In the decades after World War II, the free nations of Western Europe faced a serious threat of aggression by the Communist Soviet Union. So it made sense from a U.S. national security standpoint for our country to help European nations defend themselves.
But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the need for the United States to play such an active role in Europe's defense obviously decreased.
Yet we continue to shoulder much of the financial burden of Europe's defense, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pointed that out in a recent speech in Belgium. He said that several nations are "apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets."
In fact, U.S. taxpayers are on the hook for about three-fourths of the spending by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization - a military alliance that includes much of Europe - and our nation provides most of the weapons and other equipment used in NATO operations. We have footed that bill while European nations have been unsustainably expanding their social welfare programs and relying on us for protection.
Gates rightly says that has to stop.
"The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress, and in the American body politic writ large, to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources ... to be serious and capable partners in their own defense," he said.
He pointed out that in the current international military action against Libya - a place where the United States has far less direct interest than European countries have - our nation is carrying too much of the burden. It is wrong, he added, for the United States to play such a big role in combat missions for countries that "don't want to share the risks and the costs."
That is a hard truth for some of our allies across the Atlantic to hear - but it is important that they hear it.