A French friend of mine was one of the last conscripts serving in the 1980s in West Germany. Their only conflicts were with the Germans or other Western armies, usually over women. After an argument, a French commander had to be dissuaded from sending a tank down the local high street to show his rival who was boss.
Something of that time will return with the remilitarization of the West. “We are facing the most serious security situation in decades,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at the alliance summit in Madrid last week. He promised an almost eightfold expansion of forces on full alert to 300,000, although some NATO members said they had no idea where he got that number. Member countries are also increasing their defense spending: 2% of GDP “is increasingly seen as a floor, not a ceiling”, he said. But as I wandered around the Madrid summit, I wondered: even given Vladimir Putin’s malevolence, do we need to militarise? shall we? And how would remilitarization change our societies?
Do we need it? Russia’s military spending in 2021 reached $66 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. But even then, the United States was spending $801 billion a year and other NATO members about $363 billion. If half of US spending had nothing to do with Europe, then NATO would still be spending around 10 times more than the Russian military in the region, notes Dan Plesch of SOAS, University of London. If the United States abandoned Europe after 2024, the other NATO states would spend more than six times as much as Russia.
“The military argument [for higher spending] is: Finally, you allow me to buy gifts! “And every day Putin exhausts his army against a non-NATO country, burning its assets like a start-up run by narcissists, making NATO more immune to conventional attack.” NATO fights Russia to the last Ukrainian,” says Amit Gupta, recently retired from the US Air War College. So what is the Western military argument for higher spending? Gupta replies, “The military argument is: finally you allow me to buy goodies!
How generously are we going to spend? Western European countries far from the front may tire of sending arms and troops to poorer and sparsely populated Eastern Europe. And as Gupta notes, the aging continent prefers butter to guns. Spain’s far-left minister Ione Belarra said: “Spain needs guaranteed income, more doctors, more teachers, not more weapons.”
Americans also have bigger concerns than Ukraine. The most telling thing about Joe Biden’s press conference at the NATO summit was the questions: the White House press wanted to know more about abortion and the effect of war on oil prices. In the United States, Google searches for “Ukraine” have dropped 96% since the start of the war.
Americans have also learned that their spending on wars is self-perpetuating. Veterans have high rates of disability and receive publicly funded health care for life. Here is a replica of the “war on terror”: from 2001 to 2020, the inflation-adjusted budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs nearly quadrupled to over $240 billion, more than three times the total military budget of Russia.
In short, we may not need or want to remilitarize. Nevertheless, we will, at least a little. There are growing threats outside of Russia, from China to the Sahel. The terrorist-industrial complex also needs to be nurtured.
How will remilitarization change our societies? Plesch says: “The worst case scenario is that we fall into an involuntary world war. In the best-case scenario, we never store and use the weapons, but use our scarce resources to use them.
Remilitarization will have countless side effects. The warrior caste will regain its status; few politicians can deny funds to medal-winning officers. In fact, American military officers have sometimes unsuccessfully pleaded with Congress to cut their budgets.
Thus, the executives of arms companies and soldiers in peacetime will live well. When I gave seminars to officers at a US military base years ago, I marveled at their socialist paradise. Officers spent a quarter of their careers in education and enjoyed free health care, subsidized child care and early pensions. More poorer people will join the army for security and social mobility.
Other effects will be scary. When you train people to be fighters, they can become more disciplined or more violent, or both. And to borrow Robert Kagan’s metaphor: once governments buy military hammers, many problems will start to look like nails. Thus, more countries may be tempted by American-style wars of choice, which are almost unwinnable against adversaries waging wars of survival. The new military hammers could also be used on social issues, such as in America’s disastrous “war on drugs.” Welcome to the new Cold War, even if it’s a best-case scenario.
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