Thursday, April 4, 2019

Brexit, the European Union and Historical Crossroads

Brexit, the European Union and Historical Crossroads

The United Kingdom voted in favor of revoking its membership in the European Union. The process for implementing that vote is now in shambles. It is anyone’s guess how the process will finally play out. The deal that PM May negotiated with the E.U. admittedly falls short of the goals of Brexiteers. And, the idea of Brexit is equally regrettable in terms of a rational vision for geopolitical trends. Open borders, trade and peaceful coexistence remain, at least in my view, worthy destinations. Yet, if we analyze the way the E.U. has evolved, we can recognize crucial failures. The E.U. has passed numerous crossroads in its rendezvous with history and has fallen short consistently.

What were these crossroads and how do I define the EU’s failures? First, here is a list of what I consider to be the key issues and then following I will provide some analysis of each.
1. The creeping process toward a transition from a customs agreement toward political union.
2. The introduction of the common currency without establishing an institutional framework first.
3. The expansion of the E.U. into Eastern Europe in the wake of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and Comecon.
4. The response to the debt crisis which hit the peripheral countries of the Eurozone after the 2008 financial meltdown.

Creeping toward Union
Sadly the EU has become increasingly bureaucratic and less responsive to direct democracy. The direction of the EU’s structure and policies has been toward ever closer union and ever greater control over laws, national budgets and taxation. And yet, there has been far too little preparation and open discussion to educate the populace to fully embrace this course. Few referenda were held to endorse the course toward union. When referenda were held the results were mildly in favor (petite oui) or negative. When several nations rejected aspects of the process, they were asked to vote again. What has transpired, as a consequence, is what I have called a creeping transition toward political union with little or no regard to public opinion. This is not the appropriate way to build a consensus in favor of a new emergent super state. The result has been a backlash against the EU and in favor of nationalism. This backlash to a large degree explains the UK vote to leave the EU. But, such backlash is visible in numerous other countries as well.

The structure of EU institutions is indicative. The major bodies that govern the union are three, The European Council, The European Commission and The European Parliament. Major strategic decisions are under the purview of The Council. This is a body which meets quarterly or more frequently to resolve crises. It is composed of the heads of member states plus an appointed President (currently MrTusk) and the President of The Commission. The heads of state are of course democratically elected. However, delegating strategic decisions to this moderate sized gathering removes those decisions one additional level away from participatory democracy. The Commission is where the EU bureaucracy really thrives. All of the members of The Commission are politically appointed and not elected directly. Yet, it is within the Commission that policy questions are researched, debated and formulated for adoption. The third body, that of the European Parliament, is the sole institution within the EU that is elected directly by the people. However, this institution is the least powerful of the three. Something is amiss here and it is common knowledge. As a result participation in elections to the European Parliament is always less than participation in national elections. And this is the case across the board.

The Common Currency
The Euro was introduced after years of planning in 1999 as a virtual currency and in 2002 in the form of notes and coins across the group of nations adopting it. Despite the planning, there have been serious adverse consequences. Economists immediately pointed out two flaws. First, it is inadvisable to implement a common currency without having first established adequate institutions in support. The EU began building those institutions after the fact rather than having them established and fully operational before hand. Second, the use of a common currency would be problematic without having achieved economic conversion and providing backstop safety nets such as a single insurance scheme for unemployment benefits and integrated pension plans.

The Maastricht Treaty was supposed to be the antidote to these shortcomings. The Maastricht agreement required that countries joining the Euro should demonstrate a competitive level of economic development. The countries were also have a debt to GDP ratio of less than 60%, annual deficits below 3% and tamed inflation rates. Again economists pointed out flaws. They noted that individual countries going through recessions would be in a straight jacket, unable to respond to their economic doldrums through a flexible fiscal policy. When the Euro was finally introduced not only had the EU failed to address these limitations, it relaxed the criteria for economic conversion and admitted countries with vastly disparate levels of economic development. In hindsight today it is sadly easy to see that economists criticisms and predictions have proven to be accurate. (More on this issue below.)

