IMHO, the threat of Stalin had at least as much to do with the end of war in western and central Europe as did the projection of American power. And that kind of threat remains—one of Putin-enabled destabilizing kleptocracy—to keep Europe, at least Europe west of the German-Polish border, peaceful and civilized. But, yes, I do not think anybody wants a larger German or Japanese military, even now. I think that is a feature, not a bug: Claire Berlinski: "Modern Europe–liberal, democratic Europe–is the United States’ creation.: This story was once known to every American, but as the generation responsible for this achievement dies, so too has the knowledge ceased to be passed down casually, within families...
...The United States built this modern order upon an architecture of specific institutions: the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the International Court of Justice, the World Economic Forum, and above all NATO and the US. The global order we built is in effect an empire, but one far more humane than European imperialism. It rests upon two beliefs, one idealistic and the other realistic: The first is the idea that certain moral values are universal and that liberal democracies best reflect and cultivate those values. The second is that in international affairs; anarchy reigns: Power is the only currency that matters.
Europe was designed–by the United States–to be the other half of the West. Europe’s success is a global advertisement for liberal democracy. The collapse of liberal democracy in Europe would represent the failure of these ideals—upon which the United States also rests. Neither Europe nor the US are wealthy or powerful enough, alone, to sustain and expand liberal democracy in a world growingly dominated by China, Russia, and anarchy. No European country alone, nor any of the American states alone, can now sustain the global liberal order.
A United Europe–and the United States–are together strong enough to sustain the liberal democratic tradition and Western values. This is precisely why the enemies of liberal democracy are trying to drive a stake through our seventy-year alliance. The demilitarization and pacification of Germany was the greatest of American achievements. It made European peace and integration possible. Germany’s demilitarization ended the Franco-German rivalry that set the Continent alight and reduced it to ashes, again and again.
The wars that broke out in 1939 and 1914 were iterations of the wars fought by Bismarck, Napoleon and Louis XIV—Sedan, 1870; Leipzig, 1813; Jena, 1806; Valmy, 1792; Turckheim, 1675. The 20th centuries’ were bloodier for only one reason: a massive improvement in killing capability. Europe's history was defined, for centuries, by unmitigated slaughter and butchery among the European peoples, a traditional only occasionally interrupted since the sack of Rome. For centuries, as we discovered, Europe was the globe's leading exporter of violence, and that is precisely why our postwar foreign policy was designed to ensure our permanent military hegemony over the Continent.
American power put an end to centuries of the same European war, and only American power, as we exercised it, could have ended this conflict. We ended it by credibly guaranteeing Germany’s security under the American nuclear umbrella. Postwar Europe ceased to be the world’s leading exporter of violence because it was occupied, stripped of full sovereignty, and subordinated to outside hegemons—first the US and the USSR, then the US alone. The long peace is the direct consequence of our hegemony. The benefits of this—to the US, Europe, and the world—are not just economic, though those are immense. The benefit is in the suppression of Europe's inherent security conflicts: wars were not fought, lives were not squandered. European free-riding isn’t a bug, as many Americans now seem to feel—it is the central feature of our postwar security strategy.
How is it, then, that suddenly, we’re consumed with rage that Europe is “taking advantage” of us? How have we forgotten that this is the point of the system? We designed it this way, and did so for overwhelmingly obvious historic reasons, learnt at incalculable cost. Since World War II, we have been deployed in Eurasia to ensure it cannot be dominated by a single power capable of monopolizing, and turning against us, the resources of Europe or East Asia. We do this by suppressing security competition in those regions. We build our own overwhelmingly massive military assets and locate them, strategically, as a warning: You cannot win. Don't even try. By this means, we prevent local arms races before they begin. Simultaneously, we say, "But there is no need to try. Your safety is guaranteed. You need not worry about this." And we regularly show, often at terrible risk to ourselves, that we mean this." This has largely kept the peace in Europe for 74 years. The US underwrites European security through forward engagement and security guarantees based on deterrence. In return, its Allies accept the leading role of the US in the international system and contribute towards meeting common challenges.
The polite fiction that allows Europeans to save face, is that this is a partnership, rather than subordination to US hegemony is a partnership, with each party contributing according to ability. The truth is that the US does, of course, pay more than its fair share, and in exchange receives more than its fair of power. The arrangement liberates Europeans and Americans alike from the most dangerous force confronting them: the Europe's ancient impulse to fratricide. Americans died, suffered, and labored assiduously, for generations, to create of Europe what it had never been before: a zone of peaceful, prosperous, liberal, democracies—and the other half of the West. The rescue and reconstruction of Europe was our greatest moral and political accomplishment, towering above any other in our country’s short history. Our grandparents destroyed the most monstrous and tyrannical regimes humanity has known. and then proved that our system of governance, or something much like it, could be built and made to work on that very soil. This is the story of the world we know, and the story of our country, too. This is the accomplishment now under threat.
The world we built is the only world any American alive now knows. We take it for granted. The United States seems so mammoth, so solid, so marmoreal that it requires immense imagination to realize that nothing about our system of governance is intuitive, natural, or typical; or to recall that before we built this world, liberal democracy was a fragile and relatively untested experiment. It was our victory in the Second World War and our reconstruction of Europe and Japan that made us a global, norm-setting power—capable of defining the rules of international order, and this is what made liberal democracy a global aspiration—and in many places a reality. We take for granted, too, the security that comes with being a global hegemon. We cannot imagine what we're putting at risk.