Why We Still Need the Military

A common theme to be heard when talking about the armed forces in Europe and America is that we spend too much money on them. "Where's the enemy?" someone I know asked. The answer is often along the lines of "the only enemies we have are ones made up by the military industrial complex to give itself a reason for existing." Since this spending is unnecessary, so the reasoning goes, the money would be much better spent elsewhere.

While there is probably scope to cut spending in America, which spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined, the idea that much too much is spent on the armed forces in general is flawed. America only spends about 4% of its GDP on the military, less than it spent during the Cold War and much less than a great deal of other countries. Military expenditures in Europe have also been declining for decades as a percentage of GDP.

All very well, you might say, but why even have a military at all? It may come as a surprise that the first reason, while perhaps the most obvious, is the less important one: there are enemies. Just think of Iran and North Korea. Ask Eastern European countries how they feel about Russia, and they will tell you they are still nervous about its influence and its sheer capabilities. But aren't we just making these enemies? If world leaders were younger and more female, the world would surely be a better place (someone recently argued this to me).

This brings me to the second, and more important, reason why we still need a military: stability. Whether Iran is an enemy or a friend is something that can change over time. Surely no person of sound mind would argue that Iran, in the sense of Iranians themselves, are the "enemy." The primary driving force behind the existence of militaries is not, as many believe, a desire for power. The quest for power is more of a byproduct of the actual cause: fear. How do we know what the intentions of any given state are? In a changing world, how can we be sure that these intentions will not change? The world is an anarchic place. There is no global police force that will come help countries if they are attacked by others. Just look at Georgia. The UN cannot fill this role and was never designed to be able to. It is a club of nation-states and cannot rise above them.

This policing role has fallen to certain countries over the centuries. Britain had it until WWI, the United States has taken it on since WWII. "But who says the world wants the US to go around policing it? How arrogant!" Yup, I've heard that (and indeed, as a younger man, have said it myself), too. In fact, the US tried to just mind its own business and let everyone get on with their own business. The problem was, Britain had been keeping order but wasn't able to after WWI. The result? WWII. There was no one there to check German power or make European countries feel more secure. The US learned from this. Since WWII, it has been committed to providing stability, at first focusing on Europe, and now, increasingly, on Asia.

Take Japan. Japan has not spent much on its military, freeing it to spend money on social programs and the like. All very nice for Japan. The reason it has felt safe enough to do this, however, is because the US has long guaranteed its security. China is increasing its military spending and has an enormous population. This makes Japan nervous. For now, however, the US has the capability to make Japan (and South Korea and others) feel secure enough. If the US were to withdraw from Asia, those countries would look at the regional giant, China, and know that China could really boss them around if it wanted to and they, as much smaller countries without credible militaries, would be able to do little about it.

The point is not that China is the enemy (nor even that Iran is). The point is that China is (becoming) powerful. Will it remain peaceful? Will is always respect others wishes, even if contrary to its own needs? It might. The historical record indicates otherwise, however. The US provides stability, for now, in an uncertain world. Its military is needed to do that. We may think it would be nice to live in a world without militaries, but there is just no way to do that. That is not (yet) the world we live in.


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