EU Expansion
In 1990 the Warsaw Pact disintegrated. Gorbachev’s attempt to implement Glasnost and to reform the Soviet Union and its allied states failed. The Berlin Wall was torn down and governments across Eastern Europe collapsed. This event presented a political opportunity as well as a humanitarian responsibility. There was a clear need to provide economic support to allow the countries of Eastern Europe to stabilize politically and to transition to more efficient modes of production and economic organization. To a degree the EU did respond to the challenge. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) was set up to support investment and the transfer of expertise. A few of the countries have made relatively successful transitions.

On the geopolitical level, however, the EU failed miserably. When German unification went ahead the US and the Russian Federation agreed to permit reunification with the understanding that NATO would not expand to the east. This was a perfectly sensible agreement. It was time for a peace dividend after decades of Cold War. And yet that agreement was ignored. The US pushed and the EU caved. As the EU began the process of expanding into Eastern Europe it required new applicant nations to join NATO first and then begin the process to join the EU. From the US perspective America was seizing an opportunity to expand its empire. But from the EU perspective this was acquiescence pure and simple. The EU squandered the opportunity to spend the peace dividend.

During this period a significant policy debate ensued within the EU. The idea of political union was already on the table and being discussed. Everyone at the table, however, knew that the transition to political union would be difficult. At precisely the same time the need to respond to the political vacuum in Eastern Europe arose. The result was a debate over whether to expand the marketplace or to deepen the union among existing EU members. Deepening the Union was to include efforts to establish an independent foreign policy. As we reflect on this debate today it is not difficult to discern that the EU decided to do both simultaneously, but both haphazardly. And worst of all, the EU decided to accept the continuation of life under the wing of the American Empire. All discussion of creating an independent foreign policy remained just that, discussion.

Debt Crisis on the Periphery
In 2008 global capitalism was rocked by the subprime mortgage loan crisis in the US. The cause was a complete failure in banking supervision. As ripples ensued across markets and borders, the EU faced its own crisis. The introduction of the Euro had created the expectation that national economies within the Eurozone would converge. (Recall from comments earlier that the Euro was introduced without adequate infrastructure and despite disparate economic development.) As a consequence debt markets in Europe did converge with interest rates across the Eurozone moving toward parity. This decline in interest rates in peripheral economies produced an explosion of debt. Then, when markets crashed over US subprime debt, the ensuing lack of liquidity in European markets led to a second thought on economic conversion. It suddenly became painfully clear that economic conversion had not occurred. Instead peripheral economies had simply become over indebted.

Capital and investment across the Eurozone should have been recycled to establish sustainable economic development across the zone. Instead liquidity had recycled as debt across the zone producing a sovereign debt crisis, Europe’s own subprime problem. Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy and later Cyprus all displayed various symptoms of an over extension of debt within their national economies, whether private or public sector. The response from the EU was misguided and inadequate. The EU did finally set up additional institutions such as had been needed from the start, banking supervision and a European IMF (the EFSF). But the medicine administered to resolve the crisis was austerity programs. This choice was one that stemmed from the German philosophy of political economy and a fear of inflation and / or the weakening of the Euro currency. What was needed as explained above was a recycling of capital and investment to offset the debt explosion that had occurred. Instead, by implementing harsh austerity programs, capital flows shifted towards safety, i.e. back to Germany. In lieu of a Marshall Plan for the periphery, the EU implemented what was in effect a reverse Marshall Plan. The economic disparity within the Eurozone is now greater than it had been prior to introduction of the Euro. And so the crisis within the Eurozone lingers.

Summary
Certainly all of the analysis here is up for debate. My point is precisely that. All of the points above should be on the table for debate. I term the above points failures. Others may reply that they were pragmatic policy choices. Still, the fact remains that there are significant obstacles remaining within the structure of the EU. It is still an open question whether the EU can move successfully toward a stronger, deeper union. In fact it remains entirely uncertain whether the nations within the EU even want a closer union. Without political union and a true movement toward economic convergence, however, the common currency will face continuing crises in future. And unless the EU develops its own political identity and an accompanying foreign policy, it will be held hostage by US interests. It is already evident what this will mean. A hard border will exist between the EU and Russia. In future this may also apply to relations with China. And NATO will call upon the EU to support regime change wars across the Middle East and beyond.

