Arms and the West

The Western nations’ systematic reduction of their armed forces is a dangerous trend.

Analogies are always inexact, but from no corner of history is there one that would give us cause for optimism about the West’s trend toward disarmament since 1991.  There doesn’t have to be a Nazi Germany on the horizon, or even a Soviet Union, for this trend to be dangerous.  The logical vulnerability in comparing everything to the 1930s is not that there is no Nazi Germany today; it’s that too many people harbor the illusion that danger only comes in that form.

Danger’s more common forms usually start – deceptively – with political intimidation, typically in neglected and hard-to-defend spots.  In such spots even a weaker nation can generate a relative imbalance of force.  So can terrorists and pirates; but an enduring axiom in all these cases is that restoring order and security requires, at a minimum, the means of reversing the local power imbalance, and of taking territory and securing it for political purposes.  It requires, in other words, great-power-size conventional forces, and the will to use them.

We can “fight back” against regional predators, guerrilla movements, and nihilist bombers using essentially symmetrical, defensive means; and for some ancillary objectives counterinsurgency tactics are indispensable. But if our aim is to actually achieve a decisive outcome, with conditions changed from menace and insecurity to order, the remedy must include conventional forces wielded on the state-based war model.  This is something insurgent leaders like Lenin and Mao Zedong were very clear on:  guerrilla tactics weaken central government; counterinsurgency tactics cannot, by themselves, establish it.  For that, conventional armed force is essential, which is why guerrilla leaders who become national leaders gain national political control by the use of conventional massed force, in whatever form is common to the time.

Declining to maintain such forces is inherently a signal about the will of great powers to guarantee borders, regional order, and security.  The West has been sending such a signal for some time. Gordon Brown’s is the latest communiqué: another round of major cuts in Britain’s military, announced this week.  The Royal Navy and Air Force will soon be only half their strength of 2003 – the RAF down to an astounding 31,000 personnel, with additional squadrons cut and five bases closed.  But France and Germany have taken drastic force cuts in the last decade as well, and Barack Obama is cutting major US defense programs and planning to spend less in the coming years on procurement and modernization.

Our low priority for defense spending is one of two current patterns that are reminiscent of the 1920s and 1930s.  Defense spending in NATO Europe averages 2.6 percent of GDP, at or below the percentages of Britain, France, and the US between 1919 and 1937.  The Europeans’ spending has also declined absolutely since 1992:  the four European G-8 members all spent less on defense in 2008 than in 1992, reckoned in constant US dollars.  America’s percentage hovers around 4.0, and Canada’s was at 1.3 last year.  Japan’s 2008 spending was slightly above 1 percent of GDP, and Australia’s was 1.8.

The other pattern is a turn in our defense planning away from the ideas of state-based threats and politically decisive use of the military, in favor of emphasizing factors like international “guarantees” and transnational problems (terrorism, piracy), and then designing our forces to fit them, as if they are conditions we must accommodate rather than shape. This trend is a powerful echo of the interwar years eight decades ago.

The US decided this summer to cease force planning based on handling two major (i.e., Iraq-size) contingencies at a time, an assumption we had used since 1990.  What we discarded was more than the “two contingencies,” however; the vagueness of the new approach, the idea that all our planning factors are up for grabs, is an indicator that we effectively discarded the concept of securing decisive outcomes, period.  Taken together, these steps back in our planning posture inevitably mean envisioning a military less capable of imposing order and political outcomes.

In Europe, meanwhile, our allies dither over an EU military force; one thing they can’t agree on is whether there will even be a “main threat” in the next decade – nor is such agreement really a priority.  The concept of an EU force need not be problematic for NATO defense, but the Union’s somewhat characteristic indecision about what it needs the force for is a less-than-encouraging trend.  It nevertheless gives European military budgeteers a PowerPoint-ready rubric to appeal to, when they can’t make their national defense concepts and budgets come out even.  The uneasy sense that it’s all a PowerPoint exercise is strongly reminiscent of pre-1938 Europe; and with the US having cut the tether to the “two-contingencies” planning factor, NATO’s defense concept is the only one left with any grab-bars on it capable of supporting deliberative weight.  It should be no surprise, therefore, that NATO’s defense concept is, as of July 2009, under comprehensive review.

