There are four (maybe four and a half) things that worry me right now and they are all interconnected:
First: The state of the US economy ~ the Financial Times reports that “Productivity is set to fall in the US for the first time in more than three decades, raising the prospect of persistent wage stagnation and the risk of a further populist backlash.“
As a subset of this the capacity of the USA to continue to bear a disproportionately large share of the burden of defending the West against pressures from Russia, radical Islamists and China.
Second: The prospect of a Brexit from the EU where, The Economist explains, “A vote to leave would damage the economy, certainly in the short term and probably in the long run … It would imperil Britain’s security, when threats from terrorists and foreign powers are at their most severe in years. And far from reclaiming sovereignty, Britons would be forgoing clout, by giving up membership of a powerful club whose actions they can influence better from within than without. Those outside Britain marvelling at this proposed act of self-harm should worry for themselves, too. Brexit would deal a heavy blow to Europe, a continent already on the ropes. It would uncouple the world’s fifth-largest economy from its biggest market, and unmoor the fifth-largest defence spender from its allies. Poorer, less secure and disunited, the new EU would be weaker; the West, reliant on the balancing forces of America and Europe, would be enfeebled, too.“
Third: Chinese pressure in the AsiaPacific region. The Financial Times says that “China’s foreign minister fired a pre-emptive shot at G7 leaders gathering in Japan on Thursday, warning them not to “escalate tensions” over territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas.“
Fourth: Continued military adventurism by Russia, which, an article in Foreign Affairs says, is rebuilding its military: “Beginning in 2008, Putin ushered in military reforms and a massive increase in defense spending to upgrade Russia’s creaky military. Thanks to that project, Russia has recently evinced a newfound willingness to use force to get what it wants. First, in February 2014, Moscow sent soldiers in unmarked uniforms to wrest control of Crimea from Ukraine, implicitly threatening Kiev with a wider invasion. It then provided weaponry, intelligence, and command-and-control support to the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region, checking Kiev’s attempts to defeat them. And then, in the fall of 2015, Russia ordered its air and naval forces to bomb militants in Syria fighting President Bashar al-Assad, intervening directly in the Middle East for the first time in history … These recent interventions are a far cry from the massive campaigns the Soviet Union used to undertake. But the fact is, Russia is once again capable of deterring any other great power, defending itself if necessary, and effectively projecting force along its periphery and beyond. After a quarter century of military weakness, Russia is back as a serious military force in Eurasia.“
I think they are all connected by the subset of the First item: American capacity is (proportionately) less than it has been since the 1930s, I think. The International Institute for Strategic Studies authoritative Military Balance report for 2016 shows the top five global defence spenders as …
A selection from the tabular data shows:
- The USA spends $597.5 Billion which is 3.3% of GDP and $1,859 per person
- China spends $145.8 Billion which is 1.2% of GDP and $106 per person
- The UK spends $56.2 Billion which is 2% of GDP and $878 per person
- France spends $46.8 Billion which is 1.9% of GDP and $702 per person
- Russia spends $42.8 Billion which is 1.8% of GDP and $35 per person
- Japan spends $41 Billion which is 1% of GDP and $323 per person
- Germany spends $36.6 Billion which is 1.1% of GDP and $454 per person
- South Korea spends $33.4 Billion which is 2.4% of GDP and $681 per person
- Australia spends $22.7 Billion which is 1.8% of GDP and $1,000 per person
- Canada spends $14 Billion which is 0.9% of GDP and $399 per person
The state of the US economy, especially its HUGE debt, is a real cause for concern and its impact is being felt in the Pentagon. Even the most hawkish politicians cannot justify spending vast amounts on defence when Germany, Japan and Canada, arguably three of the countries most “defended” by the American military, spend so much less in terms of either GDP (⅓ of what America spends) and, on a per capita basis, even less (a German spends only ¼ of what an American spends). It is becoming politically impossible to ignore that fact that America is doing too much of the heavy lifting … and China and Russia know that and that’s why they are pushing.
My guess is that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are (will be when one or the other is elected) of one mind on this: America cannot (and should not have to) afford to bear so much of the burden of the security of the West. Others must help.
But what if there is a Brexit? What if both Britain and the EU are driven into recession? Will the UK continue to spend 2% of GDP for defence or will it have to “give,” again? Will Germany be willing to pick up the tab if it, too, is under severe economic strain? My guess, in both cases, is: No.
How will Russia react when the perceived weakness of the West in even more evident? What happens if Putin, ever the opportunist, decides that it is time to restore a physical connection between Kaliningrad and Mother Russia? Are we, America, Britain, Canada, France and Germany, really willing (never mind being ready and able) to go to war for Lithuania?
Will, can, President Obama’s Asian Pivot ever be completed? The Financial Times notes that it remains incomplete and that “more broadly there are growing doubts about whether the US can sustain its appetite for global engagement. Even if Mr Trump loses in November, a Clinton administration would still have to grapple with the rising protectionist and anti-immigrant mood in America’s heartlands.“
It will be noted that I have not included North Korea in this or my previous (most recent) survey, despite the fact that The Economist, one of my favourite sources, features North Korean
nutbar dictator Kim Jong Un on its front cover and has a feature article encouraging the world to “get serious about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.” In my opinion, North Korea is, rather like Pakistan, a Chinese client that is serving a useful purpose in helping to keep a competitor or two (in this case the US and Japan) off-balance, but which will not be allowed to push things too far. There is a legitimate worry about Kim Jong Un’s sanity, but, as The Economist says, the priority is to “strengthen missile defence” and persuade China to hold a tighter grip on its client.
Equally, I continue to regard radical Islamist terrorism as a dangerous, even deadly problem, but not as a serious threat to Canada or to our allies.
Regarding the “big four” problems, the solutions seem fairly clear to me:
We, Canada, Germany, Japan and the “rest of the West,” must join Australia, France, South Korea and the UK (and a few others) in spending about 2% (or more) of our GDP on defence so that we can share some of the burden with the Americans while they get their economic house back in order. If we are going to do that then Brexit mustn’t happen (but the EU still needs massive reformation) and there must be a colossal (and unanticipated) change of attitude in Canada … not just in the new government, but amongst Canadians at large.
The way to contain both China and Russia is to confront them (and their clients and barbaric terrorists, too) with resolve and strength. That, not a baby-blue beret, is how we can really “keep the peace.”