Why Spending More on ‘Defence’ Is Foolish

While Trump wants Canada to spend more on its military, Russia is winning the cyber war.

By Crawford Kilian 17 Jul 2018 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Several uproars ago, Donald Trump arrived in Brussels and shook the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to its foundations.

His ostensible purpose was to get his allies (I use the term loosely) to spend more on their militaries. Trump felt hard done by because the U.S. spends 3.6 per cent of its gross domestic product on defence while most other NATO countries spend less than two per cent. (Canada spends 1.3 per cent.) He wanted the Canadians and Europeans to cough up at least two per cent by 2024. No, wait — they had to hit two per cent by January 2019, and then go to four per cent by 2024.

If NATO had said OK, Trump would likely have upped the ante still more. His purpose was clearly to make impossible demands and thereby make NATO look like a bunch of deadbeats. Trump could then play repo man, pulling U.S. troops out of Europe and ending a 70-year-old alliance.

This episode may already have been forgotten in Trump’s excellent European adventure, which climaxed in the Helsinki summit with Vladimir Putin. But whatever NATO’s fate, the issue of defence spending deserves a moment of sober second thought.

The term “defence” itself is a triumph of framing. Countries used to have ministries or departments of war, plain and simple. The Second World War, however, was the kind of event that gives war a bad name, and governments found “defence” a suitable euphemism. It implied that someone else would always be responsible for starting the fight.

What’s more, military professionals have been aware for over a century of modern warfare’s ugly bottom line. In 1898, a Polish banker named Jan Bloch published a six-volume book called The Future War. He very accurately estimated that such a war would not be won by gallant galloping cavalry or courageous infantry charges. It would not be won at all.

Instead, said Bloch, it would be lost by whichever combatant went bankrupt first and toppled into revolution. A modern war of attrition would drain industrial nations of their wealth and manpower, and deprive combatant governments of their legitimacy.

How to steal a victory

The world powers thought seriously about Bloch before the First World War, but the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 seemed to offer a loophole. Fight a short, well-planned war against an inept opponent, and you could steal a victory.

So the Germans went to war in 1914 with a plan to cut Britain off from the European mainland and knock out France. They very nearly succeeded, but their attack bogged down. Trenches were dug from the North Sea to the Swiss border, and after four years of carnage, Jan Bloch was vindicated. The Russian, German and Turkish empires fell to revolutionary governments, and the empires of France and Britain were mortally wounded.

But the idea of war as a sucker punch persisted. Hitler thought a drug-fuelled blitzkrieg could exempt him from Bloch’s cold equations by stunning his adversaries before their economic superiority could crush him.

His adversaries, as the dust settled, understood that great-power war was as Bloch had foretold. As the saying goes, “The only reason to become a great power is to be able to fight a great war. The only way to remain a great power is not to fight a great war.”

The age of small wars

So since 1945, we have endured countless small wars, proxy wars, guerrilla wars and “police actions.” NATO and similar alliances effectively surrounded the Soviet Union and China without directly challenging them, and no great war has broken out in 75 years.

Military spending, however, has continued. In 1938, U.S. military spending was about two per cent of GDP. After Pearl Harbor, it shot up to 35 per-cent of GDP in 1942 and peaked in 1944 at 41 per cent. No one asked “How are we going to pay for it?”

But everyone did worry about peacetime, when spending would drop, armies would be disbanded and millions of ex-soldiers would be looking for work. That had been the tough part of the First World War’s aftermath, and the prospect of yet more post-war revolutions was an alarming one.

Fortunately for everyone, the alliance of the Soviets and the West soon fell apart. Each could now regard the other as a new enemy, justifying still more military spending. In the U.S., this led to what president Dwight Eisenhower would eventually call the “military-industrial complex,” a cabal of corporations and government agencies that could spend billions to deter war. Every state got plenty of defence contracts. That ensured the Congress and Senate would always back military spending that produced jobs back home.

Aided by the Korean “police action,” U.S. military spending bounced up to 14 per cent of GDP by 1953 and then gradually simmered down to whatever was politically tolerable. Given the scares of the Cold War — Berlin, Cuba, Vietnam — that was plenty.

Military spending as civilian blessing

And for most North Americans, military spending was a civilian blessing. The Soviets’ Sputnik satellite scared governments into funding a huge expansion of their post-secondary systems, creating millions of highly educated young people who would sustain Western economies for half a century. U.S. military spending on computer science and communication led to the personal computer and the internet (and The Tyee and cyber warfare).

In the 1940s, American experts like George F. Kennan knew that the Soviets couldn’t be outfought. But they could be outspent, and they were — with the help of those educated since the Sputnik scare, who sustained the West’s powerful economies.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites between 1989 and 1991, Kennan’s wonderful system also teetered on the brink. The 1990s were full of talk of a “peace dividend,” and NATO found itself an alliance without a foe. We could still fight small wars against small-time hoods like Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, but we needed to be rescued by Osama bin Laden and Islamist terror. After 9/11, NATO invoked Clause 5 (an attack on one is an attack on all) and went to war far from the North Atlantic, against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Less eagerly, some joined George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.

But by then, half a century of general peace had restored the economic capital destroyed in two world wars and countless small ones. It was possible to spend small change on “defence” while supporting health, education and other social programs. Europe and Canada, more than the U.S., seized that opportunity.

After Russia caught its breath and decided to return to its role as Mordor, with Vladimir Putin as a bare-chested Sauron, we Canadians began to look like hobbits without the One Ring. We’d squandered some of our best young people in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban. We weren’t interested in throwing away another generation and ever more billions.

Pulling numbers out of the air

So when Trump started making his demands, we had every right to step back. For one thing, the two-per-cent GDP goal was, um, “aspirational,” meaning nothing. In a war for existential survival we’d spend exponentially more. But Jan Bloch’s analysis has forbidden such wars, so two per cent is a politically convenient number, pulled out of the air.

And what would we spend it on? We could spend two per cent of our GDP on boot polish and snappy uniforms, or on building our own nuclear weapons. The spending would not be to fight a war, but to deter a war, and what would deter Vladimir Putin, or any other world power?

If anything, we should forget about jet fighters and spend whatever it takes to protect our online security. We can assume that some bright young geeks in St. Petersburg are thoroughly at home in Canada’s online world and preparing to hijack our next federal election. For all we know, Ontario’s latest election was just a dry run, installing yet another useful idiot in power.

After all, why should Putin plan for a 1950s-style invasion of western Europe with tanks and infantry and tactical nukes, when — for almost nothing — he can hamstring his enemies by making deals with Canadian, American and European quislings?

Putin’s online chicanery showed that the U.S. world order was a very shaky house of cards. He’s also likely dictated the outcome of the U.K.’s Brexit vote. So Canada should be a pushover. If in the meantime we spend billions on useless jet fighters or peacekeeping missions, so much the better.

As a U.S. Army trainee in 1963, I was taught how to fight Korea again, only better next time. No wonder the U.S. lost in Vietnam. If your opponent is always one war ahead of you, you’re always going to lose. At the moment, Putin and his American stooge are about to prove the wisdom of both Jan Bloch and the Chinese war authority Sun Tzu:

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Whatever we end up spending in our supposed defence, if we continue in our present way we will soon be subdued—not with a bang, but a whimper.  [Tyee]

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