Thursday, February 21, 2013

Against Ceteris Paribus Theories of International Relations, A Prelude

. Thursday, February 21, 2013

A quick hit from me, as I'm swamped with dissertation work and am also in grading purgatory. But this, via Tyler Cowen, is interesting:

Since 2008, in response to the economic downturn, most big European countries have cut defence spending by 10-15 per cent. The longer-term trends are even more striking. Britain’s Royal Air Force now has just a quarter of the number of combat aircraft it had in the 1970s. The Royal Navy has 19 destroyers and frigates, compared with 69 in 1977. The British army is scheduled to shrink to 82,000 soldiers, its smallest size since the Napoleonic wars. In 1990 Britain had 27 submarines (excluding those that carry ballistic missiles) and France had 17. The two countries now have seven and six respectively.

And yet Britain and France are commonly regarded as the only two European countries that still take defence seriously. The British point out that, even after the current round of cuts, the UK will have the fourth-largest military budget in the world. Britain is also, for the moment, one of only two European nations to meet the Nato target of devoting 2 per cent of gross domestic product to defence – the other is Greece.

The situation in most other European countries is worse – Spain devotes less than 1 per cent of GDP to military spending. And much European military spending goes on pensions or pay, not equipment. The Belgians distinguished themselves in the Libyan campaign of 2011. But about 75 per cent of Belgian military spending now goes on personnel – causing one critic to call the Belgian military “an unusually well-armed pension fund”.
Britain and France now have one aircraft carrier... combined (they share it). What this means is that the US now accounts for 50% of the world's naval power.

Why does this matter? For awhile I've been hoping to carve out time for a short article with the working title "Against Ceteris Paribus Theories of International Relations". It is intended as a retort to those who claim, based on stylized comparative statics, that US military spending is essentially wasted and therefore those funds should be re-directed either to shoring up the social welfare state or tax rebates. (As of now I'm planning on targeting John Quiggin particularly, who has made similar arguments to these in especially egregious form on numerous occasions, but the scope may broaden, narrow, or shift in some other direction at the point of writing.)

In other words, the article will argue that if the US significantly lowered its military spending the effect would be dynamic, not static: an increase in security dilemmas worldwide, which would be marked by a large and sustained increase in military spending in the non-US world. The net effect could very well be great global military spending; this would be something of a tragedy on its own, since most military spending does not go to uses which expand human dignity and well-being. But it could be worse if security dilemmas lead to arms races which spiral into conflict.

The core of the argument will be this: take away 50% of the world's naval power... do you think anything else might change? Put into the language of economics, some sectors of the economy are natural monopolies; it just wouldn't be efficient to have 100 different telephone companies putting up poles all over the place. Similarly, from the perspective of global welfare, it is probably more efficient for the US to spend disproportionately on its military. There are downsides to this, of course, similar to market monopolies. Nevertheless, the most efficient outcome is likely for the US to out-spend the rest of the world to such an extent that security dilemmas (and concomitant arms races and conflict) do not result, accepting the negatives that go along with this positive.

Anyway, that paper is roughly 20th in the queue so I'll probably never get around to it.


Vladimir said...

I think you'd have to qualify that by saying it may depend on the part of the world. In regard to Asia, specifically among US allies there, the S.Koreans, Japanese and Aussies may spend more. But Europe? I'm not sure that anyone has figured out if there isn't already an enormous redundancy built in to European defence spending. If I'm not mistaken Portugal has army. What is really the threat? You could argue that in face of budget constraints in Europe ,American disengagement may actually lead to defence integration. It's not clear that overall defence spending would have to increase once you consolidate and streamline the armed forces.
An argument could also be made that US hegemony prevents the S.Koreans and Japanese from working to find their way toward a constructive security relationship. Arms races and security dilemmas are not natural but leaned social practices. One option of many that can be pursed. Now remember to mind the mine shaft gap.

Cris Brown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kindred Winecoff said...


Maybe it wasn't clear, but the main point of the post is that things would change; my loose expectations of the specific ways in which things would change may be wrong, and yours may be correct. But if even yours were correct and mine wrong, the Ceteris Paribus way of thinking would still be invalid.

That said, I doubt Europe will have full military integration under any realistic scenario. And I very much doubt S Korea and Japan would have more cooperative ties absent US involvement. But maybe I'm wrong about that.

John Quiggin said...

AFAICT, relaxing ceteris paribus makes the argument for US cuts more robust. As the Cowen quote suggests, the obvious adjustment is that US allies will spend more, partially offsetting the US reduction. From the US viewpoint, that enhances the benefits of cutting defence, relative to a ceteris paribus analysis. And on most views of the world system, having a more even balance of military expenditure among allies would seem to be beneficial.

You presumably want a story where US cuts embolden Russia and China - other actors are so tiny that it's hard to see them thinking in terms of military power relative to US. I'd be interested to see such a story spelt out - my view is that these countries are balancing domestic resources and constraints, rather than responding to the US

John Quiggin said...

