As Britain staggers from crisis to crisis, with the Brexit debacle rending the country apart, with its prisons in a “disgraceful” state, a knife crime epidemic, and the doctors of its Health Service at “breaking point” it might be imagined that the government would avoid playing futile military games and concentrate on trying to run the country. But national crises don’t matter to the would-be big-spenders of the UK’s Ministry of Defence whose titular head Gavin Williamson, the paintball strategist, announced on April 3 that Britain would “spearhead” a ‘Joint Expeditionary Force’ in a military mission called ‘Baltic Protector’. The anti-Russia manoeuvres are to involve 2,000 military personnel from the UK and a further thousand from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. (It is notable that NATO designates Sweden and Finland as “neutral countries”.)
Williamson demonstrates his ineptitude all too frequently, and recently confirmed his confused mental state by stating that “As Britain prepares to leave the EU, our unwavering commitment to European security and stability is more important than ever. Deploying our world class sailors and marines to the Baltic Sea, alongside our international allies, firmly underlines Britain’s leading role in Europe.” (In spite of NATO he considers Sweden and Finland to be allies of the UK.)
Britain’s “leading role” depends on a defence force whose state of morale is at an all-time low, with “the proportion of personnel recording satisfaction with service life [having] fallen from 60% in 2010 to 41% last year.” The forces have been cut to the bone. Their strength in 1990 was 305 thousand. Ten years later this had sunk to 207 thousand and in 2010 it was 191 thousand. Today there are 135,000 people in uniform. Their equipment is out of date and they could hardly fight their way out of a paper bag.
The Baltic Protector Mission is said by Britain’s defence ministry to underline “the importance of protecting Europe at a time of increased threat” which, most fortunately for Europe, and especially the UK, does not exist. There is no intention on the part of Russia to engage in military operations against the Baltic states or anyone else in Europe.
Consider the military budgets of NATO countries. As stated by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the surge in US spending “was the largest increase in the world in 2018. . . [and] European nations also contributed to the global trend. . . Their total spending would – if the aggregate figure of $264 billion were considered on its own – amount to the second largest defence budget in the world. It would be equivalent to 1.5 times China’s official budget ($168 billion), and almost four times Russia’s estimated total military expenditure ($63 billion).”
It is difficult to see how anyone could conclude that Russia, with such modest defence expenditure, could even contemplate waging a war in Europe. There appears to be nothing —neither common sense, pragmatic examination nor consideration of inevitable consequences — that will alter the conviction that instead of strongly desiring trade, mutual prosperity and social improvement, the Kremlin wants its forces to roll across Europe in a latter day Operation Barbarossa.
There is indication of realism in Germany, however, because although Berlin trots out the usual platitudes about supporting NATO, a recent Pew survey notes that “only 35 percent of Americans want greater cooperation with Russia; in Germany that desire jumps to 69 percent.”
A survey by YouGov, published on April 3, shows that regarding NATO, “While in 2017 almost three quarters of Britons (73%) approved of membership, this has since fallen to 59%. Likewise, in Germany support has fallen from 68% to 54% and in France from 54% to 39%.” Not only this, but the German government, led by Angela Merkel, the most effective and honourable leader in Europe, has declined to spend squillions on military equipment and seeks cooperation rather than confrontation with Russia.
The analyst Loren Thompson wrote on March 4 that in recent years Germany “has spent 1.1% of its GDP on defence compared with over 3% for the US” and that although it has agreed to raise this to 1.3 percent in 2019, it’s nowhere near the minimum of 2 percent that all NATO members are supposed to commit. He concludes that “obviously, Berlin isn’t expecting a war anytime soon.”
Of course Germany doesn’t imagine for a moment that Russian hordes are going to perform a reverse Barbarossa. On April 3 Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, assured a ‘NATO Engages’ gathering that “We will stand by our commitments” — which include only a very modest rise in military spending, as Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen (refreshingly more gifted than her British counterpart) had said that Germany would aim to reach 1.5% of GDP by 2024.
Berlin’s budget plan for 2020 prompted swift condemnation by the US. The arrogant and unpopular US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, declared that for Berlin to reduce “its already unacceptable commitments to military readiness is a worrisome signal to Germany’s twenty-eight NATO allies” and Trump complained that “Germany is not paying their fair share.” Speaking at ‘NATO Engages’, vice-president Pence said “it is simply unacceptable for Europe’s largest economy to continue to ignore the threat of Russian aggression and neglect its own self-defence and our common defence at such a level.”
Pence and the rest of the military-industrial fraternity in Washington are determined to foster the US-NATO military grouping because it is a most lucrative market for US arms manufacturers.
Last year the Pentagon notified Congress that European countries intend to spend some $37.4 billion on US military equipment, with the biggest customers being Poland which is giving Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman $10,5 billion for a missile defence battle command system, and Belgium which is shelling out $6.53 billion for Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters. It is not surprising that in the past two years their stock prices have risen dramatically, with Raytheon going up from $151 to $184, Lockheed $268 to $309 and Northrop $239 to $283, and that Germany is so unpopular in Washington, because it has decided not to buy the F-35, the “highest-priced highest priced weapons system in history.”
Germany is being practical and level-headed and is not only trying to balance its budget but refuses to indulge in fist-shaking confrontation with Russia, because it knows there is no threat from the East. We can be certain that if Germany’s government and people thought for one minute that Russian hordes wanted to roll through Europe, then they would be spending vast sums on all sorts of military machines, driving up the stock prices of US arms manufacturers, and gaining the praise of Washington’s best and brightest.
Germany wants trade, cooperation, social progress and a balanced budget. Penurious and fractured Britain wants to continue cavorting in such military fandangos as ‘Baltic Protector’ to try to show it has a “leading role in Europe.” No prizes for concluding which country will expand its economy and achieve improvement in the quality of life of its citizens.
A version of this piece appeared in Strategic Culture Foundation on April 15.