Now, to come back to the question of Brexit, how does the above analysis help to to explain the Brexit gambit and the ensuing shambles? The Brexit vote should not have come as a surprise. Sentiments against the EU had been prevalent throughout all along. The UK had been one of the nations least inclined to political union. It had refrained from entering the common currency and steadfastly cultivated a special relationship with the US. Nonetheless, Cameron took the gamble to call a referendum. Surprise! He lost. The popular vote was marginally in favor of leave. On the other hand, as we have witnessed in voting within the House of Commons, the MPs are marginally in favor of the remain option. Hence, there is a standoff which raises additional risks to the process itself and even the future of the UK. Ideally I would like to see the UK remain within the EU. In doing so I would hope that the UK could be weaned from its special relationship with America. I would also like to see the EU reformed in favor of greater direct democracy, so that we might see progress against the failures I analyzed above. But we all must appreciate that the transition will be a long and bumpy ride.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Atheist or Agnostic

Atheist or Agnostic:
I just read an interview with the physicist Marcelo Gleiser. Several years ago I read one of his books, The Dancing Universe. I later included that book in the bibliography to my own philosophical book, The Bridge. Professor Gleiser has just been awarded the Templeton Prize and he was interviewed by Scientific American. The link to that interview is here: https:// www.scientificamerican.com/article/atheism-is-inconsistent-with-the-scientific-method- prizewinning-physicist-says/? utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=weekly- review&utm_content=link&utm_term=2019-03-27_featured-this- week&spMailingID=58849609&spUserID=NTM5ODMzNzM1MQS2&spJobID=1603563188&spRep ortId=MTYwMzU2MzE4OAS2
There are two interesting themes that Gleiser responds to in the interview. The first is from the title, which is the idea that atheism is inconsistent with the scientific method. The second is a warning that there is a danger of hubris among scientists, particularly those scientists who are seeking a ‘theory of everything.’ As it happens I dealt with both of these themes in my book, The Bridge. So, I want to take the opportunity to discuss them myself briefly.

Let me start with the second theme, the danger of hubris in science. I devoted a full chapter to this matter, On Science and Hubris. The risk is quite real. We are likely a very long way from anything remotely resembling a theory of everything. Gleiser talks about the boundary between what we know and what is beyond our current knowledge. I discussed this issue as well. In fact I coined a phrase by borrowing from a concept in contemporary physics. Astrophysicists today have discovered matter that can be detected but has not yet been seen or described. Similarly they have observed energy within the universe that they are unable at present to explain. They call these dark matter and dark energy respectively. I used this terminology to describe what we don’t yet know or understand dark knowledge. It is quite simply impossible to comprehend the relative balance between the body of knowledge we have acquired to date and the body of dark knowledge. And so, it is simply hubris to imagine that we are close to conquering the realm of dark knowledge.

The first theme on the other hand is, I think, misguided. Yes, it is true that we don’t understand all of the laws of the universe, nor all of the complexities of biology or the workings of the human brain. We can however, if we choose, understand the concepts of religious beliefs. We can trace the emergence of such beliefs within the historical period. We can read the religious and philosophical debates that took place historically over salient questions of religious belief. And, to a degree, we can speculate on the origins of concepts of gods and spirits that eventually developed into the various religions that exist today. If we examine all of these religious beliefs rigorously, we can safely say they are all demonstrably false. I would therefore argue that it is not hubris at all to state simply and with conviction that such beliefs are indeed false. Hence, if an atheist is one who rejects the beliefs currently and historically espoused by one and all existing religions, then that is an entirely defensible position. Now Professor Gleiser may counter that atheism is itself a creed. And that the atheist creed is guilty of hubris, since it stakes out an absolutist position which is based on the assumption that science has answered most of the important questions of the universe. I won’t argue with such a perspective, but I suspect that Professor Gleiser is arguing here against a straw man. I also recommend that he read my poem, Atheism, from my poetic drama, The Story of our People.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

William Stafford and the Aesthetics of Poetry

While daydreaming today I recalled a poem I had appreciated during my college years. William Stafford had visited my university and I went to hear him speak and read a few of his poems. The one that stuck with me is this one.

