Thursday, 13 April 2017

What do we mean by 'defence'?

One traditional example of the sheer enormity of infinity is that given an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters and enough time, one of them will produce the complete works of Shakespeare, in the correct order.  When it comes to economists with computers making accurate predictions, we don’t even need an infinite number before one of them gets at last one thing right (although we do need a lot of them before that happens).  But when it comes to Presidents of the USA, even one of them, with a single phone and a few stubby fingers over three short months, can produce a dazzling, not to say bewildering, series of alternative policy positions on the same issue.  Who needs infinity when we have Trump?
Yesterday he told us that, regardless of what he had been saying for months, NATO is no longer obsolete.  The change is due, apparently, to the threat of terrorism, although an explanation of how the threat from terrorism suddenly changed in recent days might be something for which we will be kept waiting.  It’s a pity, though; NATO being obsolete was one of the few things on which I agreed with him.  The organisation was set up in and for a very different world than that in which we live today.
One thing on which he is – for the moment at least – remaining consistent in this context is that most members of NATO are not paying their agreed share of the costs.  I’m not convinced that he fully understands the way this works – and his apparent attempt to hand Germany a ‘bill’ for $300 billion due, in his view, to the US supports my interpretation.  The long-standing agreement between NATO states is not that anyone pays the US for anything; it is that they each devote 2% of GDP to ‘defence’.  But, forgetting for a moment at least my own opposition to NATO, I seriously wonder whether this is in any way a sensible way of judging the contribution of different states.
The question, surely, should be about how effective the contribution to common defence is, not about how much it costs.  The UK is, after all, one of the few states which generally achieve the 2%, but the UK is a classic example of how it is possible to spend money without contributing very much to anything.  After all, the country is building aircraft carriers without aircraft, has a fleet of submarines of which none is currently available for deployment, and spent £4bn on surveillance aircraft which were scrapped before ever entering service.  And there are other examples of expenditure which contributes little to military readiness, although they all help to reach the artificial 2% target.
Then there is the other question about what we mean by ‘defence’ expenditure.  The US and UK seem to see it solely in terms of military hardware and personnel, but Germany argues that at least some overseas aid expenditure should be counted, on the basis that it can help to avoid war in the first place.  On that, I’m with Germany.  Sadly, the UK Government seems to be with Trump on this one, preferring to spend more on preparing to kill people than on trying to avoid the situations which lead to the killing.  Even worse, the official ‘opposition’ in the UK, for fear of being perceived as weak on defence, is far closer to the Trump position than the German one.
Having a bigger (or at least more expensive) stick than any and every perceived or conceivable enemy isn’t the only way of avoiding future wars, and given the diversion of resources from more constructive purposes, it’s not the best either.  It isn’t being ‘weak’ to point that out, and we shouldn’t allow debate on the question to be shut down by the militarists and those who have most to gain from building weaponry.

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