Russia and China, of course, are increasing their military spending.  Russia announced a significant new increase in defense spending in September 2008, a move that complemented Vladimir Putin’s announcement one year earlier that Russian forces would be returning to their old patrol areas in the air and on the seas.  But Russia’s military spending had already been increasing by over 20 percent a year since 2002.  China, for her part, has officially posted double-digit increases in defense spending through most of the last decade, and US intelligence estimates the actual numbers are higher than those reported by Beijing.  Notably, it is the procurement of major weapon systems that the US concludes is often worked off the books.  CIA’s estimate is that China commits over 4 percent of GDP to military spending; Russia a little less than 4 percent.

(It is evidence of ignorance to dismiss these estimates out of hand, incidentally.  US intel develops very good information on new weapon systems in Russia and China, and uses careful processes to compare the amount of new equipment with the costs incurred for R&D, inputs, and manufacturing.  In a study done in the 1990s by the Defense Intelligence Agency, of previous estimates about the Soviet Union versus ground truth unearthed after 1991, the final determination was that US technical intelligence had been accurate much more often than not, tending in some cases to overestimate the effectiveness of certain weapon or sensor systems, but not erring significantly in calculating things like numbers and effective costs of procurement.  The assessment that China procures weapon systems outside of declared defense spending is reached through credible and proven analytical methods.)

The oft-made point that the US still spends more on defense than Russia or China is superficial in some key ways.  It tacitly posits that all spending is equal, but of course, all military spending is not equal. Russia and China spend far less, per soldier, on personnel than the US (or our G-8 allies), simply because their pay and benefits are much, much lower.  The disparity in spending on current operations is even greater:  Russia has almost none, and China’s naval and air activity, while robust, incurs much less expense than ours because it so rarely involves the long-range deployments that we, and our main NATO allies, are funding 24/365.

US defense spending, on the other hand, has shorted weapons procurement for over 15 years, with the purchase of new equipment representing no more than 15 percent of the defense budget throughout that period.  Procurement costs more per unit for the US and our allies as well, due not as much to the evils of bureaucracy as to the fact that our manufacturing labor, unlike Russia’s and China’s, is effectively unionized, and everyone involved in designing and making defense equipment is paid better, and has greater worker benefits, than his counterpart in Russia or China.  The newest US and European equipment is typically superb, but Russia and China buy more units that are not quite as good, for less.

Obama, of course, now intends to reduce procurement further.  France, Germany, Canada, and Japan, while procuring some things, are shedding others as quickly as possible, and Britain is simply contracting across the board.  Russia and China, by contrast, are concentrating precisely on procurement programs, building up capabilities – like submarine forces, amphibious assault, IT and electronic attack, and missile systems – that ought to leave us in no doubt as to what they intend to be able to do.

If we graphed the defense spending of America’s allies on one line, and that of Russia and China on another, what we would see is the first line on a downward trend, and the second on an upward trend.  If nothing else, this is convincing proof that cutting defense spending in the major democratic nations around the globe doesn’t induce nations like Russia and China to ease up on their military build-ups.

Iran, in some ways an outlier, has had a long, slow military build-up since the early 1990s, and is estimated to spend at least 3.5 percent of her GDP – which fluctuates with the price of oil – on defense.  But this number is misleading in at least two ways.  First, it ignores the fact that Iran literally projects regional power through her support for terrorism, a set of expenses that is, naturally enough, not reported in Tehran’s official military budget.  The regional effect of this effort is significant, however, both politically and economically; and today reaches beyond Lebanon and Israel to Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Eritrea, Somalia, and Yemen.  Second, of course, Iran’s expenditures include her missile and nuclear weaponization programs, lines of procurement that promise a tool of regional power well out of proportion to the dollar figure associated with it.

Ultimately, no nation or alliance that systematically reduced its ability to project and wield military power has been able to continue projecting other kinds of power.  There is no basis whatsoever for any certainty that this pattern has somehow changed.  As the West disarms, it will take less relative force over time for other actors to exert intimidation in many parts of the world, including chokepoints and regional junctions that affect our security. It doesn’t have to be the 1930s again; 2009 will do. History has never once validated the complacent certainties on which people have relied to justify disarming themselves.

24 thoughts on “Arms and the West”

  1. Didn’t we just authorize an increase of 40,000 people for the military?

    And if we look at that graph where our and our allies defense spending is decreasing while Russia and China is increasing, at what point in time would they become equivalent (factoring pay and benefits)?