Traveling through the Dark
BY WILLIAM E. STAFFORD

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

I won’t attempt to explain or analyze the poem. There are plenty of sources for such exegesis. Instead I want to relate an interesting story from his talk. He told us of an experience where he sent two new poems in to two separate prestigious literary magazines. Both rejected his new poems. He received these rejections in the mail (snail mail then) on the same day. He mischievously decided to cross submit the poems again. So he sent one rejected poem to the other periodical and the second to the first. And, he told us that before leaving home on his reading and lecture tour he had received an acceptance from one of the two periodicals. He was then waiting to learn whether the second poem had been accepted as well.

This story provides an introduction to the next theme I want to address. What is it that distinguishes good from mediocre to poor quality artistic expression? The subject here is the theory of aesthetics. It is an aged philosophical question that has complex and varied perspectives. The common response that it is merely a matter of personal taste is just that, common. That view is simplistic and fundamentally flawed. Still, there is no single theory or answer that successfully addresses the multitude of perceptions regarding beauty, elegance or depth of meaning.

William Stafford confronted the problem decisively. He challenged the editors of two separate literary magazines and demonstrated that there was no unified consensus on his new poems. His poem here is another example of the disparity regarding a theory of aesthetics. Stafford’s style is deceptively simple. It is conversational as though a casual discourse, though packed with a deep punch to the gut. This style had been abandoned by modern poetic movements. Poets had decades earlier embraced the emerging styles of modern painting with distorted perspectives and collages of images. (Think of Picasso’s paintings.) There was a conscious attempt to emulate such paintings and to express ideas through verses encompassing a complex weave of dreamlike images and shifting scenes. I don’t mean to say that modern poetry is less meaningful or elegant than more traditional poetry. Rather the point is that varying styles are simultaneously taken as successful art forms. Stafford’s poems survive as do T.S. Eliot’s and Homer’s and we cherish them all.

The central determinant is not style, but rather how the message resonates and whether the language and images provide sufficient power to support the resonance. Stafford submitted two poems to two respected editors. Both rejected his poems. But then, one editor, and possibly both, accepted the poem rejected by the previous editor. I have no way to research this hapoenstance further. It is a detail that is lost to history’s broader course. Yet, the hapoenstance was and remains instructive and significant.

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Error of US Foreign Policy

The Liberal and Neocon establishment consistently portrays global events through a false lens. We are witnessing this tactic once again these past few days over the political crisis in Venezuela. What is this bias that distorts perspectives and leads to cries for intervention? The bias is quite simple; it is the unjustified supposition that the US has the right or even the obligation to play the role of arbiter in world affairs. This bias is ever present in diplomacy and in the media. Yet, the premise is patently illegal.

Venezuela has been a thorn in US designs for two decades following the rise of Hugo Chávez through democratic elections. Chavez befriended Castro and used Venezuelan State oil revenues to promote socialist policies domestically and anti-imperial movements across Latin America. There were numerous attempts to overthrow his rule. All failed and he died in office. His successor President Maduro has continued those policies.

The media has for years portrayed Venezuela as a failed socialist experiment and its leaders as corrupt and/or incompetent. In fact Maduro has been a far less charismatic leader than Chávez. He has also lost leverage and resources due to the decline in oil prices. And he and his government may well be guilty of corruption, although the details of such charges have never been substantiated in the media, which seems to suffice in accusations in lieu of facts. Unmistakably though there is now widespread disenchantment domestically with his rule.

Now, media presentation and political dialogue in the US have openly called for the overthrow of the Maduro regime. Anyone who resists such calls is branded as a fool, a socialist sympathizer or a Russian agent. Criticism of US policy is quashed. Rational debate is obstructed. The consensus opinion promoted by the Liberal and Neocon establishment is that regime change is essential to avert a humanitarian crisis and to topple a corrupt and unpopular regime. But let’s take a small step back to reflect on the facts of the situation.

The US has already implemented economic sanctions on Venezuela. These sanctions have served to exacerbate the problems that originated with failing government policies in Venezuela and the collapse of oil prices. The sanctions that the US has imposed have punished the people in Venezuela with the intent to weaken the Maduro government. Moreover, these sanctions are immoral and illegal under international law. Two days ago a leader of the opposition in Venezuela declared himself the acting president of the country. And the US immediately recognized him (Guaidó) as the legitimate ruler. Recognition of Mr Guaidó is contrary to Venezuela’s Constitution and it is patently illegal under international law.

