A New Global Arms Race
Is the world more dangerous than ever before? You might read a columnist or hear a presidential candidate make the assertion that it is. But how do you prove the truth of it? One trend that gives a good indication is military spending.
In 2011, the world was spending nearly as much on its military as it was at the height of World War ii. We have remained around that historic peak in the years since. Even adjusted for inflation, the world is spending more than at any other time in history—during the Cold War, World War i or any other time.
It would be simplistic to say that the more money we spend on weapons, the more dangerous our world is. It also matters who is spending it. And when you look at those facts, the picture becomes even more disturbing.
Last year, Russia increased its defense budget by 8 percent; this year, it has said it wants to raise it by 15 percent. This move by Russia has prompted some dramatic jumps in European military spending.
Latvia is boosting its spending by 15 percent; Lithuania, by 50 percent. Ukraine, still warring with pro-Russian separatists—and even Russian forces—is expected to double its military spending this year.
Further west, the increases are also dramatic. Poland pledged to spend an extra $38 billion between 2013 and 2022. This year, France promised a $7 billion increase by 2019. Sweden says it will spend an extra billion. Norway and the Netherlands both announced increases in the hundreds of millions.
The most important thing about these statistics is not the numbers themselves, but the direction of the trend. For years, Europe’s militaries have been shrinking. Not anymore.
“These decisions present fundamental revisions of long-standing military spending practices in most of the countries that saw their defense budgets in more or less constant decline since the end of the Cold War,” wrote the Royal United Services Institute, a UK-based think tank. “The recent developments might therefore be regarded as being indicative of a substantial change in the countries’ defense discourse both at the political level and within the broader public debate” (May 1).
The most significant example of this is Germany.
Last year, several news outlets, including the Trumpet, noted that some German leaders were talking about increasing the defense budget. Just the fact that people were talking this way was news—for years, the goal had been to cut the budget.
At first, former Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was one of the only high-profile people calling for an increase in military spending. “It is appalling that Germany recently decided to cut military spending by about €800 million (us$1.05 billion) in 2015,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal in September 2014.
Soon after, others started joining him. The New York Times wrote that in response to the German military stumbling in operations in Iraq and Africa, German politicians were “pondering aloud the possible revision of what has long been a political no-go: raising the budget for defense spending” (Sept. 29, 2014). German defense expert Thomas Wiegold said, “Now I am being asked whether we should spend more money. That has never happened before” (ibid).
This year, the spending has begun. In March, Germany announced an €8 billion (us$9.1 billion) boost in military spending. That’s an increase of 6.2 percent. Such an increase went from unthinkable, to unpopular, to becoming reality—in around a year.
Now some Germans are calling for even more. The outgoing German Army chief of staff, for example, has called for an increase in spending of around $23 billion. The new parliamentary ombudsman for the armed forces, Hans-Peter Bartel, has called for billions more to be spent.
We see the same trend in the Middle East. There the main driver of this growth is Iran. In this year’s budget, Iran raised its defense spending by 30 percent, and the recently concluded nuclear deal could open the door to even bigger increases.
“The limits to Iran’s military expenditures have been a matter of necessity more than intent, and this necessity has been as much a result of international pressure and sanctions as the limits imposed by Iran’s gdp and its need to support a large native population,” the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote in an April 28 report. “… Iran has been subject to slowly growing and now crippling sanctions, leading to a devalued currency, significant reductions in oil exports, trade disruptions, higher inflation, and a shrinking economy ….” In other words, Iran wants to spend even more on its military, and the main thing holding it back has been the sanctions. Once those are gone, that spending is sure to rise even more.
The American Action Forum crunched some numbers and concluded that extra income made available to Iran by the deal would mean that its defense budget would rise by $10 billion to $15 billion. The group notes, “Nothing in the deal would prevent Iran from spending more than that to fund their military or terrorist organizations and authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East” (August 5).