  2. JED:

    You bring to mind Kipling: “Will you wait for the sound of the cannon ‘ere you learn how a gun is laid?”

    I have no idea how to solve this problem. Denial is so easy when there is no visible troll that has to be denied.

    My more optimistic take is that America, unlike most of the world, is filled with hunters, gun-owners and shooters. And, dare I say it, we still have folks like Sarah Palin who come out of the shadows at opportune times to reinvigorate the debate.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. Liberal Pacifism is the driving force behind every reduction in military forces.

    I’m afraid that I must bring up the 1930’s again because it’s an important part of an existential pattern.

    The reduction in military after WWI, WWII, Clinton’s reductions in the 90’s and now Obama’s in 2009 are the natural result of liberal pacifism’s subconscious need to submit.

    This is so because philosophically, when confronted with hostile aggression, no other response than submission is possible to pacifism.

    They do and will continue to deny this because they lack both the intellectual honesty to face the logical consequence of pacifism; Orwell’s observation that, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night, only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf” while simultaneously lacking the moral courage to face the truth of their underlying subconscious motivation.

    Talking about why it’s not a good idea both to reduce our military forces and reduce funding needed for research and technological improvement of those forces is mostly of use for ‘preaching to the choir’. That’s so because with a very few exceptions, those inclined toward pacifism subconsciously need to discount the danger, as their pacifism allows for no other response.

    Only when confronted with a reality that makes clear that continued pacifism equates to a suicidal death wish will the larger society unequivocally reject the pacifist’s argument.

    Thus in WWII, the need for a Dunkirk, the need after WWII for a North Korean invasion of S.Korea and sadly, in 2009, the psychological need for a nuclear terrorist attack upon a US city. Because that’s the only thing that will convince enough of the public that the liberal pacifist’s arguments have no merit.

    And so we shall have our Dunkirk because psychologically, we will have it no other way…

    1. Geoffrey, I don’t know what country you’re living in, but in the US, pacifism is more often associated with Christianity then with liberalism.

    2. fuster is right Geoffrey. Pacifism is more associated with Christianity in the U.S. It’s actual advocates are very few.

      Unilateral disarmament stemming out of a desire to surrender is more associated with liberalism. But that’s not to say liberals are in the main pacifists. Many, if not a majority, very much support the use of force by America’s enemies.

  4. I’m not sure I agree with you there fuster. For starters, it’s mostly those good Christian boys who are serving in our military (serving God and country).

    Liberals may not want to call it “pacifism,” but that’s basically what their worldview amounts to. With a large majority in the Senate, the Dems don’t have a single hawk remaining (Lieberman now being an Independent). That’s astonishing. The liberal’s waning support for their proclaimed “good” war in Afghanistan, led by our President, is evidence of what amounts to pacifism. I imagine part of it is an unrealistic and instinctive utopian desire that we should “all just get along” that’s part of the liberal aversion to military force. Another part is distaste for overbearing and rude American “imperialism/colonialism/hegemony.” Never mind that we’re not imperialists nor colonizers. And we’re the never before seen benign hegemon. And I suppose yet another part is the innate rank pacifism that Geoffrey mentioned above. I don’t know what percentage of each of these 3 parts make up the whole.

    fuster, are you referring to the 40,000 that McChrystal asked for? If so, I think that’s coming from (if it comes at all) forces we already have. You may be referring to something else though.

    I’ve always been a supporter of a strong and robust military. Mostly for the obvious reason of being able to immediately hammer someone who needs to be hammered. I also am supportive of a robust military because, as J.E. mentions, it serves as a deterrent. Country X may decide NOT to attack country Y because it fears the J-Dams and the marines will be knocking on their door in short order.

    There’s another reason though that I support heavy military expenditures – a dollar spent on the military is a dollar not spent on an entitlement program. The creeping nanny state is about as dangerous to the long term health of this nation as any military attack. Govt getting its grip more and more on our personal lives is sure to sap our life force (if you will). Military power projects a strong America and so does individual self reliance. Put them together in this country and the world will be a much safer and enjoyable place.

  5. Ritchie, what I was talking about was an authorization for increasing the size of the military by 40,000 people in the next year.
    This was authorized in August, IIRC, after being requested by the administration.

    Pacifism is usually defined as an opposition to the idea of violence in general, and is not necessarily evidenced by opposition to some particular war or two or even the idea that war isn’t a first option.
    “Not a good early option” is more associated with liberalism than is pacifism.

