Future historians may look back and decide that 1988 was the year that Uncle Sam finally got tired of carrying a heavy military burden for his friends. Sure, the United States has complained for years that its allies could pay a larger share of the huge costs of mutual defense. Whether to bring US troops home from Western Europe or the Far East is a staple congressional debate.
But this year the arguments have sounded more serious. Behind this change in tone are trends that will intensify in 1989:
Tight budgets. Disbanding US units based overseas could save large sums of money.
Friendlier Soviets. Mikhail Gorbachev's troop-cut proposal has added to a growing public perception of a less-bellicose USSR.
Less-friendly allies. Spain booted out a US military unit; evictions by other nations, notably Greece, may follow.
New threats. The drug trade and terrorism are becoming more important national security worries.
Those still not convinced the NATO status quo is threatened need only read a recent report from a House armed services subcommittee: ``The Panel states in the strongest possible terms that Europeans had better be prepared to defend their territory without a large-scale US ground commitment.''
In the Pentagon, they call this whole issue ``the burden-sharing question.'' And the way it gets discussed, especially in Congress, makes officials nervous.
Not that they don't think our allies should do more. As Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci said in an interview earlier this year ``we want the laggards to reform'' - meaning that nations, such as Belgium, that pay less than their fair share should up the ante.
But veiled public threats, such as the House armed services panel report, make high-ranking Pentagon officers cringe. They see the technique as counter-productive. ``I don't think we accomplish a great deal by putting a club on our allies,'' said the Army chief of staff, Gen. Carl Vuono, earlier this year in one of a series of interviews on broad defense-policy concerns.
Pentagon officials worry that calls for more burden-sharing by allies are in fact just calls to cut the US defense budget. Indeed, US alliance commitments could be a tempting budget-cutter's target: the private Committee for National Security estimates that about 57 percent of the $300 billion-plus defense budget pays for forces that are pledged to defend European soil over the course of a major conflict.
Bringing home whole US divisions from West Germany or South Korea, and disbanding them, is probably not something Congress will vote for this year. More likely is increased congressional agitation for US allies to pick up more of the cost of supporting the 500,000 US troops based overseas.
The House armed services panel report estimated that this sort of burden-sharing could save the Pentagon up to $7.7 billion a year - a sum that could make a huge difference to a Defense Department facing continued zero-growth budgets. Members of Congress are already lining up to introduce amendments calling for such cost-shifting when the fiscal 1990 defense budget is debated next year.
Whether this debate grows into a re-examination of alliance commitments will determine whether the US has reached a turning point in its relations with the rest of the world. Yale history professor Paul Kennedy, in his controversial and best-selling recent book ``The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,'' argued that the changing world economic situation will make such a reexamination necessary.
Mr. Kennedy wrote that as the US economic edge over its allies disappears, the country begins to risk ``imperial overstretch.''
``The sum total of the United States' global interests and obligations is nowadays far larger than the country's power to defend them all simultaneously,'' he wrote.
The apparent diminishing of the military threat to Europe from the Soviet Union is another factor pushing a US strategic reexamination. Earlier this year, a Pentagon report called ``Discriminate Deterrence'' called for less focus by the Defense Department on the possibility of a big war in Central Europe.
``We should emphasize a wider range of contingencies'' in military planning, the report concluded.
Among other things, this could mean paying more attention to unilateral US interests in Latin America and other areas of the third world. It could mean more emphasis on training and forces to fight ``low-intensity conflict'', a Pentagon buzzword covering everything from insurgencies to terrorism.
It could also mean focusing more on the Pacific Basin, as the region grows in economic importance and the Soviets themselves devote more attention to the Far East. Whether to emphasize the Pacific or Europe is a US military debate dating back to World War II, often pitting the Pacific-oriented Navy vs. the Europe-oriented Army.
``I think there has been too narrow a focus in our overseas policy with the emphasis on Europe,'' said Chief of Naval Operations Carlisle Trost. ``Having said that, how can you criticize a NATO alliance that's deterred war going on 45 years?''
Is it likely that the US can in fact cajole its allies to shoulder more defense burden? There are encouraging signs. Western European nations are cooperating more on defense, with French-German military exercises and a revival of the West European Union, a NATO precursor. But a wholesale shift of defense spending from the US to Europe is unlikely. Budget cuts, after all, are not only a US phenomenon.
``I think it's naive to expect our European allies are going to make a major change in national priorities,'' said the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Larry D. Welch.