In the post Cold War years it looked for a brief moment like we had entered a new era under the so-called ‘peace dividend’. With no clear or significant ideological enemy on the landscape, growth in military expenditure began to recede from frontline political discussion. This brief interlude has of course long since been shattered, and defence spending is well and truly back in the headlines and in the public mind. Russian aggression has been the most recent and immediate cause for concern in western defence departments but this is just the latest in a sequence of security issues going back to before the ‘war on terror’ even kicked off.
As millions of people suffer due to reduced state spending throughout Europe, it may be useful to ask why increased military spending has become such an important issue at a time when so many other areas of the economy are underfunded. Luckily, there has been no shortage of neo-conservative fanatics and defence lackeys running to the press in recent days to help us understand why military spending is top priority. Former Conservative defence minister, Gerald Howarth, said last week that reduced defence spending would “diminish us in the eyes of our closest allies, the United States of America.” A serious matter indeed! Former MI6 boss, John Sawers, has at least tried to be a little more specific in pointing out that increased Russian aggression requires increased military spending. In other words, “we’re going to have to spend more on our defence and our security because the threats are greater.” It is easy to believe that establishment figures would rather ramp up the tension of this situation rather than consider the diplomatic and strategic mismatch between the west and Russia which has brought us to this juncture. What is less easy to comprehend, however, is how someone like Sawers could realistically believe that embarking on a new arms race could be to anyone’s benefit.
But we can glimpse the true rationale behind this mentality in the words of the US army chief of staff, General Raymond Odierno, quoted in the Guardian this weekend as being “very concerned” about reports of Britain’s falling military expenditure as % of GDP. In particular, Odierno states that the spending concerns are about “having a partner that has very close values and the same goals as we do.” Herein lies the truth of the matter. Having the predominant military position on the world stage is essential to neoliberal capitalism, and the burden of this position should be shared by ideological allies. As western capital goes in search of new markets, inputs of production and investments, corporations are required to operate in regions which can be hostile to their interests. The growth of globalisations and the spread of the multinational corporation therefore rely on the support of the state to open foreign markets and demand that the rights of western investors are upheld. Since the early days of the British Empire it has been hard to see the spread of western capitalism and increasing military intimidation as being anything other than inextricably linked.
Within any powerful state, military spending is about much more than just defence. Certainly it is about defending the right to export the west’s prevailing ideologies regardless of opposition. Likewise, it is about supporting the interests of the entrenched military establishment (a powerful lobbying force in most western countries). But it is also about seeking moral justification for domestic ideologies and policy objectives. The benefit of having a high profile and visible enemy like Russia is that it allows the west to claim a moral justification in defending ‘liberty’, which simultaneously adds legitimacy to pursuing associated national interests. The spread of the hyper-globalisation agenda and free market capitalism therefore becomes caught up in a proclaimed fight for freedom.
The arguments emerging from the right in their demands for increased militarisation are blatantly ridiculous. One proposal has emerged in which Britain’s aid budget would never be allowed to surpass 35% of its defence budget. A military lackey going by the name of Admiral Lord West of Spithead told The Times that “defence is more important than overseas aid. If you get your defence and security wrong, you can forget about education, welfare, national health service, everything because the country is stuffed.” This type of inverted logic is ever-present in the defence debate, with the myth that social gains are meaningless if national security is at risk. The possibility that national security policies might be to blame in inflaming tensions which then undermine social progress is usually absent from this narrative. Diplomacy based on mutual respect may seem a more logical way to bridge widening ideological gaps across the globe but this is precisely why parts of the establishment will always prefer the threat of military force – it uses intimidation to bring other nations in line with its neoliberal ideology rather than show the enlightenment to live in harmony with others. What is rarely appreciated by the military neocons is that for most people, security is about food, shelter and safety within the community, and not military posturing at the national level.
The current situation in the Ukraine is hugely concerning and Russia must shoulder most of the responsibility for the crisis. But there is no immediate threat of war spreading across the continent and NATO has already acknowledged that it cannot intervene directly in this conflict. The only road left open therefore is diplomacy, and not the beginning of a new arms race. There is no need for increasing military expenditure, unless of course it fuels other agendas.
We currently live in an age in which the capital fetishism of neoliberal governments has allowed large banking institutions to push the world into the financial abyss, with the very same institutions then being given state money to begin the process all over again. At the same time, programmes of austerity that have placed the burden of balancing the books squarely on the shoulders of the poorer and more vulnerable members of society. All the while, we are repeatedly told that there is just not enough money to increase social spending to reasonable levels in many European countries. So can it really be possible that there is justification to maintain or increase military spending to over 2% of GDP, as demanded by NATO? From a humanitarian standpoint, surely not, but from a neoliberal standpoint…absolutely.