  6. The only Americans who associate Christianity with pacifism are liberals.

    Remember the crusades? Righteous violence is not a problem for Christians.

    Modern liberals are in opposition to any war, at base, they believe that there are no good wars.

    Just War doctrine, a favorite of liberals is a perfect example of pacifism concealed within the masquerade of political correctness.

    In any confrontation with a malevolent foe, only two categories of response are possible, fight or flight. Liberals choose flight. That can be a valid strategy, temporarily. When faced with persistent malevolence, flight is a futile strategy.

    Some liberal pacifists are moral cowards and choose appeasement as their strategy to deflect aggression. Appeasement is moral cowardice because it ‘throws others before the crocodile in hopes of being the last in line, hoping the ‘beast’ will be satiated, before it’s their turn to be eaten’.

    Another form of appeasement is isolationism, the conservative/libertarian ‘flip-side’ of liberal appeasement.

    These are not hard things to understand but when true, they are very hard to admit to oneself and until faced, impossible to acknowledge to others.

  7. Geoffrey, give it a rest for a few minutes.
    Will you take the trouble to educate yourself about the origins of Just War doctrine?

    After doing so, will you kindly report back to the class if there seems to be some substantial connection to Christianity?

    Thank you.

    1. Your patronizing assumption that I am unaware of the Christian origin of Just War doctrine in no way obviates it’s liberal pacifist bonifides.

      While your lack of response to the premises and assertions I’ve made clearly speaks volumes, as to your reluctant agreement.

      Oh and, do get back to us when you have something of value to contribute.

      1. As long as pointing out that you’re being incorrect doesn’t affect your view, how can I possibly have anything else to contribute?

        Of the 40,000 Americans who refused to fight in WWII, the majority where Christians and belonged to subsets of Christianity not known for holding liberal views.

        (Seems to me that the war that they opposed was championed by a president known to hold liberal views.
        The next war was championed by a president known to hold liberal views.
        The one after that as well.)

        Simply saying that most pacifists are liberals in America is something you can’t back up.

    2. Nice try fuster but no cigar,

      Acknowledging the Christian origin of Just War doctrine doesn’t make me ‘wrong’ as I simply asserted that it was now a liberal pacifist dogma.

      So far you haven’t contributed anything of value but one can always hope.

      WWII was a very long time ago and the makeup of the democratic party now bears little resemblance to the party that once claimed Reagan as a member. We do have a modern equivalent of Truman, a guy by the name of Lieberman and, the dems drove him out of their party for being too principled.

      Anyone who disputes that most pacifists are liberals is either speaking out of ignorance or is being disingenuous. In your case I strongly suspect it’s being disingenuous. Evidently you believe intellectual dishonesty is OK because the end justifies the means and ‘winning’ is of most importance for you. No wonder you condone O’Donnell’s actions.

      How sad.

      1. WWII was a long time ago and the Democratic Party has since changed, but your example for Christianity having no problem with war was the Crusades?

        You’re still blowing smoke from your tailpipe when you assert that pacifists are liberals. The history of pacifism in this country is centered around the Christian faith, not liberalism.
        If you want to assert that the Christians no longer lead the movement or that the Christian still do and that they are additionally and primarily liberal, can you provide some basis in fact to support you and your more honest view?

  8. Ah…yes. The joys of the post-Christian, pacifist, wellfare state (and the ineluctable demographic consequences of such). If things proceed as they are this glorious entity will, as hundreds of famines, natural catastrophes and wars have failed to do, dispatch Western Civilization in an impressively short space of time.

    I am afraid Geoffrey might be a bit of an optimist if he thinks a Dunkirk-like event up to and including the detonation of a nuclear device in an American city will lead to anything like an adequate firming up of our strategic posture along the lines suggested by OC. At the very least it is unlikely (perhaps in the extreme) to do so among our allies.

  9. cavalier,

    I am not at all optimistic about a positive response to a nuclear attack upon a US city(s).

    And my prior comments on this forum will certainly attest to that assertion.

    With the caveat that it is a nuclear terrorist attack, I think it much more likely to lead to isolationism and even a near-permanent state of declared martial law with the concomitant loss of freedom such a state would entail.

    I am certain that the only thing that will lead to even the possibility of a wholesale rejection of liberalism by America is just such an attack but in my view, it’s at best a toss-up.