As regards aircraft carriers, this means, as I understand it, the Britain and France combined, have the same number of operational aircraft carriers as Russia and China combined (China has one that is being used for training, and Russia has an operational member of the same class - both have long and troubled histories).

That's clearly insufficient. Obviously, Romney should have campaigned on the "carrier gap"

Kindred Winecoff said...

Hi John,

I was wondering if this might catch your attention, and hoped it might. (Hence the provocation.)

I don't "want" any particular kind of story, except for one that takes dynamics seriously as a counterfactual. As I mentioned in my comment responding to Vladimir, there are a range of possibilities: increased European military integration, the erosion of R2P as an emerging norm, the formation of an E Asian alliance structure designed to balance against China, etc. Any of them, or plenty others, might be true. Part of the point is that it's hard to know, and building uncertainty into security arrangements is seldom a good idea.

(That said, Japan and ROK and Burma and others do seem pretty concerned with China's rapid increase in military spending. And some in Europe do seem pretty concerned with Russia's increase in military spending as well as its control of much of the continent's energy supply. But those certainly aren't the only possible conflagrations.)

Some of these alternative outcomes might be normatively good, others bad. The point is that *something* will happen. In your previous writings on this at CT and NI, you've seemingly been working under an assumption that nothing will change except that US military spending gets redirected to welfare programs with no other consequence. I find that unlikely. You're not the only one to write this way, but you do so repeatedly (and we've tangled on this before), which is why I singled you out.

From the US perspective, having others pick up more of the global security tab actually isn't good in a dynamic sense under all scenarios. It certainly was not during the interwar years (and we've had no examples since). Shifts in the underlying power distribution are often associated with conflict, and this is especially true when accompanied by rapid arms build-ups. In such a situation, having others pay for "security" could actually lead to insecurity; this could eventually lead to the US having to pay to intervene in the mess. This was the conclusion of US policymakers after WWII, and it's guided a lot of the "preventative" logic of US policymakers since: open-ended security guarantees, targeted interventions into the global South, willingness to engage in brinksmanship, etc. This has been translated into policy in many misguided ways, but there is a core logic to it and historical experiences reinforce at least some of that logic.

And from a global perspective (i.e. my intended perspective), there's a non-zero (I think fairly large) chance that the net result of a significant US drawdown would be inefficient. I might be wrong about that, but it must be taken into account as a possibility.

John Quiggin said...

"From the US perspective, having others pick up more of the global security tab actually isn't good in a dynamic sense under all scenarios. It certainly was not during the interwar years ."

I'm not following this. The UK and other US allies pursued disarmament policies in the interwar period. Presumably you don't regard Hitler's rearmament policies as "picking up more of the global security tab", but if not I can't make sense of your comment.

Kindred Winecoff said...

"The UK and other US allies pursued disarmament policies in the interwar period."

How can you not follow this? This is exactly my point. When the dominant military states drastically reduce their military spending things... change. Other states increase their military spending. Other states challenge the predominant states. This isn't all that complicated, man. And your own example is evidence in favor of my point.

But I'm not implying Hitler always and everywhere. Hitler was sui generis. (And let it be noted that I didn't bring it up... I haven't crossed Godwin, and I'm not fear-mongering. My reference to the interwar years was about security dilemmas, not holocausts.) What I am saying is that if the US and UK made different choices in 1918, the world would have been different in 1939. So it's worth asking if Hitler (as a sui generis phenomenon) would have even been possible if the US and UK hadn't retreated militarily from Europe post-1918. Isn't it?

When I say "others foot the bill" I definitely mean "not the US" and I mostly mean "not the liberal West". Hence my link to Rachman's essay. You can fill in the blanks according to your preferred counterfactual, but it isn't going to be Sweden.

So who will step up? Which of the likely contenders are encouraging from the perspective of global peace and prosperity? Hmm?

The Ceteris Paribus view only has one decent answer: no one. Everyone stays demobilized. The problem is that that doesn't happen. In fact it's not happening now. China's military capabilities are up 200% in the past decade despite being under no threat from the US. How is that explained by the Ceteris Paribus view?

All I'm really asking you to do is think past the first goddamn link in the chain.

LFC said...

I agree things would change if U.S. spent less on defense. Japan and S Korea wd have to pick more of their own security burden. Hard to see that as a negative for the U.S., imo.

Re increased security dilemmas, arms races, poss. conflict etc. Well, never say never, but a lot of things have changed since the interwar years. Not a v good pt of reference, imo.

Finally, re the rise of Hitler: as you know, there was a little thing called the Versailles treaty which imposed a somewhat punitive peace. Couple that w the stab-in-the-back legend and the Depression, mix in ideological currents of antisemitism and other aspects of Nat'l Socialism that appealed to many Germans, and I think the ingredients for an explanation of Nazism and fascism begin to fall into place. I doubt that the U.S. 'retreat' from Europe had all that much to do w it. Anyway the extent of US 'isolationism' in the interwar yrs is sometimes exaggerated. B. Braumueller (sorry, spelling may be wrong) published a piece on this a few yrs back in For Policy Analysis, i think.

