A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Monday, 24 April 2017

Should the UK #SpendTheSix?

EDIT 2017/10/07: A claim made in this essay has been subsequently found to be untrue - specifically, that the British Empire routinely spent 7% of GDP on the military even during peace. I do not think this affects the general thrust of the argument, but it was remiss of me to make the claim without checking it at the time - and I apologise for this - and would be even more remiss of me were I to let it go uncorrected.

Sabisky's campaign for the UK to #SpendTheSix - that is, to spend 6% of our GDP on the military - gained some mainstream coverage today when he presented a short film defending it for the Daily Politics show on BBC2. I've tweeted a few times about it before, generally positively, so I feel I should express my misgivings too. Hence this post, setting out in brief what I see as the best case for #SpendTheSix, and why it might be problematic.

Isn't this proposal utterly ridiculous?
It's bold and eccentric, but I don't think it's ridiculous. True, 6% is more than any other developed nation, in most cases by a long way - most European countries spend under 2%, the mighty US military consumes only 3.3% of the world's largest economy. Even Israel, threatened on several sides, spends only 5.4% of GDP on the military (although in less peaceful decades gone by, the figures was considerably higher).

But by historical standards, it's not at all unprecedented. Typical practice during the days of the old Empire, as best we can tell, was to spend around 7% of GDP on the military. True, back then Britain was exercising global influence if not dominance, whereas we can now hope to be at best a second-rate power. But the point is hopefully made: 6%, while high by peacetime standards, is not utterly ridiculous from a historical perspective.

What does this have to do with defending the United Kingdom and its interests?
I'll be honest: not a great deal. The UK faces no imminent danger of invasion by any foreign power, and protection of UK business abroad is a service to big business whose cost there is no particularly good reason for passing on to the taxpayer. Terrorism is a salient threat to the UK, but not a very dangerous one, representing a trifling number of domestic deaths each year. (Moreover, the stated aim of Jihadism in Europe is to separate European powers from the US, so it is at least plausible that a more isolationist UK would not suffer Islamic terrorism at all).

If you see the purpose of Her Majesty's Government as being the promotion of British interests, you should probably favour lower defence spending. I do not hold such a view however, being rather more cosmopolitan in my moral perspective.

So why should we #SpendTheSix?
There are two plausible reasons in favour. First, liberalism is an ideal worth fighting to defend and indeed spread. Forcing countries to be more peaceful and liberal is not oppressing them, as anti-colonial activists would claim: rather, it is preventing local elites from oppressing their fellow countrymen. Compelling Egypt by force to adopt liberalism would be no more an attack on Egyptian freedom and self-determination than preventing Serbians from killing Bosnians and Albanians (or at least trying to do so, and not very hard) was an attack on Yugoslavian freedom and self-determination.

Second, one can appeal to the importance of collective self-defence between the countries of NATO. Estonia and Latvia in particular are threatened by Russian expansionist nationalism, and our current best estimates are that, even with the NATO forces currently stationed in these countries, they would be overrun within a mere 36 hours. These countries cannot defend themselves, so it is our duty to aid them - which requires a larger defense budget.

Two other points fold into this. Firstly, the EU in general is very poorly equipped to handle a Russia that goes properly on the warpath: the only significant EU militaries are those of the UK and France. (On paper, the German army is numerically very large; however it is - and has been for many years - poorly funded, poorly supported among the public, and known for drunkenness more than competence). Given that the UK is currently in dire need of both goodwill and bargaining chips with the rest of the EU, pledging towards the military defence of the Balkan states is a genuine way in which UK interests may be served through higher military spending.

Secondly, if Russia actually does go on the warpath, we will very likely be spending rather more than 6% of GDP on the military. During WWI, UK defence spending peaked at around 47% of GDP; during WWII, it at one point exceeded 50%. I doubt we would go so high again, but it would not be at all astonishing to see perhaps 15-20% of GDP going to the fighting of a major war. Putin starting a war in the Balkans is unlikely, but genuinely possible, and it will be easier to mobilise properly if we already have a large and well-established military program.

Then what's the problem?
If, several centuries ago, you had asked me to make the case for Britain colonising various parts of the world, the argument I would have made would not be so very different from the arguments above. I would have stressed the need to spread liberalism, common law, and individual self-ownership across the world - in contrast to Napoleonic civil law, Chinese absolutism, and a whole host of tribal despotisms. This is not a modus tollens of the argument: the British Empire remains, among non-Britons, underrated. (Among Brits, it is of course vastly overrated).

But it should give us pause that despite the existence of people making such arguments - John Stuart Mill, Rudyard Kipling, arguably John Locke - the actual considerations which motivated it were self-interested, and practice reflected this. Cecil Rhodes talked a fine talk about how we were spreading civilisation and governing other peoples for their own good, and I daresay he believed it - the Rhodes Scholarship and his advocacy of the Cape to Cairo Railway are both pretty consistent with such a view - but do we really think that, in his heart of hearts, he passed the Glen Grey Act (which displaced numerous black farmers) or escalated the Second Boer War because he honestly thought it would be good for the natives? I don't think so.

Similarly, we can point to numerous figures back home, from a range of periods including the last decades of the Empire, who advocated deliberate maintenance of colonial poverty in order to enrich Britain. Britain does not bear sole responsibility for the continuation of grinding poverty in India - Gandhi and Nehru bear as much blame, if not more - but British imperialism in India is certainly nothing to be proud of.

Similarly, one can defend British militarism on universalistic grounds of the promotion of liberal democracy and peace and freedom and all that, and it's not that the argument is wrong. It's that in practice, there is a severe danger of providing intellectual cover for people who have thoroughly despicable goals in mind. Mill's defence of colonising barbarous peoples wasn't wrong, morally speaking, but it was deeply naive about the way in which colonialism was practiced.

This is not at all a knockdown argument. Firstly we are (I think?) more moral than we were 150 years ago, so one would expect a British military publicly justified by universalistic values to stick more closely to those values than did the military of the old Empire. Second, while the British Empire was in many ways an awful thing, it is far from clear that the world was left worse off for it: apart from the places which clearly benefited from it (e.g. Hong Kong), the years 1815-1914 were by historical standards remarkably peaceful. But one should not advocate such policies without at least some unease.

Also, why specifically six per cent?
No idea. Ask Sabisky.

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