BOTTOM LINE: US President Barack Obama says he will support legislation to take the federal minimum wage level to $10.10 an hour. Picture: REUTERS
US President Barack Obama. Picture: REUTERS

THE people who prepare President Barack Obama’s national security briefing must be wondering what to put at the top of the pile. Should it be the Russian assault on Ukraine, or the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known as Isis) in Iraq and Syria? And what items should go just below that? The violent anarchy in Libya, the dangerous stalemate in Afghanistan or the looming political crisis in Hong Kong?

Obama might reasonably ask why all these crises are breaking out at the same time. His critics have a ready answer. They argue that the Obama administration has shown itself to be weak and indecisive. As a result, the US’s adversaries are testing its limits and the US-led security order is under challenge in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

There is no doubt that the US is war-weary after the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the multiplication of security crises around the world is not just about Obama and the US. In fact, the obsession with what the US is doing points to the underlying problem. Its allies have come to rely excessively on the US to guarantee their security.

As a result, the biggest weakness in the global security system is not a lack of resolve in the US, but the learned helplessness of its regional allies. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) summit that starts in Wales on Thursday is a crucial opportunity for the US’s most important allies to start doing more to share the burden. If they fail, the inability of the US to police the world alone will become increasingly apparent and the various global security crises will intensify.

The pattern of Nato spending reflects Europe’s increasing reliance on the US. At the height of the Cold War, the US accounted for about half of the military spending of the alliance, with the rest of Nato accounting for the other 50%. Now, however, the US accounts for about 75% of Nato spending. Last year, of the 28 Nato members, only the US, Britain, Greece and Estonia met the alliance’s target of spending at least 2% of gross domestic product on defence. Even the UK may soon slip below 2%.

Even when it comes to the nonmilitary side of security, the Europeans have lagged well behind. The US was quicker to push through sanctions on Russia, and its measures have been tougher, despite the fact that Russia’s undeclared war in Ukraine is a much more direct threat to Europe.

This same over-reliance on the US is evident in the Middle East. The rise of Isis is a big threat to the dwindling band of stable regimes in the region, above all Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. In recent years, these countries have spent lavishly on their armies and air forces. And yet it has been left to the US to wage the bombing campaign against Isis, while the nations of the Gulf Co-operation Council keep their 600 combat aircraft on the tarmac and complain about US weakness.

A similar pattern is on display in Asia, where US allies such as Japan and the Philippines agitate for the US to increase its military commitment to the region in response to an increasingly assertive China.

This litany of allied weakness is dangerous precisely because the US is indeed more reluctant to "bear any burden" (in former president John F Kennedy’s famous words) to uphold the international order. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have left their mark. So has the financial crisis of 2008. Obama’s reluctance to deploy military force is not an aberration or a personal folly. It is an accurate reflection of the mood of the US people.

That mood could shift in response to Russian aggression and to the chaos in the Middle East. However, even if it does, the days when the US was capable of being the world’s supercop — with relatively little assistance — are coming to a close. The World Bank says that China will probably become the world’s largest economy this year, measured by purchasing power. The US defence budget is falling as the US struggles to control its national debt. The gradual relative decline of the US is a much worse problem than it might otherwise be, because its closest allies in the European Union are in the grip of severe economic crises, which are eroding their ability to exercise power.

Collectively, the West now accounts for a decreasing share of the world economy — as new sources of power and wealth rise up in Asia. A western-dominated world is therefore in danger of looking increasingly like an anachronism — and that is the proposition that, in their different ways, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Isis and the Chinese military are testing.

The perception of declining western power threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The only way for North Americans and Europeans to stop that happening is to work together with greater determination and purpose to combat the crises burning out of control on the fringes of Europe, in Ukraine and the Middle East. That work needs to start at this week’s Nato summit. As Benjamin Franklin put it: "We must all hang together or, assuredly, we will all hang separately."

© 2014 The Financial Times Limited