Complaints that US allies don't pay their fair share of defense costs are swelling into a dangerous isolationist chorus, according to Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci. Some United States partners should indeed shoulder more military responsibility. But American politicians' charges of ``free rider'' and ``shirker'' could undercut the stability of the Western alliance, Secretary Carlucci said in an interview on security strategy.
``I'm concerned with what I sense is a growing national mood,'' he said.
The Defense Secretary's comments reflect the fact that discussion of defense burden-sharing has become a staple issue on the presidential campaign trail and in Congress.
Citing the growing economic strength of Japan and Western Europe, likely Democratic nominee Gov. Michael Dukakis has said both should devote more resources to their armed forces.
A position paper for Rev. Jesse Jackson says flatly that ``Western Europe should be responsible for its own conventional defense.''
The House Armed Services Committee has established a special burden-sharing panel.
Earlier this month, the House defeated two legislative efforts to force US troop withdrawals from Europe. ``These people are stealing our jobs because we have been suckered into paying for their defense,'' said Rep. Tommy Robinson (D) of Arkansas, sponsor of one of the efforts.
The still-mammoth US trade deficit is one reason for this grumbling. But also fueling it is a new yearning for withdrawal from US international obligations and interests, Carlucci said.
Claims that American power is in decline and that we can no longer afford the role of global policeman are evidence of a desire to turn inward, to escape responsibilities, according to Carlucci.
``You don't have to be someone who says `I favor Fortress America' to be an isolationist,'' he said.
But Carlucci allowed that the Pentagon itself is quietly pushing for US allies to spend more on defense.
The Defense Department's No. 2 man, deputy secretary William Taft, this month toured Western Europe, South Korea, and Japan and pressed for greater military efforts.
According to a new Pentagon assessment of allied efforts, the United States itself pays somewhat more than its fair share of the costs of helping defend NATO and Japan.
Based on the size of their economies, the assessment judges that Greece, Great Britain, and Turkey also contribute more than their fair share, while Italy, Canada, Denmark, and Japan, among others, fall short.
``We would like the laggards to reform,'' Carlucci said.
A difference between the neo-isolationists and the Pentagon is the way in which burden-sharing is approached. A confrontational ``we versus them'' style produces a defensive reaction, and fuels fears of a United States withdrawal from its strategic commitments, Carlucci claimed. He said the Defense Department, on the other hand, talks about the issue as a collective alliance problem.
Other measurements besides economic ones should be taken into consideration when totaling the relative defense contributions of allies. Support of bases on their soil, arms development cooperation, and other intangible factors are also part of this equation, Carlucci said.
``You can't talk about financial contributions alone,'' he said.