US decline: a military calculus

Russia's threat is overrated, China's challenge is real – and Trump a mere bob on history's wave.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
3 January 2019

Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong on the lunar surface on Sunday, July 20, 1969. 50 years on? Consolidated Nasa/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Around this time of year, many leading military journals will publish a sort of 'year-in-review' article, often pointing to new threats and almost always implying the need to increase military spending. Some, even if still establishment-centred in their analysis, do tend to be more balanced, and one of the most interesting in this regard is the United States magazine, Aviation Week and Space Technology. What gives it the edge here is that military issues form just one component of the publication's remit, the greater part being commercial aviation and space research. 

The latest annual review in AvWeek, published in its 24 December 2018 issue, also looks forward in assessing prospects for 2019. The country-by-country examination, with its estimates for military spending (both as overall figures and as a percentage of GDP) is fascinating from the start.   

This kind of detailed exercise is often less straightforward than it seems, for states can vary in their gathering of statistics and political factors (leading to over- or underestimates alike) may confuse matters. Furthermore, military power does not necessarily equate to military prowess, the failed western wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya being recent examples. Neither the Taliban nor al-Qaida/ISIS could be categorised as global military forces, yet the actions of their lightly armed paramilitaries against hugely more powerful western coalitions represent far more than a peripheral impact.

But even allowing for such factors, the figures do contrast markedly with what might be expected – if, that is, we listen only to the incessant demands for larger war budgets from western politicians and most of the western media. Here is a useful collection from AvWeek:

Probable 2019 defence spending / Percent of GDP 

United States     $716 bn  /  3.7
United Kingdom $47.5bn / 2.1
France               $40.5bn / 1.8
Germany           $49.1bn / 1.3
Russia               $44bn /   2.8
China                $224bn / 1.9
India                  $55.2n /  2.5
Japan                $47bn /   0.9

Immediately, two issues arise. The first is the immense US military budget at 3.7% of GDP. Its size and impact reflect a huge economy with an influential military-industrial complex, as well as the pervasive culture of a warrior nation (see "A war-promoting hydra", 24 May 2018).

The second is that three substantial European powers (the UK, France and Germany) are all in the $40-50 billion bracket – but where Russia might be expected (given so much reporting and rhetoric) to be nearer the US figure, the stark reality is that it can barely match any of these three, or even Japan or India. Yet this should not really be surprising: Russia is only eleventh in terms of world GDP, and about to be overtaken by South Korea.

The real world test

How, then, can Russia be so easily portrayed as a global threat to freedom? Three  factors are responsible, the first and most important being cultural memory on both sides. Russia’s predecessor, the Soviet Union of the cold-war years and leading state of the Warsaw Pact bloc, incorporated or dominated many states that are now independent. Even then, this “evil empire” as Ronald Reagan called it still had barely half the economic clout of the Nato states, but it was greatly more powerful than today's Russia.

The second factor is that Russia does indeed retain substantial nuclear forces, cleverly employs multiple hybrid-warfare tactics, and actively prevents further Nato expansion towards its borders. Its stance over Crimea and eastern Ukraine shows Moscow's determination to preserve the old Soviet idea of the state's “near abroad”. Again, however, it is not a conventional military force of anything like Nato's extent, and the idea that Moscow is the only state involved in hybrid warfare is frankly laughable (see "Putin's wargame: behind the smoke", 23 September 2018).

The third factor is that Vladimir Putin’s desire to, as it were, 'make Russia great again' does serve a very useful role for its own military-industrial complex, and even more so for its opposite number in the west. Russia's president will certainly divert spending to the Russian arms industry whenever the economy allows; equally, the western arms system uses this as a valuable counter in sustaining the argument for ever more military outlay

After all, the relative drought years of the early 1990s – with no global enemy worth the name – are long gone. Now, however, there isn't just one, or even two, but three! Al-Qaida / ISIS, Russia and China are all up there, which brings us in turn to the People's Republic of China itself.

Beijing's current rate of growth is well below the 10%-plus levels of a decade or so ago, but at around 6.9% it is still far higher than most western states. Its years of rapid expansion have seen it closing steadily on the United States: now $14.1 trillion to the US's $20.4 trillion, though its per-capita military spending is still lower than the US and its annual budget around a third of Washington's. 

China too is engaged in a wide-ranging modernisation of its whole military system, its aim to become the dominant regional power and thus end the post-cold-war era of the Pacific and Indian Oceans as de facto “American lakes”. China is already way ahead of Russia, whose Soviet-era Pacific fleet is a shadow of its former self, but it does not currently plan for much in the way of strategic or tactical nuclear expansion.   

Instead, China looks to conventional forces to counter US sea power, especially the US carrier-battle groups. It is conducting substantial research and development into a range of stand-off weapons, including hypersonic missiles. The intent is to limit US power in the region but not to seek global military parity, at least in the next decade or so.  This brings the key issue into focus when it comes to world military trends: less how the United States reacts to China's ambition, rather than to a Russian peril seen in hyperbolic terms. 

Many progressives ended up being disappointed with the Barack Obama years as a lost opportunity for the United States to rethink its place in the world. But Obama was president at a time when the US, having enjoyed nearly two decades of global supremacy, was then at the start of several decades of relative decline. Trump is trying to reverse that but will probably fail, and could make matters much worse. Who comes after him, two or six years from now, will face an immense challenge. After all, it is worth remembering that Britain has still not faced up to its own imperial decline more than a century after it started.

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