Of course, by pointing out these facts the media chorus and self righteous opinion leaders will shout me down. They will ask, “Do you support the corrupt Maduro government? What would you suggest, that we do nothing to help the impoverished people in the country?” And this is precisely the bias I am addressing here. The US has no legal right to take the actions it has taken. There are processes (admittedly weak) to address such political crises through the UN and other international bodies. Unilateral action and direct intervention in the internal affairs of foreign countries is not legal. Nor does the US have any moral right or obligation to do so. Perhaps I should add a biblical reference to convince the religious lobby. ‘If Maduro is guilty of mismanagement and corruption, then let the nation that is without sin cast the first stone.’ The US, despite its claims of exceptionalism, is not such a nation.

We require a new paradigm for US foreign policy. Policy should not be based on the false premise of an exceptional society that leads the world from a moral high ground. It should not be led by the financial interests of corporate and military lobbyists. The self righteous cries of liberal voices for humanitarian intervention do not have the mandate to dictate policy. The US must act openly through international organizations and not clandestinely. It has no right to play a role as an arbiter in world affairs. It has been doing so for decades without a mandate. And, it continues to propagate the myth that it has assumed this role reluctantly out of responsibility to an international status quo and in support of democratic freedom and economic progress. Let’s write a new paradigm based in self criticism and upon international law.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Jeffrey Sachs on Foreign Policy

Jeffrey Sachs, renowned economist, has done something unimaginable. He has written a book on US foreign policy that is knowledgeable as well as candid and honest. For an academic of his stature to produce such an open and factual critique of US policy is indeed a courageous undertaking.
For those of us with a keen interest in foreign affairs Professor Sachs new book, Toward a New Foreign Policy / Beyond American Exceptionalism, is a most welcome gem. He acknowledges what a small minority of concerned citizens and a growing chorus of foreign people and pundits have known for quite some time. US foreign policy is aggressive, militaristic and very frequently crosses the line to crimes of war.
He makes a crucial argument to distinguish between wars of necessity and wars of choice. Most of the conflicts the US has been engaged in since WWII have been wars of choice. They were not essential to national security. Rather they were choices made with the intent to influence the global geopolitical status quo. The US tends to choose conflict over diplomacy and negotiation. He demonstrates such analyses through the Vietnam conflict and through recent conflicts in the Middle East.
Such views are rarely, if ever, heard through the media. And equally these views are rarely expressed by prominent professors, with the exception of Chomsky of course. So, Professor Sachs has indeed shown commendable courage. One can only hope that his message will be widely read and appreciated. Hopefully he will not be shunned and relegated to ‘romantic’ status to become a marginal voice like the rest of us discontents.
My recommendation is simple. Please read this book. Think through what Sachs is saying. Don’t reject his analysis because it is contrary to usual story lines. Everything he says is well documented and factual. There is nothing exceptional about the US as a nation. It has conducted policy from the very beginning as an aggressor, from the genocide of Indian tribes to Manifest Destiny, to today’s imperial quest.
I have only minor criticisms of the book. The first is what I have already expressed, that readers will reject an unfamiliar opinion as wrong and unpatriotic. My second issue is that, while Sachs presents the historical facts over the decades and does not shy from taking sequential Presidents to task, he is overly kind to JFK. In this favoritism he is, I think, mistaken. Finally, as an economist Sachs reflects upon the link between economic and foreign policies. To be sure US economic policy is equally flawed. However, I fear that Sachs’ views on economic policy are too evidently liberal. So, here again I fear his message on foreign policy may be dismissed by virtue of his partisan sounding views on the economy.
In summary this book is a must read and Sachs’ analysis on foreign policy is a must consider and reflect.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

John McCain and History

Senator John McCain is dead. Many are praising him today and saluting him anew as a war hero. While I disagree with such sentiments, as a humanist I will not respond with hateful slurs against him personally. Hopefully, again as a humanist, I may manage to reflect upon his legacy with compassion and a measure of forgiveness. But I feel compelled to respond to the widespread praise afforded him during the course of his career and again now following his death.


