The annual report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute—which in spite of its name, is a strategic studies think-tank much like the rest—makes fascinating reading. Between 1991 and 1998 global defense expenditure fell. Since then it has been rising slowly but steadily; until, calculated as a percentage of global output, it is now as high as it was during the last years of the Cold War. Much the greatest single spender is the U.S with $ 682 billion in 2013. Next come China (166 billion), Russia (91 billion), the UK (61 billion), Japan ($ 59 billion), France ($ 59 billion), Saudi Arabia (58 billion), India (46 billion), Germany (46 billion) and Italy (34 billion). Together these ten countries account for three quarters out of the global total of $ 1,756 billion. The rest is shared by the remaining 184.
Qualitatively speaking, the US remains in the lead. Outspending China 4.1:1, it is the only global power, unique in its ability to intervene anywhere it wants. America’s air force, navy, and network of command, control and communications are unrivalled. So are its capabilities in such critically important fields as intelligence, space warfare, electronic warfare, and cyberwarfare. However, there are problems. First, a considerable part of the US defense budget—as much as $ 100 billion in 2013 alone—has been wasted fighting useless, hopeless, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, as the national debt balloons, the budget is expected to shrink. These factors have caused US official doctrine to plan for just one regional war at a time, rather than two as used to be the case during the Clinton years. Judging by the recent refusal of Congress and people to intervene in Syria, indeed, it seems that America has lost its appetite for waging any war at all. By contrast, Chinese military spending has been rising and is expected to rise further still. Already today, calculating in terms of parity purchasing power, the difference between it and the U.S shrinks to 1:2.9.
The defense-related map of the world has also been changing. Throughout the Cold War the most heavily armed region was Europe, the “Central Theater,” as the Americans used to call it. It was there that both NATO and the Warsaw Pact concentrated their armies. The collapse of the Soviet Union ended that situation, causing the percentage of GDP most European countries spend on defense to go down. However, if trouble in Ukraine continues and spreads, then surely NATO’s East-European members will feel threatened. A considerable increase in European defense expenditure, aimed primarily at buying electronics, drones and anti-missile defenses, will become inevitable.
Much worse for Russia (and the world), should the Ukraine be engulfed by the war of all against all, as it well may, then Putin may have no option but to send in his forces. Militarily speaking, so weak is the Ukraine that Russia will have little trouble overrunning it. But what comes next? As the Soviet and American campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown only too vividly, in the modern world holding on to an occupied country is anything but simple. Just as the failure in Afghanistan contributed mightily to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, so failure to gain a fairly rapid and fairly bloodless victory in the Ukraine might have dramatic, even existential, consequences for Russia.
Another flashpoint is Southeast Asia. For the time being China is enjoying what may be the greatest economic boom in history. Aware that peace is vital for the continuation of that growth, it has been careful not to provoke is neighbors too much. It even seems content to rein in some of the more crazy initiatives of its North-Korean protégé and play down its long-standing conflict with Taiwan. On the other hand, growth has made it much more dependent on international trade. That explains why it has been building up its navy, including two small aircraft carriers. Beijing also has unresolved border disputes with most of the surrounding countries. Including, above all, the question of sovereignty over what it pleases to call the South China Sea and any riches it may contain. The outcome has been a re-shuffling of alliances and a great increase in defense spending all around.
And how about the Middle East? In recent years, the region has been losing some of its importance. The main reason for this is that fact that, thanks to the discovery of vast gas reserves and new methods (“fracking”) for recovering both gas and oil, America’s dependence on the region is diminishing fast. Conversely fear of an American withdrawal explains the enormous Saudi figure. Yet the Saudis’ enemy, Iran, only spends about $ 6.3 billion (2012 figure) on defense. We may perhaps assume that these figures do not include either the Republican Guard or the nuclear program and that real spending is twice as high. Even so, the country is hardly the juggernaut it is often made out to be.
Finally, how about my own country, Israel? The country’s defense expenditure is around $ 16 billion per year. Whether that sum includes some 3 $ billion annually in US aid is not clear. Technologically Israel’s superiority over all its potential enemies is overwhelming. Even more important, over thirty peaceful years have passed since the Camp David Accords. Terrorism in Egypt seems to be under control, more or less. Shifting to Lebanon, Hezbollah was taught a lesson in 2006 and since then has shown little inclination to challenge Israel as it used to. The Syrians continue to butcher each other with the kind of ferocity only Arabs seem able to muster and, for the time being, represent no threat. Jordan resembles Egypt in that it is at peace with Israel and is not as unstable as many people have feared in the past. Iraq no longer exists. For all the bluster of its leaders Iran is much less of a threat than Mr. Netanyahu and others claim—on this, perhaps, in some future article.
All in all, and limited terrorism apart, Israel’s defense seems better assured than at almost any time in the country’s history. Unfortunately, as Israelis and Palestinians continue to hate each other and kill each other on occasion, the prospects for peace do not look good. The Palestinian Authority seems unable to accept an agreement that will not include provisions Israel cannot accept, including, above all, the so-called Right of Return. As for Israel, for almost half a century it has zig-zagged. Whenever things were quiet Jerusalem argued that there was no urgent need to negotiate. Whenever they were not it said that negotiations were impossible.
When, if ever, will the cycle be broken? Not under Netanyahu, whom many in Israel and abroad consider both a liar and a coward. Not under some eventual left-wing government which, barring some miracle, will be weak and ineffective. What is needed is a new Begin a new Sharon, a new Olmert even; but of them, there is no sign.