With the pandemic as priority, countries will have to hold off on defence spending


A US military vehicle, part of a convoy, advances near the town of Tal Tamr in the northeastern Syrian Hasakeh province, by the border with Turkey, on April 14. Delil Souleiman/ AFP

Predictions, as the American baseball player Yogi Berra once said, are hard, especially about the future. And forecasts are especially perilous in the midst of a global pandemic.

But the coronavirus crisis is indisputably changing our view of what is important. Could it take a pandemic to redefine the idea of what constitutes national security?

There are at least three good reasons to think along these lines. First, Germany has been arguing for overseas development aid to be included as part of traditional defence spending on the grounds that helping poorer countries offers a measure of national security.

The rationale, according to German development minister Gerd Muller, is as follows: if the Middle East and North Africa region becomes destabilised by the coronavirus, it could cause “famine, outbreaks of violence, and civil wars”, which would force refugees to head towards Europe in the hundreds of thousands.

Mr Muller has consequently been urging members of the European Union to commit to a one billion euro Covid-19 programme for low-income countries. Six other European development ministers — the UK, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway — recently joined Mr Muller to publicly call for action to help “poor and fragile countries… if we want to protect our own populations and economies”.

Second, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has said the bloc’s seven-year spending plan will now tack heavily towards an emergency fund for vital medical equipment and virus testing. “Just as the world looks very different from the way it did just a few weeks ago — so must our budget,” she declared.

It was an admission that the EU’s military and security aspirations are on hold. Even in mid-February, before the full force of the coronavirus was felt in Europe, discussions in Brussels on the financial package were veering away from the original proposals for flashy spending on space, military and peacekeeping activities.

There seems little appetite for Ms von der Leyen’s promised “geopolitical Commission”, one that would turn Europe’s soft influence into hard power.

Instead, says Daniel Hamilton, a professor who specialises in transatlantic relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Ms von der Leyen will preside over the “coronavirus commission for its tenure”.

Third, the most obvious reason, post-pandemic, countries may simply be too poor to spend lavishly on the instruments of war.

It would be Panglossian to think we are even starting to move towards George Washington’s fervent wish to “see this plague of mankind, war, banished from the earth”.

But can anyone seriously see even rich western countries scaling up defence spending while their people plead for relief from crippling poverty because of the collapse of economic activity?

It seems unlikely that European countries or even the US, the dominant military power on the world stage, will be able or willing to slash social spending to protect defence expenditure.

Unemployment benefits, healthcare and the provision of medical supplies will take priority as the pandemic strains national budgets.

The effects on defence spending will be felt in real terms. Germany, the largest economy in Europe, is expected to shrink by 4.2 per cent this year.

It is reasonable to assume that efforts to rebuild the German military’s eroded force structure and capabilities will similarly slow, perhaps to a halt.

In the past couple of years, Germany’s military shortcomings have become the subject of much international hilarity, with reports that one tank unit was forced to use a broomstick instead of a gun on a Nato exercise.

US President Donald Trump has constantly demanded that Germany and other Nato allies pull their share of the weight in the alliance by raising defence spending to two per cent of gross domestic product. That was not likely even before the coronavirus outbreak. Now, it seems impossible.

Since 2010, the US has spent roughly $180 billion a year on counterterrorism efforts, compared with less than $2bn on pandemic and emerging infectious-disease programs

In the straitened circumstances wrought by the pandemic, Mr Trump himself may find it harder to push his usual view of a richly endowed traditional national security apparatus.

He has always hailed as a sign of America’s overweening strength, the size of the Pentagon budget, the nuclear arsenal, the number of naval carriers and the recently established Space Force, the first new military branch since 1947.

Indeed, the US military machine inspires awe. Since 2010, the US has spent roughly $180 billion a year on counterterrorism efforts, compared with less than $2bn on pandemic and emerging infectious-disease programmes.

But the new reality is very different. Americans, just as everyone else anywhere, are acutely aware of a deadly transnational threat, one that will not be defeated by guns and tanks.

Kori Schake, director of foreign and defence policy at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, says Americans will now want to protect themselves from “threats that did not come from an enemy directing a weapon at the United States”.

With pandemic spending pushing America’s deficit to record levels — nearly $4 trillion, by one reliable estimate — the US Congress may be forced to adopt austerity measures that inevitably lead to a cut in defence spending.

Samantha Power, former US ambassador to the UN, recently wrote that “the shared enemy of a future pandemic must bring about a redefinition of national security”, prompting an intense effort to build “national and international mechanisms to protect people not merely from the last threat, but from the coming ones”.

The medium to long-range implications of the coronavirus crisis are immense for war and peace.

Originally published at https://www.thenational.ae