  10. “Another form of appeasement is isolationism, the conservative/libertarian ‘flip-side’ of liberal appeasement.”

    Geoffrey, I think I may be a rarity. I consider myself a conservative/libertarian (or perhaps a libertarian/conservative). However, I firmly oppose isolationism. It’s not practical in today’s globalized world. More over, I’d rather have the USA out there protecting seaways and defending democrats (at least that was something we did before 1/20/09). Perhaps I could categorize myself as a domestic libertarian and a foreign policy conservative.

    I’m also an atheist who defends Christianity and will lay down in traffic to defend someone else’s right to freely practice their religion (except when the expression of that religion ends up with my head being separated from the rest of me).

    Maybe I need someone to develop a new political label to properly categorize me!

    Anyway Geoffrey, good points above.

    1. Ritchie,

      I did not mean to imply that all conservative/libertarians are isolationists. Perhaps most and it is a commonly held view within that demographic but certainly not all. There are liberals who are isolationists too and certainly not all liberals are pacifists.

      I agree, it is isolationism’s impracticality, in today’s globalized world, that makes it a ‘non-starter’.

      I find your principled support of Christian’s religious rights admirable.

  11. I’ve been watching The History Channel’s new WW II In Color Series, which pulls no punches regarding the horrid and crazy and cruel nature of war.

    This ties together in my mind with Elizabeth Drew’s recent column regarding the Obami’s shabby treatment of Creg Craig (What did she expect, isn’t our new messiah Prez, Mister Peanut, the acolyte of Saul Alinsky who instructs his troops to get in their opponents’ faces?”

    Elizabeth Drew tells us that many of the connected, mainstream Democrats in her Washington circle are disappointed that B0 has not turned out to be the the seldom in a lifetime kind of inspiring leader that JFK was.

    This seems like a continuation of the problem most if not all liberals have with maintaining a logical process of critical thought. It should have been apparent from the very beginning that 0bama, unlike JFK, Scoop Jackson, FDR and even LBJ, is NOT a person who understands much of anything, especially the basic necessity of a powerful military. And, unlike our many antagonists, both real and potential, in China, Iran, Russia, North Korea, Venezuela and elsewhere, he will balk, stutter, dither, and bloviate while they eat his lunch and strangle us with their cynical expansions of power.

    Should they take heart that, if he shares nothing else with them, he certainly shares their fundamental and abiding arrogance?

  12. Thanks Geoffrey. A few years ago I read “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins. I didn’t appreciate how he conflated the religiosity of the Taliban and the religiosity of American Christians as if both were distastefully and equally rigid in their respective religious ways. He of course mentioned right wing abortion clinic bombers. I sent him an email expressing my displeasure with his categorizations and explained that while yes, there are some Christians who commit terrible acts in the name of Christianity, it is also Christians who track down, arrest, try and convict those Christian extremists. On the other hand, not only did/does the Taliban govt condone extremist acts, they perpetrate them!

    For non-believer authors, I much prefer Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris over Richard Dawkins.

    I know you weren’t implying that all conservative/libertarians are isolationists. I was just highligting the seemingly quasi-contradiction between my domestic libertarianism (US govt hands off!) on the one hand and my foreign policy conservatism (US govt hands on!) on the other. I suppose libertarianism takes on many forms though. So perhaps it’s not so much of a contradiction.

  13. Opticon,
    Excellent and thought provoking as usual; but it seems to me that Europe’s tail off of defense spending owes as much to overreliance on our too cheaply given umbrella than to the spread of complaisance stemming from other reasons. All Europeans under 54 years old have lived their entire lives in a time when they could let the Americans worry about it, and even kick the Americans for fun now and then.

    Also, none of the individual european countries has the economic muscle to be a world power without enormous effort, so part of their build down reflects simple recognition that one minor aircraft carrier is more or less meaningless in a world where America has 10 major ones. When Europe coalesces sufficiently to field a common force its take on that may change, although not if we continue to provide free insurance.

    And, the fact that our military spends quite a bit of it’s budget on engagement is at least in part a benefit rather than a detriment. I doubt that the Russians and Chinese are building any direct equivalents to the Dowager Empress’ marble boat; but it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re spending a lot on poorly thought out weapons systems and unrealistic training because their militaries haven’t actually fought or even done large scale distant deployments for so long.

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