This jump is having a big impact across the region, most dramatically in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is the world’s fourth-largest military spender. And its spending has exploded. Over just the past 10 years, it has more than doubled its military expenditure. In 2014, it rose 17 percent, the largest increase in any of the world’s big spenders.
The Saudis are set to boost their defense budget by another 27 percent over the next five years, according to ihs Jane’s Aerospace, Defense and Security. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar are also planning to up their spending. Qatari officials announced $23 billion worth of potential deals last year, in what ihs Jane’s called an “unprecedented increase in investment in the military” (June 1).
The Financial Times noted that these countries are all “seeking more advanced weaponry from the U.S. to counter what [they fear] could be an emboldened Iran” (June 2).
Over the summer, the Pentagon disclosed that Saudi Arabia wants to spend $5.5 billion on advanced Patriot missile launchers. If it follows through, it will wield enormous power in the skies above the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia was recently forced to announce cuts to government spending because of low oil prices. But even though defense spending is one third of its budget, it is not cutting that. Economic realities may still curb some of the Saudis’ ambitions, but they are placing a higher priority than ever on the military.
All these figures refer only to conventional military spending; they do not include nuclear weapons. As nations throughout the region are well aware, the Iran deal will allow Iran to get a bomb. Tehran can break the deal and rush for one now, or stick to the deal and get one legally in just a few years. This raises the specter of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
The Saudis’ desire for a bomb of their own has been well documented. In May, the Sunday Times quoted an American intelligence official as saying, “We know this stuff is available to them off the shelf.” As to whether the Saudis had decided to become a nuclear power, the official responded, “That has to be the assumption.” The Times also quoted Prince Turki bin Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to London and Washington, declaring, “Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too.”
This trend is much harder to get concrete, reliable information on. The Saudis won’t be publishing regular updates on their progress toward a bomb. But in June they did sign an agreement with Russia for civilian nuclear power development.
Related to this region is Africa, with North Africa closely connected to events in the Middle East. Here, in 2014, military spending was up 6 percent, with Algeria and Angola leading that increase.
In Asia, military spending has undergone some major shifts in the past few decades. Since 2005, it has risen 62 percent. From 2013 to 2014, it rose 5 percent.
In February 2014, consulting firm McKinsey & Company published a report, “Southeast Asia: The Next Growth Opportunity in Defense.” It said, “[A] profound shift in economic power is reshaping the global landscape of defense spending. For the first time in more than two centuries—since the start of the Industrial Revolution—the majority of the world’s economic growth took place in the developing world, driven in large part by China, India and other emerging economies.
“Emerging markets are now spending more on defense than ever before. Countries such as China, Brazil and India have doubled or even tripled their defense spending during the past two decades. Southeast Asia—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam—is now among the top defense spenders globally. These countries have collectively doubled their military spending between 1992 and 2012.”
China is the world’s second-largest military spender. In 2014, it is estimated to have spent $216 billion on its military, an increase of about 10 percent over previous years. As the McKinsey report notes, this trend began decades ago. But there is also the much more recent trend from China: its island grabbing and island building in the South China Sea.
In May, cnbc published an article titled “Asia Defense Spending: New Arms Race in South China Sea,” which said, “The Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan are beefing up their military in the face of increasingly bold incursions in the region by China. But most of that spending is not going to weapons makers in the United States.” The statistics back up cnbc’s claims.
Over the next year, Asia’s major powers are planning bigger defense increases. China plans to increase its spending by 10 percent. India is planning an 11 percent jump. At the start of this year, Japan approved its largest ever defense budget, at around $42 billion—the third straight year of increase. ihs Jane’s forecasts that the Philippines will double its spending by 2021.
This is the reality of national defense in 2015: an arms race in Eastern Europe, an arms race in the Middle East, and an arms race in Asia. Why? And why now? Why is Saudi Arabia buying up arms out of fear of Iran at exactly the same time that Poland is buying up arms out of fear of Russia? At first glance, these arms races are unconnected.
The answer to this question emerges as we consider the major power we have not looked at so far: the United States.
