The nation-state is militarily obsolete
October 28, 2012 9 Comments
Post by Nathan Smith (regular blogger for the site, joined April 2012). See:
If Germany were invaded by Russia, Germans would probably trust their army of 70,000 (maybe 200,000+ deployable in all forces), with little combat experience, to attempt to defend them against the million-strong armed forces of the Russian Federation, which also has nuclear weapons. But they could hardly expect them to win. If Germany doesn’t feel threatened by Russia, that’s not because they trust Vladimir Putin, nor does it have much to do with Germany’s own armed forces. It is because they could expect aid from their much more powerful NATO allies, especially the United States, but also Britain and France, both militarily stronger than Germany, and other countries, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Portugal, etc., that don’t carry much weight individually, have a good deal of power when all are pooled together. What goes for Germany is far more true of smaller nations like Norway. Germany probably could create a military capable of fending off Russia: certainly they were able to match Russia and better in the past on the battlefield. Norway couldn’t possibly defend itself against Russia on its own, but in NATO it’s safe enough.
Is Europe a special case? Partly, though even there, it may be a special case because it is at the front end of a global trend. But there are a lot of other countries which trust to the United States, to various treaty organizations, to the United Nations, and to international norms for their protection, rather than on any merely national military. Saudi Arabia was long protected by US troops. US troops are still stationed in South Korea, providing some protection against the powerful North. US troops are stationed in Japan, and Japan’s alliance with the US is a crucial strategic asset in its duel with China over the Senkaku islands. Kuwait couldn’t defend itself against Saddam Hussein in 1991, but was liberated by a large US-led international coalition, which was concerned only partly with oil. Partly, it was concerned with a global norm of geopolitics, sometimes called “the sanctity of borders.” If Saddam violated that norm with impunity, the precedent might be followed anywhere in the world. The international community thus intervened for the sake of its own principles. At any rate, it’s clear that Kuwait doesn’t owe its independence to military solidarity among its citizens. It owes it to benevolent foreigners. And the same goes for much of the world. The UN, the US, the West, NATO, have intervened all over the world, and the implicit threat of intervention has an impact far beyond where any intervention has actually taken place. Even the mighty United States doesn’t rely only on its own strength to defend it. When the US was attacked on 9/11, not just Americans but NATO and many other allies collaborated in trying to hunt down al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Even the Iraq war, more controversial, was a coalition affair.
A world based on nation-state military self-sufficiency wouldn’t work very well. This can be seen in theory, if you think about international relations as a game with stronger and weaker players, some with a taste for predation, all living in mutual fear. Strong nation-states could prey on weaker nation-states at little cost. A “balance of power” might sometimes emerge, but as the strength of nation-states varied over time, states would often weaken to the point where they were unable to defend themselves, thus inviting attack by neighbors, either interested in predation, or taking the opportunity to destroy an enemy in its moment of weakness. On the other hand, weak states might gang up on strong states. There is no reason to expect stability in such a system. We shouldn’t expect nation-state military self-sufficiency to lead to peace or security for anyone. And if we look at history, it doesn’t. In particular, the early 20th century was a time of great wars in Europe, and it was precisely at that time that the pursuit of national interest was most unapologetic and unrestrained by other principles. Britain’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich, which was as disastrous as it was unprincipled, taught the world the lesson that to look out merely for narrow national interests is asking for trouble. If you let the bad guys do bad things far away, not only is that cowardly and ungenerous, but it’s stupid because they just gain momentum and are much more powerful by the time they’re coming after you. After World War II, “collective security” became the norm. Most nations delegated most of the job of security upwards, to regional or global organizations, and even the United States supplied the backbone of the regional and global organizations and made itself “leader of the free world,” rather than simply fending for itself. The nation-state became militarily obsolete. Soldiers are still recruited and commanded by national governments, but they almost always work in coalition with each other and usually far away from their national borders, aiding allies rather than defending the homeland.
As usual, Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution illustrates Across Difficult Country’s aphorism. Alex says:
“I understand individual rights and I understand counting everyone equally but I see less value in counting some in and some out based on arbitrary characteristics like which side of the border the actors fall on.”
The difference is quite obvious if you remove the libertarian economists’ assume-we-have-a-can-opener blinders. We live in a world where violence — perpetrating it and preventing it — is the fundamental fact that social and political organization must deal with.
Thus, all property rights come out of the barrel of a gun.
Once you realize that, the reason why we prefer the welfare of our fellow citizens to that of non-citizens is (to get all reductionist):
They are the ones who would fight on your side.
Of course, if there were a big war, it would be nice to be defended by all those dreary American you despise.
And, the irony is, they’d do it, too, just because you are an American.
Comments like these have an air of gritty realism about them. They sound like they’re cutting through the nonsense and telling it how it is. But let’s not mistake bluster for truth.
First, in a big war, I would indeed be defended by Americans– and probably Britons, French, Germans, and many others, too. Though it’s a bit hard to imagine a plausible “big war” scenario in which US and allied forces would be defending me in any obvious way. I supported the intervention in Libya, but not because NATO was defending me, rather because they were defending Libyan freedom fighters in Benghazi. I did think US national security would benefit, but only in a very distant way, via our ability to hold that critical strategic asset, the moral high ground, by using our power to protect the weak and oppose dictatorship. Even in World War II, American security didn’t depend only on Americans: it depended a lot on Britain and the Soviet Union, and also on lesser allies like De Gaulle’s Free French, the Polish resistance, and Greece. Again and again, “the ones who will fight on your side” are not just those who share your nationality, but many allied peoples as well. For people in militarily weak European countries like Germany, the people who will fight effectually on your side are almost all foreigners.
Second, though Sailer presumably doesn’t see it this way (to put it bluntly, he’s amoral and is blind to truly ethical considerations), his claim that Americans will defend you “just because you are American” is a base slander against Americans. They are not so wicked as that. If I were to, say, raise a private army and try to conquer by coup d’etat some African country, and wound up in trouble on the losing end of a war, Americans wouldn’t defend me just because I’m American. If they would defend me in a war, they would do so because the enemy was in the wrong, because I would be an innocent victim of aggression, because it would be right to defend me. They would do the same for NATO allies in the same situation, and often do the same for peoples around the world even when not bound by any formal alliance. There is a difference of course: something must be conceded to the principle of division of labor, and Americans would defend me more zealously because I am an American than they would defend a Tanzanian or a Kyrgyzstani. But the US armed forces’ actions are guided much more by justice than by mere tribalism.
Third, if you think the US is likely to get in a big war and are really concerned about winning it, that’s a powerful reason to favor much more openness to migration. Why did the US (with its allies) win World War II? Clearly a major reason was its much superior manpower. Why did the US have so much manpower relative to Germany? The biggest reason was that it had absorbed tens of millions of immigrants in the age of open borders in the late 19th century. Many of these immigrants were Germans, but that did not weaken their loyalty to the US. In fact, General Eisenhower, the leading military commander, and Admiral Nimitz, the top naval commander, were both of German stock. The world has generally been becoming a much more peaceful place, and future wars with China or Russia or Iran are not at all inevitable, but if one is worried that a China whose economy will soon be larger than that of the US will become hostile, let’s reduce the manpower gap through greatly expanded immigration.