Towards the end of the decade,’ outgoing British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace predicts, ‘the world is going to be much more unsafe’. He’s not wrong. But, as good a Defence Secretary as he has been, he is nevertheless not leaving our military in anything like the state it should be to cope with the very challenges he’s warning us about.
The world is already a dangerous place — and is set to become even more dangerous.
A revanchist Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has resulted in Europe’s biggest land war since the end of World War II. An aggressive China has snuffed out freedom in Hong Kong, raised tensions in the crucial shipping lanes of the South China Sea and now threatens independent and democratic Taiwan with destruction.
Islamic State and its offshoots are now resurgent across the Sahel, that part of North Africa that stretches from the Atlantic coast of Senegal in the west to Sudan’s Red Sea coast in the east, a massive region of poverty, instability and unrest in which there are currently seven serious conflicts.
Meanwhile, North Korea’s deranged dictator, Kim Jong Un, regularly rattles his nuclear weapons, while continually adding to his stockpile of short and long-range missiles.
And the medieval mullahs of Iran persevere, largely untrammelled, with their plans to develop a nuclear arsenal of their own. Only this month, America deployed some of its most sophisticated warships and jet fighters to the Gulf to deter Iranian adventurism.
Perhaps most significant in terms of the threat to peace, Russia and China have gone from being autocracies in which power was dispersed across the ruling politburo to one-man totalitarian dictatorships under presidents Putin (pictured) and Xi respectively
None of these flashpoints is likely to get any less parlous as the 2020s unfold. Some could get a lot more scary. And that’s before we have to deal with whatever unpredictable military aggression, which by definition we cannot foresee, suddenly flares up without warning, as happened in living memory with General Galtieri’s invasion of the Falklands in 1982 and Saddam Hussein’s seizing of Kuwait in 1990.
The world is becoming more unsafe because democracy is in retreat. Democracies rarely, if ever, fight each other. Indeed I don’t think there’s a single case of a major conflict between two well-established democracies in the history of the world. So the more democracies become the norm the more likely we are to have a peaceful planet.
Sadly that is not, so far, the story of the 21st century. After the fall of communism and the collapse of various Third World fascist regimes in the final decades of the last century, these were supposed to be the decades in which democracy triumphed.
Instead, it’s been the Age of the Autocrats. Dictators have flourished, liberal democracy, as defined by free elections in which all adults can vote, a free Press and independent courts, has declined.
In some countries only recently regarded as functioning democracies, such as Turkey, Hungary and Bangladesh, elections now barely matter, such is the grip on the electoral process of the resident strongman (or woman). Even India under prime minister Narendra Modi is not quite the democracy it was and his Hindu nationalist government is no fan of free media or Muslims.
Pictured: President Xi. China’s defence secretary recently shunned his American opposite number by saying: ‘When friends visit us, we welcome them with fine wine. When jackals or wolves come, we will face them with shotguns.’
Seven new African democracies, from Burkina Faso to Benin, have slipped back into dictatorship. Well-established autocrats in Belarus, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Sudan and Algeria hold on to power untroubled by democratic stirrings. The Arab Spring, which promised so much, delivered almost nothing.
Perhaps most significant in terms of the threat to peace, Russia and China have gone from being autocracies in which power was dispersed across the ruling politburo to one-man totalitarian dictatorships under presidents Putin and Xi respectively.
Their regimes are openly hostile to democracies. We’ve seen what Putin has done to Ukraine. And China’s defence secretary recently shunned his American opposite number by saying: ‘When friends visit us, we welcome them with fine wine. When jackals or wolves come, we will face them with shotguns.’
The upshot, according to a democracy index compiled by Freedom House, an independent think-tank, is that global freedom declined in 2022 for the 17th consecutive year.
Only half the world’s 178 countries can be regarded as democratic, some of them imperfect democracies. The number of pure dictatorships has risen from 23 to 39 in the past five years, while those classified as decently democratic has declined.
This explains why some American academics now talk about a ‘democratic recession’. It is a recipe for the sort of war-torn future Wallace is warning about.
Given this dire prognosis, you might think Western democracies would be rushing to spend more on defence — to realise that in a world of growing military dangers and autocratic aggressors, defence must be treated as the first social service without which all other social services are at risk (just ask any Ukrainian).
But the democracies are not replenishing their military capabilities on anything like the scale needed to keep us free.
Wallace managed to get some extra cash out of the Treasury for defence but nothing like enough. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt approach the military as bureaucratic bean counters whose primary purpose is to scrimp and save rather than champions of freedom who view defence as a priority.
We spend barely 2 per cent of our GDP on defence and talk of getting to 2.5 per cent is just that — talk.
Pictured: President Ebrahim Raisi. The medieval mullahs of Iran persevere, largely untrammelled, with their plans to develop a nuclear arsenal of their own. Only this month, America deployed some of its most sophisticated warships and jet fighters to the Gulf to deter Iranian adventurism
It will happen ‘when economic and fiscal conditions allow’ which, based on the Government’s current inability to run the economy properly, might be never — leaving us vulnerable to any number of military escalations which would threaten our national security. Any plans for getting to 3 per cent of GDP — the minimum for proper defences and military capability — have been shelved.
As a result, we are incapable of deploying even one fully-equipped war-fighting division. Our army is being cut to a pathetic 72,000 (the smallest since Napoleon thought of invading our islands), we have hardly enough tanks to punch our way out of a wet paper bag, and there are times when the number of warships we can put to sea is barely in double figures. We don’t even have enough fighter jets to fly off our new aircraft carriers.
