The First World War was supposed to be the “war to end war”. Over one hundred years ago, millions were dying in one of the deadliest conflicts in history. Machine guns, barbed wire and poison gas brought innovative new ways of brutalisig our neighbours.
Of course, 1918 did not bring the end of warfare. An even more bloody conflict would begin in 1939 and, as Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Yemen and Libya have shown, warfare is very much still alive in the 21st Century.
However, is it naïve to believe that war might one day become a thing of the past? In 2011, Steven Pinker argued in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, that wars were growing less common and less violent. Even with the recent upsurge in violence this year, there are still fewer deaths caused by conflict than during the Cold War (180,000 a year from 1950 to 1989, according to the Peace Research Institute Oslo) and many times fewer than during the First or Second World Wars.
So, how peaceful will the 21 Century be? We recently discussed a question from Faragó, who asked where the biggest security threats to Europe came from today. But what does that picture look like globally?
To get an answer, we spoke to Sameer Patil, Associate Fellow of National Security, Ethnic Conflict & Terrorism studies at the Indian think-tank Gateway House. What would he list as the biggest security threats in Asia?
Well, Faragó, I would like to list three major security challenges for the Asia-Pacific region. One is the evolving security situation in Afghanistan, and the situation that is likely to emerge after the NATO forces withdraw. Now, we have big concerns here, particularly in South Asia, about the rise of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. So, that’s one big security challenge.
The second, paticularly from India, Japan and South-East Asian countries’ point of view, is the rise of China and also all kind of aggressive actions it is taking not only in South Asia, but also South-East and East Asia.
And the third security challenge I would like to identify is cyber-security. Now, we know that after PRISM and Stuxnet there has been a lot of awareness about cyber-security issues. Unfortunately, in Asia, that awareness hasn’t really transformed into actual policy making.
If we want the world to be a more peaceful place, should we be spending less on guns and more on butter? We recently looked at a question sent in by Proactive asking why “peaceful European countries” should increase their defence spending to 2% of GDP as NATO would like to see. Whilst defence spending has been falling in Europe, what has been happening in Asia?
Well, Asia doesn’t really have a collective security organisation as Europe does. What that means is that most of the Asian countries feel they have to spend more on increasing their capabilities. They cannot, like Europe, pool and share their resources.
The second point is that Asian powers are still consolidating their conventional defences. Some Asian countries still lack the basic capabilities to fend off external territorial aggression. So, I would say that spending is still likely to increase in Asia over the coming decades.
So, overall, defence spending has increased in the Asia-Pacific, but in absolute numbers how does it stack up? If you look at Asian countries, excluding China but including India, Japan and South Korea, it comes to something like 130 billion dollars spent on defence. If you look at most of Europe, including the UK, France and Germany, it comes to about 170 billion dollars. So, spending rates may have gone down in Europe, but in terms of absolute numbers Europe is still ahead of Asia in terms of defence spending.
We also spoke to Dr Sam Perlo-Freeman, Head of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Project on Military Expenditure. We started by asking him what the situation looked like globally in terms of defence spending after the financial crisis of 2008. Did governments start tightening their belts?
At first, spending continued to increase as most major countries put in place stimulus packages. But, from about 2010 we’ve begun to see falls in North America, West and Central Europe – broadly speaking, “The West” – although military spending has continued to increase in most of the world, most obviously in big players like China and Russia, but also generally in the Middle East, Africa and much of Asia. That said, in Asia, for example, the rate of increase has slowed down partly as a result of the crisis and the knock-on effect of slightly slower economic growth. India’s spending has flattened out, for example.
But, we’re now seeing a very clear pattern of falling spending in the West, up to 2013 at least, and increasing spending in the rest of the world. And perhaps particularly alarming rates of increase in the Middle East and Africa.
Please click here for our infographic on military defence spending.
Should we be concerned that defence spending is falling in the West? We had a comment sent in by Rudi, arguing that just because Europeans see themselves as “peaceful” doesn’t mean the rest of the world thinks that way. Rudi argued EU countries should do more to meet the 2% of GDP defence spending target of NATO. How would Dr Perlo-Freeman respond?
Hi, Rudi. Well, I think that NATO’s target of 2% of GDP has always been an extremely arbitrary one in that it’s disconnected from what the actual security situation is, what security needs are and how strong countries’ economies are growing. It’s also an unrealistic target for a lot of NATO members that are also EU members. For example, Germany currently spends 1.4% of GDP on the military. Increasing that amount is not something that the German people would accept, and it would make Germany very clearly the strongest military power in Western Europe, which I think the British and French might be uncomfortable about.
Obviously, the situation in Ukraine is causing countries in Europe to reassess the security situation and consider territorial defence as an issue, which it hasn’t really been since the end of the Cold War. And some countries, especially like those further to the East, are increasing spending as a result, and that’s understandable. But I think we should keep things in proportion. Despite Russia’s unacceptable actions in Ukraine, the idea of Russian tanks rolling across Central Europe is not a realistic possibility. It’s something Russia has neither the capacity nor the desire for.
As long as there are humans, will there also be war? Is it naïve to believe that war might one day become a thing of the past? And should Europeans countries be spending less on guns and more on butter? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.