Here is the telling exception to the increased spending trend. In 2014, America cut its spending by 6.5 percent ($40 billion). From 2010 to 2014, America’s defense spending fell 20 percent. By the end of this year, it is expected to drop even further.
The statistics clearly show the world is entering a new era. “The projected shift in global spending figures highlights the departure from the age where one country—the United States—spent almost as much as the rest of the world combined and enjoyed a historically unique level of conventional military dominance,” explained ihs Jane’s. “Now, however, the international system is shifting to equilibrium, under which one single state does not so massively tip the scales in its own favor” (June 25, 2014).
“By 2019, for the first time in history, nato will not account for the majority of worldwide defense expenditure, having accounted for almost two thirds of global spending as recently as 2010,” it also wrote (Dec. 18, 2014).
This dramatic shift away from America’s super-dominant military spending points to the common reason behind the jump in arms spending everywhere else. America is retreating. Its allies don’t trust it. More aggressive nations around the world are becoming emboldened.
Take Europe. Russia has been acting aggressively for some time. In 2008, it invaded Georgia. This invasion, however, did not prompt an explosion in defense spending from other nations. Eastern Europeans were scared, but instead of spending more, they turned to America for help. They asked America to station missiles on their territory. These permanent bases would help guarantee that America would come to their aid if they were attacked.
America has since backed away from those missile bases. It has consistently refused to stand up to Russia. Moscow recognized this as an invitation to act even more boldly. So now, it is spending more and becoming more aggressive. At the same time, Europe got the message that it cannot depend on America. After Russia invaded Ukraine, European nations looked to European planes, tanks and troops—not American ones.
The story is the same in the Middle East. America has never done enough to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb; however, by negotiating the nuclear deal this past year, it essentially made a public declaration that it will never stand up to Iran. Unsurprisingly then, Iran has become more aggressive, and Saudi Arabia and other states have concluded that they cannot trust America and had better prepare themselves for war.
This storyline is also playing out in Asia. The Chinese have watched how America dealt with Russia and with Iran and concluded that they can act aggressively without fear of America standing up to them. Other Asian nations are concluding that they cannot rely on America.
These three global arms races and the instability they are bringing are all directly caused by America’s retreat from policing the rest of the world.
This points to the most worrying aspect of the decline in America’s military spending. It is not that America needs to spend more to maintain its position as the world’s dominant military power. It does not. Even with the recent cuts, it spends more on its military than the EU, China and Russia combined.
It’s not about the money—it is about America’s attitude and outlook. America’s cuts in spending are worrying because they are a symptom of a much deeper problem: In a dangerous new bout of isolationism, America is retreating from the world.
For the last two centuries, Britain and America have been a significant stabilizing force in the world. The spikes on history’s graph of global arms spending demonstrate this: British might and then American might were deployed to oppose the tyranny of Kaiser Wilhelm, Adolf Hitler, communism and radical Islam. In the latter case, much of the effort has been wasted. But history shows that these two powers have resisted civilization’s deadliest enemies.
America, however, is once again turning inward, in the same way Britain did before World War i and before and after World War ii. The Americans are done intervening.
“The world is at its most peaceful when great powers are under no illusions as to where they stand in the global pecking order,” wrote British historian Andrew Roberts in his book A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900.
America’s retreat has some nations thinking that now is their chance for a shot at the top spot. Others see the instability on the horizon and are preparing for it. But Britain and America do not care. The world is no longer their concern.
The post-Cold War era, and even post-9/11 era—characterized by what some have called American hyperpower—has come to an end. Not because the Americans aren’t spending hundreds of billions on their military, but because their will to lead and their will to fight is broken. This global outbreak of military spending is part of the rise of a new multipolar world, where power is not so concentrated with the United States.
Historically, the rise of Britain and America led to a lengthy era of relative peace. That era is ending right now. To understand why, read our free book The United States and Britain in Prophecy by Herbert W. Armstrong.