Yet the waste is astronomical. Not just in the procurement of equipment, which is always delivered late and hundreds of millions — if not billions — over budget, but in the employment of countless paper-pushers at the Ministry of Defence and an unnecessary plethora of top brass — there are more admirals than warships in the Royal Navy, for example.
Dangerous times demand drastic measures. Britain’s combined Army, Navy and Air Force is roughly the size of the United States Marine Corps, probably the greatest fighting machine in the world, which also has formidable capabilities on land, sea and air under one command structure.
We should merge our Armed Forces into one single command too, with a combined British Defence Force subsuming all three arms of our existing military, sweeping away layers of bureaucracy and an underemployed officer class in the process. At a time when we’ve never needed it more, it would give our military a far bigger bang for the buck.
North Korea’s deranged dictator, Kim Jong Un, regularly rattles his nuclear weapons, while continually adding to his stockpile of short and long-range missiles
Of course, it’s unlikely to happen. The politicians don’t have the guts to take on the vested interests of the separate services and those entrenched power bases would fight a fierce rearguard action to preserve their privileges.
But if we took Wallace’s prediction seriously it’s exactly what we’d be doing to get our armed forces into to shape for the growing threats to come.
Not that our allies are doing much better. France, other than ourselves the only serious European military power (though Poland is up and coming), is boosting its defence spending — but its commitment to Nato’s common interests is always suspect.
President Macron has a penchant for unilateral grandstanding and is surrounded by advisers who are lukewarm about an unflinching Nato commitment to Ukraine. Germany is close to a lost cause.
Chancellor Scholz spoke grandly of a sea-change in German rearmament after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine but has proceeded at a snail’s pace.
On current plans it will take years, if not decades, to transform Berlin’s military, which has been egregiously run down over the years, into a credible fighting force.
No one bears more responsibility for its decline than the current EU president Ursula von der Leyen, who was Germany’s defence secretary when the rot set in.
And so it does not bode well for the future defence of democracy that she is now being touted as the next Nato secretary general — a job that should have gone to Wallace only for him to be thwarted by First Lady Jill Biden, who takes the view that it is time for a woman to have the job.
It does not bode well for the future defence of democracy that she is now being touted as the next Nato secretary general — a job that should have gone to Wallace only for him to be thwarted by First Lady Jill Biden, who takes the view that it is time for a woman to have the job
I suspect Moscow and Beijing were amazed and delighted to discover that identity politics now play such a crucial role in Western defence decisions.
Of course, the defence of democracy in these turbulent times in the end rests, as it has since 1945, on America. Ukraine is still in with a fighting chance of seeing off its Russian oppressors only because of the scale of the military, economic and humanitarian aid America is sending — more than all other donor nations combined and seven times more than Britain, the second biggest supplier.
But even America’s pockets are not bottomless. It is projected to run budget deficits of 5 per cent of GDP a year for the rest of the decade and these are set to exceed 7 per cent in the early 2030s.
As a result, the U.S. national debt, which was only 62 per cent of GDP 15 years ago and is now double that at 122 per cent, is scheduled to hit an incredible 138 per cent of GDP — more than profligate Italy — before the decade is out. America will soon be spending more on interest on its debt than on defence.
So even America will struggle to find the defence spending required to defend democracy in the European and Asian-Pacific theatres. Yet the stakes could not be higher.
We do not yet know the outcome of the war in Ukraine but we need to realise it is, in its rawest form, a brutal contest between democracy and self-determination on the one hand and imposed Russian autocracy on the other. Ukraine’s allies cannot lose patience or press Kyiv into a premature peace which leaves huge chunks of the country in Moscow’s hands. If Russia is not largely dislodged from Ukrainian territory, it will be emboldened to threaten other democracies farther down the line.
China is watching closely for signs of allied impatience or weakness. If Ukraine is abandoned or pressed to make an unjust settlement, China will ramp up its plans to put the screws on Taiwan. Any sign of weakness in Ukraine by the democracies could have catastrophic consequences on the other side of the world — and, quickly, for the rest of the globe.
Because Taiwan has a near-monopoly on the world’s most sophisticated microchips, now an essential ingredient of everything from a dishwasher to a jet engine, a Chinese invasion or quarantine of Taiwan would rapidly plunge the global economy into the mother of all great depressions.
Already brittle democratic societies would be torn asunder, with Russian and Chinese social media doing all they could to heighten our divisions and sow dissension among us.
It would be the greatest threat to democracy since Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan in the 1930s. We need to muster the will to resist it. So let’s start by realising all is far from lost.
The democracies are re-arming, even if not by enough. Nato has been given a new lease of life by Putin’s Ukrainian folly. Poland, the Baltic States, Sweden and Finland are rising to the autocratic challenge.
Like-minded democracies are combining in mutual self-interest such as the Quad of America, Australia, India and Japan, which has the makings of an Indo-Pacific Nato to meet the Chinese challenge.
The Aukus defence pact involving Britain, America and Australia and covering submarines and high-tech is another crucial building block in the defence of democracy.
We need more of this. The best way to preserve democracy is to make it clear to its enemies that it will be defended, whatever it takes. Failure to do so in the 1930s ended in the global catastrophe of World War II. Dictators and autocrats once again threaten the democracies, hence Wallace’s warning.
This time we must leave them in no doubt that we will not be cowed or intimidated, that we will arm ourselves to the hilt if that’s what it takes to make them realise we will be no pushover.
It is a strategy high in cost and fraught with danger. But it is also the surest way of avoiding World War III.