The nation-state is militarily obsolete

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.

Why am I stating the obvious here, and what does this have to do with open borders? Well, I’m responding to the argument that Steve Sailer has made for citizenism in this post:

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.

And this:

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.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

9 thoughts on “The nation-state is militarily obsolete”

  1. Hi Nathan,

    This is a great post. There are a couple of somewhat tangential points I would add:

    (1) Migration, like trade, probably strengthens ties between countries, and may reduce their risk of war with each other. This is discussed to some extent in your previous post and on the peace case page. A large migrant population that is reasonably well-treated and has close ties with the homeland reduces the chances of wars of conquest either way (wars of liberation are a different story).

    (2) Non-citizens pay taxes that support military expenditures, and non-citizen permanent residents may also be required to register for military service (in the case of the US, though the draft isn’t likely to happen in the US, but at a symbolic level, this is significant). Many non-citizen permanent residents can and do enroll in the military as well.

    1. A high-ability-focused migration policy would capture most of the gains of these sorts. The two big military powers with the most tension with the liberal democratic order are Russia and China. Immigrants from both countries do very well in the West. Countries with populations that are less successful overseas tend also to be less powerful at home. And migration from these sources simultaneously increases the military power of recipient countries while reducing that of the senders (although increasing potential for espionage), for a disproportionate benefit along the military dimension.

      Even for countries that in aggregate fail to meet this standard, openness to university students, skilled professionals, and investors means openness to national elites, who have disproportionate influence on policy.

      “Migration, like trade, probably strengthens ties between countries, and may reduce their risk of war with each other.”

      This seems to be true sometimes, but historically there have also been many cases of war by a country acting in the name of related nearby populations. Initial German aggression in WWII in the name of ethnic Germans in neighboring states, the USA and Texas, Russia and ethnic Russians in the former Soviet sphere of influence, various wars in Africa, etc. If many nations have populations they identify with in a potential combat zone, that may reduce the initial probability of war, but when war happens more powers will tend to be drawn in and the conflict will be more destructive.

      Compare and contrast with the alliance system before World War I, which also gave the big powers stakes in many small conflicts, perhaps supporting peace for a time but dragging all of Europe into war in response to an assassination in Serbia, or nuclear deterrence and “containment” dynamics in the Cold War.

      1. I haven’t actually thought much about what migration policy you should adopt if the goal was to maximize US national power or security. It’s counter-intuitive to say that a high-skill-focused migration policy would do it, though, because the military has a lot of low-skill jobs. Also, if you’re thinking about the economic base of national power, in this case you shouldn’t try to maximize the average GDP per resident or even average GDP per native-born, but probably TOTAL GDP. Even if open borders made all natives 5% poorer, while doubling the population by adding hordes of poor workers with less than half the native average– a rather implausibly bleak scenario– it would still increase the tax base from which to finance the military. I wouldn’t put too much stress on these arguments, though, because I don’t think maximizing national power is a particularly important goal. For what it’s worth, though, and contra the very strange arguments of Steve Sailer, it certainly weighs in favor of (more) open borders, not against it. (There could, in principle, be risks of immigrant subversion/separatism/etc., but that’s pretty implausible. If anyone wants to nail their flag to that unpromising mast, maybe we could address it in another post.)

        1. “It’s counter-intuitive to say that a high-skill-focused migration policy would do it, though, because the military has a lot of low-skill jobs.”

          I think you have a false model of the skill demands of the military.

          The military found that it improved performance greatly when it set a de facto minimum standard of IQ for enlistment (barring extraordinary circumstances), about 90. The IQ test is part of the Armed Forces Qualifying Test. In fact, much of best-quality literature on the effects of IQ on job performance in large-scale studies comes from military recruiting. Low-IQ recruits are much more expensive to train, and the damage they cause by mistakes outweighs the utility of the work they can do, i.e. they have negative productivity. This is one of the reasons the armed forces give for preferring a selected volunteer army over conscription.

          Only a third of African-Americans qualify for that standard. Most of the population of most of the developing world (with the major exception of China) would not be able to qualify.

          ” Even if open borders made all natives 5% poorer, while doubling the population by adding hordes of poor workers with less than half the native average– a rather implausibly bleak scenario– it would still increase the tax base from which to finance the military.”

          I said most of the benefits could be obtained by taking high-skill folk, not all. Low-skill workers don’t generate much GDP, and they generate even less surplus for taxation after accounting for cost of living.

          Also, your scenario seems to assume no political integration with negative institutional effects, the source of most of the expected value of economic costs.

          1. BK, you make some interesting points. My responses:

            (1) This is a point you’re surely aware of, but it bears repeating for others reading the thread: For almost every job, higher IQ is a plus. The difference between jobs is in how *much* of a plus it is for good performance, and how critical good performance on the job is (i.e., how valuable the job is). So, when a certain job is called “low-skilled” it doesn’t mean that low IQ people would do the job better than high IQ people. Rather, considering comparative advantage, reflected in the opportunity costs of people, you’d probably find that low IQ people would be more represented in the jobs.

            The military has a lot of middle-skilled and lower-than-middle-skilled jobs. Clearly, as is the case with police jobs, extreme low IQ is a hindrance. But a cutoff of 90, which you mention, means that the jobs are accessible to many people with “below-average” IQ by US standards. As far as I remember, Lynn and Vanhanen estimate global IQ mean to be about 90 by US standards, which means that half the world population would be eligible on an IQ basis.

            (2) The needs of the current US, not involved in a major war, differ from what the US might need in a large land war (not a likely possibility, but one that seems to underlie Sailer’s worries). It’s quite likely that the IQ cut-offs will be lowered in a large war as a small professional army will need to be supplemented by a much larger force.

            (3) Despite the IQ cut-offs making very different proportions of whites and blacks eligible for military service, it is *still* the case that the army/population ratios of whites and blacks are about equal, see here. And Hispanics are somewhat over-represented. The increased willingness of blacks and Hispanics to enlist offsets the smaller fraction of these populations that may be eligible.

            Now, in the presence of large-scale immigration, it’s unclear whether this “willingness to enlist” factor will remain operative on the same scale. However, this does mean we should be cautious about simply using the eligible population as a yardstick for measuring the actual number of people who will enroll.

            Coda: Like Nathan, I don’t think that US immigration policy should be intended to increase its military strength, or rather, I don’t think this is an important factor. Nathan (and I) are simply trying to argue that even if you were concerned about this issue, more open borders make more sense than more closed borders.

          2. “As far as I remember, Lynn and Vanhanen estimate global IQ mean to be about 90 by US standards, which means that half the world population would be eligible on an IQ basis.”

            Vipul, the above-90 IQs are strongly concentrated in the developed world and China/SE Asia, which is why I said “most of the population of the developing world (excluding China).” The numbers are more skewed if we pay special attention to the young and likely to immigrate, since the lowest-IQ places have the youngest populations.

            A policy of presumptively admitting only those eligible to serve in the US military would pick out something like the most economically beneficial couple billion potential migrants and potential citizens. That would make an OK keyhole solution even handing out green cards and eventual citizenship, although I would think the standard, especially early on should be somewhat higher.

  2. “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.”
    Great sentence

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