School starts soon – I’m taking an online elective from the Naval War College. That has nothing to do with what follows, except that I’d better get used to spending evenings readin’ and writin’ even when I don’t really feel like it, and what better way to practice than to write a blog post?
Refer back to the last post, about global defense spending. I’ll wait. There’s a wonderful graphic showing the relative scale of different countries’ defense spending, and, even with a low-resolution screengrab, it is clear that the U.S. easily dwarfs anyone else. An easy inference to draw from this is that a bit of American retrenchment on this front won’t hurt anyone.
“Bit” is the operative word here. I’d like to put in a word of caution about going much further. History offers examples of both parity and disparity in the world of peer competition. Let’s go through some numbers, after which the choice of which is better ought to be clear.
Finding information on pre-modern defense spending is difficult. But I think most people are familiar with the Great Powers, right? Think of expansionist or imperial-minded European countries – generally, this would be France, Spain, Portugal, England/United Kingdom, Russia, occasionally Sweden (which basically took over the world via ABBA) or the Netherlands, and eventually Germany and the United States.
So check out this excellent table of Great Power conflict:
|Century||Number of wars||Average duration of wars (years)||Proportion of years war was underway, percentage|
|Source: Charles Tilly. Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1990. Cambridge, Mass: Basil Blackwell, 1990. I found it online here.|
It is noteworthy that so many wars of great length were fought in the earlier years, keeping many states in an almost permanent state of war, in which the winner rarely got to take it all. The frequency and length of wars drops off in more recent times, where protracted affairs like World War II are balanced by brief conflicts like the Persian Gulf War (one month) or the Falklands War (about ten weeks).
There are, of course, many reasons for such a broad trend, but of paramount importance is the simple notion among the aggressors that they could afford to take a chance. Who would start a war in which they weren’t confident of victory?
Why were they confident of victory?
Arguably France was the most powerful single European country until the fall of Napoleon, but, that said, there was always a combination of allies that could balance it (a role England mastered as the consummate “offshore balancer”). Among the Great Powers, constantly jostling for advantage, there was nearly always a path to victory, whether through severing the enemy’s colonial ties, allying with a neighbor who sent an SOS, or invading their home soil outright. No one was so dominant that military victory over them was unthinkable.
But then something unusual happened in 1815 – Waterloo. If World War One can be called the end of the Nineteenth Century, Napoleon’s defeat can be considered its start. For it was after Napoleon’s exile to St. Helena that the United Kingdom emerged as the first true global superpower, unchallenged on the waves and able to manage a globe-girdling empire with minimal troopers and a Colonial Office of a few dozen people.
Most wars of Nineteenth Century Europe were wars of national unification, with the Crimean War as an odd exception. There are, of course, many reasons for the relative calm (not least of which, France was in utter disarray most of the century), but prominent among them was the dominance of the U.K. Whether their supremacy was genuine or merely a perception, it was a functional reality. And it is not coincidental that the Nineteenth Century was one of the longest periods of global peace in world history. Terrible conflicts did indeed rage (looking at you, ‘Murica) but they were mostly internal or on imperial frontiers, and did not threaten to engulf the world as Napoleon’s had, or as the Kaiser’s would.
While the Twentieth Century presents clear differences of bipolarity and nuclear weapons, there are still parallels between the U.S. and U.K. experiences for those who take the time to look. But knowing me and knowing you, I trust that most readers are familiar with that history and I won’t take extensive time to review it here.
In a future post we’ll examine the present day, why the U.S. is pressed to allocate so much money, money, money to defense, and why it’s probably best if, of all the countries in the world, only one of us has to do that.