‘We are paying very heavily now for failing to face the insurance premiums essential for security of an Empire! This has usually been the main cause for the loss of Empires in the past.’
That was a diary entry written in February 1942 by General Sir Alan Brooke, the chief of the Imperial General Staff, whose steady pair of hands steered Britain to victory in World War II.
We no longer have an empire, only a nation state — the United Kingdom. But nation states, as much as empires, must take out insurance if they are to avoid the kind of strategic disaster that befell Britain in early 1942, when Singapore surrendered to Japan and multiple British possessions around the world — not to mention the British Isles themselves — were threatened by the Axis powers.
Could we face comparable perils in our time? It is easy to dismiss talk of World War III, especially when it comes from Donald Trump, the man who would be President again.
‘Through weakness and incompetence, Joe Biden has brought us to the brink of World War III,’ Trump declared in South Carolina on Saturday. ‘We’re at the brink of World War III, just in case anybody doesn’t know it.’
President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet during the US-Russia summit at Villa La Grange on June 16, 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland
On Saturday, Donald Trump warned that Joe Biden ‘has brought us to the brink of World War III’
Today, the U.S. and its allies — not least Britain — face an increasingly well organised ‘Axis of Ill Will’, comprising China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. Pictured: Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Characteristic campaign rhetoric? The kind of red meat Trump needs to serve up to ensure he locks up the Republic nomination early in this election year? Of course. But a great many people less prone to hyperbole are talking in similar terms.
Just under three weeks ago, Conservative Defence Secretary Grant Shapps issued a stark warning at Lancaster House that Russia, China, North Korea and Iran are ’belligerent autocratic states’ that pose a grave threat to Britain and the Western world. We have moved ‘from a post-war world to a pre-war world’, he declared.
Just a few days later, the chair of the Military Committee of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), Admiral Rob Bauer, called for ‘a war-fighting transformation of Nato’.
In an interview with the Tagesspiegel newspaper, the German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius argued that the Russian President Vladimir Putin ‘might even attack a Nato country . . . within five to eight years’.
CIA director William Burns has an even shorter timeframe in mind. He stated twice last year that Xi Jinping has ordered the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to be ready for an invasion of Taiwan by 2027.
In a new article just published in Foreign Affairs, Burns argues that ‘China’s rise and Russia’s revanchism pose daunting geopolitical challenges in a world … [where] the United States no longer enjoys uncontested primacy’ — and where new technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing give America’s adversaries ‘powerful new tools to confuse us, evade us, and spy on us’.
My own conversations with senior American defence and intelligence officials confirm that such statements are not purely for public consumption. The brass hats and spooks are, if anything, even more worried.
Privately, they mutter about the widening gap between the U.S. and China when it comes to basic manufacturing capacity. The Russian war in Ukraine has given Washington a reminder that in a protracted conventional war you need to be able to crank out 155mm calibre artillery shells — not to mention cheap and disposable drones — in large volumes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2022
The United States used to be the arsenal of democracy. These days, it lags far behind China’s arsenal of autocracy.
In short, the relatively peaceful interwar period that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union is over.
True, there were wars in the 1990s and 2000s. But the conflicts in the ruins of Yugoslavia — over Bosnia and Kosovo — and in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — in Afghanistan and Iraq — were much smaller affairs than the war currently raging in eastern Ukraine.
In two years of conflict, a staggering 315,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded, and the casualties on the Ukrainian side have not been much lower.
One of history’s oldest maxims is Roman: Si vis pacem, para bellum — if you want peace, prepare for war. World War II, Churchill argued, was ‘The Unnecessary War,’ which could have been averted if his warnings had been heeded and Britain had begun rearming sooner.
By assuming, for budgetary reasons, that the next major war would always be ten years away, governments in the 1920s and early 1930s put off the evil of investing in the next generation of weapons — particularly the fighters and bombers that would be so crucial between 1939 and 1945.
When Neville Chamberlain — Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940 — belatedly began to rearm, he adopted a policy of ‘appeasement’ of Germany to try to buy Britain time. He overlooked that Hitler (not to mention Mussolini and the Emperor Hirohito) also understood this — and used that time to ramp up their military readiness, too.
The result was that British rearmament failed to deter Hitler from gambling on war in September 1939 and also failed to prevent the fall of France — though it proved to be sufficient (just) to win the Battle of Britain.
Putin greets US President Joe Biden during the US-Russia Summit in Switzerland in June 2021
Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are waking up to the harsh reality that the geopolitics of the 2020s may have more in common with that of the 1930s than they ever imagined. As after World War I, so after the First Cold War, governments cashed in a peace dividend, slashing defence budgets to the bone.
As after 1918, so after 1991, there was a deceptive lull, when it seemed that old antagonists had embraced democracy, or were just about to. And now, as in the 1930s, a menacing authoritarian Axis has emerged that requires us to up our insurance premiums — or risk a global conflagration.
To see how under-insured we are, consider the British defence budget as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) — in other words, the share of our national output we devote to national security each year.
In the 1950s it averaged 7.9 per cent, in the 1960s 5.7 per cent, and in the 1970s and the 1980s 4.8 per cent.
But in the 1990s the percentage fell to 3.1 per cent, then to 2.4 per cent in the 2000s. It touched rock-bottom at 2.01 per cent in 2015 but is still substantially below the government’s stated target of 2.5 per cent.
And Britain is one of the better-behaved members of Nato in this regard. According to the most recent estimates, the majority of Nato members — 19 out of 30 — are spending less than 2 per cent of GDP on defence.