Tributes to Senator McCain were first awarded due to his imprisonment in (North) Vietnam after his plane was shot down during Operation Rolling Thunder. McCain was then an Air Force pilot. He had flown multiple missions and had bombed targets within the North. None of those praising his heroism during captivity reflect honestly upon his bombing missions prior to being shot down. Yet thousands of innocent Vietnamese civilians were killed by such bombing. The history of the Vietnam conflict is now well understood. We should all condemn the US role in the war and the extensive bombing campaign.


The Vietnam war, which the US conducted reputedly in defense of democracy, was an injustice from the outset. France had held Indochina as a colony prior to WWII. The French abandoned the colony at the outbreak of war. Ho Chi Minh led a national resistance movement during the war against Japanese occupation. (Yes, he was connected with the international communist movement, but he also received support from the US during the war years.) Following the war the French felt entitled to return to Indochina and resume their colonial rule. They were indeed supported in their effort by the US, despite the prevailing trend toward national liberation. The result was the French-Vietnamese war which ended in the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The war ended with a treaty signed in Geneva whereby the French troops would depart. The country was to be temporarily divided for a period of two years following which national elections would be held to unify the country. Those elections were never held. By all accounts the political party headed by Ho would have won in a landslide. However, the elections were cancelled by a corrupt South Vietnam regime with the support of the US. Later the US became increasingly involved through escalations by Kennedy and Johnson against the democratic will of the people of a Vietnam. 


McCain and other airmen and soldiers accepted their roles. Some will say they were simply following orders. Others will say that at the time the full knowledge of events had yet to become commonly known. But what about the Geneva Conventions? The whole point is that soldiers and citizens have a responsibility to defy orders, when necessary. The bombing of North Vietnam was an historical injustice if not an outright crime. Again, even though some will insist that the historical judgment was not yet available, the enormous damage and loss of innocent lives due to the bombing should have been perfectly clear to the pilots involved. Pity that Yossarian was absent from the missions. Perhaps he might have convinced the squadrons to drop their bombs in the Gulf of Tonkin rather than on a poor farming village to reduce the natural foliage as well as the village to ashes. John McCain chose to accept his mission. He repeatedly bombed civilian targets before his plane was shot down.


During his career in Congress McCain continued to support military adventurism. It seems he never had regrets or second thoughts. He was unquestionably one of the key supporters, if not one of the architects, of the ‘modern’ war strategy where the US uses air power and bombing to achieve political goals. This strategy is the logical consequence of the bombing campaign conducted in Vietnam from 1965 through the end of the war. The strategy is now enhanced by the myth of precision bombing with limited ‘collateral damage.’ Yet it remains an immoral practice, if not a war crime. Representatives in Congress, like John McCain, never raise objection. They all seem to unquestioningly support the corporate goals of an unchecked military industrial establishment clothed in the continuing slogan that we are supporting democracy internationally. And the Press and Media fail to exercise their true mandate; to investigate and report the facts. Rather they have chosen to embed themselves with the military. Those embedded media outlets now praise Senator McCain as a war hero. The facts tell different story.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Military Expenditure: The Hard Numbers

