By Benjamin Mueller
After the worst economic crisis in the West since the Great Depression, a new fiscal reality is descending across the bloc of Western democracies. We will live in an age of austerity for the foreseeable future. Crucially, this round of public sector cuts does not exempt the most fundamental of all government activities, namely the protection of the domestic political project from enemies abroad – national defence.
Cutting the UK’s military budget in the midst of two ongoing wars seems like madness. Sadly, the government’s underlying rationale for budget savings is sound, no matter how painful the spectacle of disassembled Nimrods and the sale of the Ark Royal may be. 13 years of Labour mismanagement of the public purse are to be thanked for that.
The current defence cuts, like all policy-making agendas, are path-dependent: decisions are informed by events of the recent past. This is all well and good. But if choices are too heavily conditioned by the UK’s military experiences over the past decade, we run the danger of falling victim to a serious case of misaligned priorities.
The end of the Cold War constituted a tectonic shock in the international system of a kind that hadn’t been felt since the 1945. As the spectre of a US-Soviet military showdown vanished, Western governments reaped a peace dividend and significantly lowered their defence expenditures: NATO military outlays fell as a proportion of GDP throughout the 1990s.
That was until the worst terrorist atrocity in history cost nearly 3,000 innocent lives in New York, sparking a NATO-led ground intervention in Afghanistan, the state that harboured and protected the madmen behind 9/11. Two years later a coalition of the willing set about to undertake regime change in Iraq. Both campaigns quickly degenerated into counter-insurgency warfare against a guerrilla foe, and Western military thinking accordingly underwent a readjustment toward asymmetric combat.
The two dominant approaches to the study of international relations are realism and liberalism. The latter is a fundamentally optimistic school of thought, arguing that democracy is a peace-making force and that the democratising efforts since WW2 have made the world a safer place. Realism, by contrast, emphasises the perpetual recurrence of armed conflict among states and sees no reason why states will stop resorting to violence in the pursuit of their interests.
There is no denying that the gist of the democratic peace thesis stands: no two established liberal democracies have ever fought a war against each other. And since today there are more liberal democracies in the world than ever before, logic dictates a diminishing risk of war.
But if there is one feature of international affairs which has not and cannot disappear, it is the anarchical nature of global politics: when states deal with each other, the use of physical force will remain a viable policy instrument for as long as international society lacks a Leviathan, unlike our domestic law-and-order based arrangements.
Defence cuts are fiscally prudent given our current budgetary predicament, although their scale and the pace of their implementation is excessive. Moreover, in terms of military planning, there is a real threat of an over-emphasis on asymmetric warfare. Guerrilla insurgencies, by their very nature, arise only under localised, highly specific conditions: namely, the break-down of existing state structures and the establishment of a logistical weapons supply network by a determined, ideologically or criminally motivated foe. These are unique circumstances that are not replicated often. The conditions for inter-state war, on the other hand, have been in place since the Westphalian system came into being. The world has become safer among democracies, but not beyond the democratic zone of peace in the West.
Hew Strachan, Chichele Professor of the History of War at All Souls College, has demonstrated how easily a situation of serious inter-state warfare can come about . Think only of the protracted and as yet unsolved lingering stand-off between Pakistan and India over Kashmir – a tinderbox which, if lit, could set the entire region alight in a nuclear horror scenario which is not all that outlandish. Moreover, as Iran begins to assert its claim for regional hegemony more aggressively, Sunni status quo powers as well as Israel will not stand idly by as they see the Middle Eastern balance of power upset by a resurgent Shia coalition. Lastly, for all the not entirely unwarranted scepticism about the sustainability of China’s rise, it does seem increasingly likely that China’s ascent to superpowerdom is not a temporary aberration. In fact, this is probably the long-run trend that military planners in the West must take into consideration.
This is not meant as a jingoistic Western call to arms, a new strategy of expansionist neo-imperialism. Nor should the aim be to aggressively check China’s rise. War-mongering of this kind is counter-productive, to say the least.
What is being called for is a coherent defence strategy centred on inter-state conflict, which will remain the primary threat to peace in the 21st century.
The eternal paradox of a pre-emptive weapons build-up is that what may be peaceful in intent will seem aggressive to one’s detractors, even if purely conducted for defensive purposes. In an anarchical world, what guarantee is there to Beijing that our weapons systems are not aimed at attacking China?
However, it is possible to construct a coherent, defensive state-to-state warfare strategy based on principles of liberalism. The solution is to mix budgetary steadfastness with transparent, public doctrines: laying down liberal red lines to mark the territory and principles that we will defend through armed force, if need be. Standing with democratic outposts like Taiwan and Israel must be a key ingredient thereof.
NATO must watch, monitor and react if core Western security interests are at threat. By maintaining the alliance’s overwhelming military superiority, the global democratic zone of peace can be safeguarded and expanded. Si vis pacem, para bellum – if you want peace, prepare for war. The old adage has never been more relevant.