Kindred Winecoff said...

"Japan and S Korea wd have to pick more of their own security burden. Hard to see that as a negative for the U.S., imo."

So, as I tried to make clear there's a "global" and "local" welfare discussion, which are in some ways distinct. I'm not only concerned with what is good for the US. And it's not at all clear to me that what Asia needs right now is increased militarization of Japan and S Korea (plus China which is happening either way) while all those countries are in the middle of antagonizing each other on pretty much every dimension of foreign policy.

But even if I were only concerned with the US I don't know that it's so obvious as you claim. The whole point of this post is to discourage drawing such as straight lines as "US spends x% less on Japan's defense + Japan spends x% more on Japan's defense = US benefit". Not necessarily. Japan's debt/GDP ratio is enormous and climbing, with a demographic nightmare looming. It's not clear that they can spend too much more on their military, and if they do it might come at the expense of the broader economy. Japan has many economic advantages that make it unlikely to face a Greece-style meltdown, but it would not be good for the US if Japan's economy tanked for an extended period of time.

You could make a similar case for Europe. Is it really in the US's interest for Europe to divert, say, 2% of its GDP to defense right now? I suppose if you think the Romer WWII multiplier will travel to the eurozone there could be some positives, but to the extent that that would substitute for spending on more productive uses (which, given austerity politics, it almost invariably would) it's a welfare loss.

I'm aware that there are competing views on the interwar years. But I think there's a decent likelihood that the Treaty of Versailles doesn't happen at all if Wilson wasn't too ill to take his 14 Points to Europe at the end of the war (and if he had had the full backing of the US Congress to do so, which he didn't). The US had enough leverage at that moment, with a healthy economy, relatively un-devastated military, and the major European powers significantly in debt to it, that it probably could have struck a much better deal for the defeated Central Powers (esp Germany). And Wilson wanted to.

Your other factors -- Depression, antisemitism, nationalism -- are all present in Europe today, along with a fixed exchange rate (which prevents external devaluation) and a large external debt burden. Nnot all in equal measure of course, but really it was the economic devastation as a result of WWI which provided the pre-conditions for WWII. And much of that stemmed from Versailles (in Germany) as well as the destruction from the war itself.

The FDR administration clearly took lessons from this, and tried to reverse essentially all of these issues post-WWII. Maybe none of that meant anything, but maybe it did. The 'Ceteris Paribus' view would claim it didn't; I think it did.

LFC said...

I get your point on Japan and it's a reasonable point; however, w/r/t Europe, I'm not sure it would need to divert 2 percent of GDP to defense, given the general security environment in Europe, which seems pretty good (unlike the economic one).

On interwar yrs: Although I didn't express this as clearly as I shd have, my disagreement was with your implication that the interwar years could somehow repeat if U.S. cut defense spending. I think that unlikely. (Of course I might have been overreading the post.)

Btw, I was rather surprised to learn a few months ago (from a WaPo editorial, actually) that the U.S. still has some tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. I can't see that that makes much strategic sense, though the expense may be relatively small (except when it comes time to upgrade the weapons which, iirc, was the occasion for the WaPo editorial).

John Quiggin said...

To restate, if you relax ceteris paribus, the results of cuts in US expenditure look more favorable, not less. I see two predictable consequences

* Offsetting higher expenditure by US allies. That improves the B/C ratio for the US. Whether Europe or Japan actually needs to spend more is less clear to me, but presumably you think they should

* A higher bar to beginning "wars of choice" (Vietnam, Iraq etc) or to carrying on wars beyond the point where defensive/self-defense goals have been achieved (Korea, Afghanistan). That would greatly benefit both the US and the rest of the world

Kindred Winecoff said...

I think I've already covered all of this in various ways, but since something isn't hitting home I'll try to re-state in different ways.

1. I'm not only concerned with US welfare, as my post and comments indicate. Japan (and S Korea) already are beginning to spend more... it's not what I think that matters, it's what they think. It's possible that Europe doesn't need to spend more and won't, but they can't spend much less. And they face potential challenges from an unstable MENA and rising Russia, among other things. If they couldn't count on the US to do a lot of heavy lifting in those areas they'd be forced to spend more or accept greater insecurity. Hence, the greater likelihood is an increase.

2. Perhaps. The flipside is, possibly, more wars of necessity. (Unless you define "necessity" very narrowly.) And those tend to be even more costly for the US and the world.

P.S. We don't have too many examples of leading states drawing down with rising states filling in the power void, particularly in industrial history, but we do have some and pretty much none of them recommend it.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if this really adds much to the debate here (and it's late), but the UK is building two new aircraft carriers that are supposed to come into service in 2018 and 2020.

Anonymous said...

Kindred's analysis is flawed b/c he doesn't consider the role of nukes. Great wars are probably over. So, no more Germanys of 1939 once the U.S. draws done today. At least at the moment because of the U.S. domestic condition, I think the benefits of a draw done outweigh the costs.

Against Ceteris Paribus Theories of International Relations, A Prelude

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