What does that mean in practice? It means an Army that is risibly small: down from 102,000 in 2006 to 74,000 today ‘and falling fast’, in the words of the former Chief of the General Staff, Lord Dannatt.
‘Parallels with the 1930s should not be dismissed as a historical indulgence,’ Dannatt wrote in The Times last month. ‘The woeful state of our Armed Forces in the mid-1930s failed to deter Hitler or prevent the Second World War and the Holocaust.
‘There is a serious danger of history repeating itself.’
Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are constantly flexing their political muscle
The Royal Navy today is a shadow of its former self. The two Type-23 frigates and the Type-45 destroyer recently deployed to the Red Sea to counter the Houthis were originally intended to serve for 18 years, but will evidently be required for much longer.
The Navy is unable to resupply these ships at sea with additional self-defence missiles because the ships capable of performing that role were sold to Egypt in 2021.
We might just have been able to get away with our unilateral disarmament (a policy the Tories once criticised Labour for espousing!) if the United States had been filling in the gaps in our defence. After all, the U.S. accounts for more than two-thirds — 69 per cent — of total Nato spending.
Most Europeans and many Britons were jubilant when Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump four years ago. ‘The adults are back in the room,’ we were told.
Unfortunately, Biden’s foreign policy has been a series of disastrous failures of deterrence. In 2021 he abandoned Afghanistan without a fight to the Taliban, the sponsors of the 9/11 attacks.
In 2022 he failed to deter President Putin from escalating his invasion of Ukraine and offered President Zelensky a plane ticket out in the expectation that Kyiv would swiftly fall. True, the U.S. has since supplied substantial military and financial aid to Ukraine — but only enough not to lose the war; not enough to win it. Now, that U.S. aid has been cut off by Congress.
Last year Biden failed to deter Iran from unleashing its odious proxies against Israel and, inexplicably, he continues to recoil from taking the decisive military action against Iran that is surely warranted — especially now that American bases in Syria are suffering casualties. I am left wondering what additional shoe will drop this year.
Fortunately, it seems that China’s economic troubles are keeping Xi Jinping so busy that he does not have the nerve to attempt a blockade of Taiwan, which he must at least have contemplated after the recent election on that island, which delivered victory to a candidate who in the past has expressed sympathy for the idea of Taiwanese independence — an anathema in Beijing’s eyes.
But the Chinese have other options. Watch their intimidation of the Philippines in the coming months over disputed waters in the South China Sea.
And don’t forget ‘Little Rocket Man’ — the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, who has been firing cruise missiles and making some very threatening noises.
Two experts on the Korean Peninsula, Robert L. Carlin and Siegfried S. Hecker recently warned: ‘The situation on the Korean Peninsula is more dangerous than it has been at any time since early June 1950…
‘Like his grandfather in 1950, Kim Jong Un has made a strategic decision to go to war with South Korea (and potentially also with Japan and the United States).’
In short, it’s not unreasonable to worry about World War III. After all, world wars are really just agglomerations of regional conflicts: Germany’s ambitions in Europe were only tenuously connected to Italy’s in the Mediterranean and Japan’s in Asia.
A better organised Axis might have won World War II, if Japan had attacked the Soviet Union in December 1941, instead of the United States and the European empires in Asia.
In the same way, there are no direct and obvious connections between Moscow’s war on Ukraine, Tehran’s war on Israel, Beijing’s threat to Taiwan and the Philippines, and Pyongyang’s threat to South Korea. But connected they are — not least because in each case the United States and at least some of its allies are more or less committed to defend the country under attack.
Kim Jong-un with Putin at the Angara rocket launch complex in Russia last September
A key problem is that, despite having spent half a century in Washington, DC, Joe Biden appears to have learned little or nothing about deterrence — the most effective antidote to war.
Rather than make it clear to America’s adversaries that they risk destruction if they threaten U.S. allies, Biden frets that any American ‘escalation’ could lead to… World War III.
Yet it’s precisely Biden’s susceptibility to Putin’s nuclear threats and his baffling appeasement of Iran that are making Armageddon more likely. At every turn, Biden allows America’s adversaries to have escalation dominance.
Today, the U.S. and its allies — not least Britain — face an increasingly well organised ‘Axis of Ill Will’, comprising China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.
These authoritarian regimes, despite their ideological differences, are working ever more closely together. Their common aim is to end American predominance.
As things stand, it’s still a cold war — the Second Cold War, in fact — in that the U.S. and its allies are not in direct conflict with any of the Axis powers. But with every passing day, and every passing strike that claims American soldiers’ lives, we edge closer to a bigger confrontation.
The lessons of history are not rocket science. Artificial intelligence is not required to understand them. If you do not prepare for war, you shall not have peace. If you speak loudly and carry a small stick, woe betide you.
My grandfathers learned those lessons the hard way, in the trenches of Flanders and the jungles of Burma. I do not want my sons to have to learn the same hard lessons.
But time is running short. We have perhaps 12 months to ensure that Ukraine is not defeated by Putin’s orc army; 12 months to ensure that Israel is not laid waste by Iran’s most deadly proxy, Hezbollah; 12 months to deter China from fulfilling Xi’s fantasy of the conquest of Taiwan; 12 months to convince Rocket Man that a war would be the end for his odious dynasty.
Do we have the sense — this time — to pay the insurance premium?
Or would we prefer to slouch towards another Armageddon?
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and managing director of Greenmantle. A columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, he is the author of 16 books, most recently Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe (Penguin).