan, for its part, has aided strategic Pakistan and has an interest in the economic well-being and military sufficiency of the Southeast Asian countries surrounding the Malacca Strait through which its oil flows. If Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand were to shift allegiances, and the oil lifeline were cut off, this would be sufficient to strangel Japan without any bullets being fired. So foreign aid is a crucial item in the West's arsenal.

Another consideration is the public temper abroad. Japan has a constitution renouncing rearmament and many Japanese, after 35 years, remain sensitive to building up a war capability (even though they do support strengthening the nation's "self-defense" forces). Doing more by way of helping neighboring nations would perhaps be more politically palatable for the ruling Liberal Democrats than going in for a massive expansion of Japan's military -- a move which Japan's neighbors, too, might have masgivings about.

What the right mix of military buildup and foreign aid should be is a problem to be studied and worked out jointly. In any case, the more affluent members of the Western alliance have growing obligations and they should be pressed by the US to demonstrate that they take these seriously. Otherwise, many Americans may begin to muse why they should not cut back themselves.

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