CNN recently published an article on its website in relation to Trump’s aggressive stance against NATO allies who have failed to meet the agreed spending target of 2% of GDP. The article includes two charts. The first chart shows spending among the NATO members as a percentage of GDP. This chart is directly related to the text of the article. It also addresses the issue that Trump (as prior Presidents had) raised at the NATO summit. The second chart shows total military expenditure for the top ten countries in the world. This second chart is highly illuminating and yet the article fails to address it at all. Hence there is an unwritten article that begs to be composed and published.
The US spending on military readiness dwarfs that of all nations worldwide. As many have stated before (yet surprisingly few have heard), the US spends roughly twice the amount of all the countries in the world combined. How can such levels of defense spending be justified? Why does Congress continue to approve huge budgets for military spending, while bemoaning the general trend in deficit spending? What is the rationale? Before entertaining these questions, however, let’s briefly analyze two other details which raise bright red flags. Let’s reflect on the comparative levels of defense spending by Russia and China.
Throughout the Cold War, US politicians vilified the Soviet Union and justified ever increasing defense spending as a bulwark against Soviet expansion. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, military spending in Russia has declined quite dramatically. Today, Russia spends far less than many other nations—less, in fact, than Saudi Arabia, according to CNN’s chart. Yet military leaders and the press continue to paint Russia as a major threat to the free world. Of course, Russia does still maintain a large nuclear arsenal. But given the condition of its economy and its oil dependence, Russia will evidently pose an ever decreasing threat.
China, on the other hand, has been dramatically increasing its defense spending. It is the only nation that even remotely looks as though it could conceivably challenge the US in the future. Prior to the NATO summit President Trump chastised Germany for its purchase of natural gas from Russia. He claimed Germany was thus enhancing Russian coffers, while Germany itself spent too little on its own defense. Is there an analogy here to the US trade deficit with China? The trade deficit enriches China, which appears to be the sole nation that might challenge the US. Both the President and the press talk about the trade deficit with China, but only in economic terms. They rarely, if ever, link the trade deficit to military concerns. In reality, as the chart clearly shows, neither China (at less than half of US defense spending) nor Russia in any way challenge US military expenditure. The reality is that at past and current levels of military spending the US has no serious challenge. And yet the US continues to spend at ever increasing levels. Where is the peace dividend? Why shouldn’t it be possible for the US to reduce spending? Why are politicians and the Press leading public opinion in the direction of new Cold War confrontations? What is the justification for spending policies?
The standard justifications for military spending are heard again and again. The US needs to ensure a heightened military readiness in order to maintain the status quo in world affairs, to protect its global interests, to defend democracy and open economies against the challenges to the global order and the international community. To that end there are endless warnings of threats from Russia, Iran, North Korea, and others. Yet the reality as anyone can see from the spending chart is that these threats are fallacious. The threat is hugely overblown.
A second line of justification following the 9/11 tragedy is the threat of terrorism. This subject is very complex and emotionally charged. But one point is clear. Terrorists don’t have a standing army that can threaten the US or its allies. The attacks on 9/11, in Paris and London, however appalling, cannot successfully undermine Western civilization. Furthermore, the style of military expenditure that the US continues to pursue is of little help in combating the spread of terrorism. The most serious potential threat from terrorism would be the capture of nuclear weapons or nuclear materials by terrorist groups or sympathizers. This scenario is frequently noted by supporters of military and intelligence readiness. It is a major argument in favor of a hard line stance against Iran and North Korea. But, action against those two nations selectively is wholly insufficient to counter a potential terrorist threat. Pakistan has nuclear weapons and it has a long border with a failed state (Afghanistan) as well as its own domestic terror groups. The US and NATO have a large cache of nuclear weapons in Turkey. And Turkey, given the direction of its domestic politics, could be at risk in the future. Hence, the effort to limit and secure nuclear weaponry from terrorist groups is in no way, shape or form comprehensive. Rather efforts are selective and taken solely against so called rogue nations.
Apparently neither of the typical justifications for military expenditure holds water. (Or should I say board water?) Clearly we need to look deeper, more analytically, to discover the true reasons behind the incomparable levels of US military expenditure? Two come directly to mind. First, by continuing such levels of expenditure, the US is investing in the defense of its position as global hegemon. US citizens generally find this accusation baseless. They prefer to believe that the US is a beneficent power in world affairs. But numbers don’t lie. A well-meaning, beneficent power would not need such grossly incomparable levels of military expenditure. Dramatic reduction in spending (cashing a peace dividend) coupled with negotiations, diplomacy and soft power would certainly prove more effective. The second reason is that irrational levels of expenditure are supported by the military industrial establishment. I find it odd that President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican and a man with a military background, warned against such a danger and yet few heeded his warning. But why does the US electorate fail to focus on the problem? The enormous power of large corporations is evident. The widespread activity of lobbyists is well known. What are lobbyists anyway, if not an institution of legalized corruption? Again, numbers don’t lie. In fact there can be no reasonable justification for the levels of military expenditure that the US sustains. I posit that even global domination could be supported at lower levels of expenditure. But, of course, lower expenditure levels would mean lower corporate profits for the defense industry.