All posts by Martin Skold

With Friends Like These

It can be lonely at the top. For the U.S., it’s lonelier than we might have expected.

In a recent piece for The National Interest, Paul Pillar recently argued for a more nuanced approach to the question of U.S. credibility and alliances. Pillar points out something that sometimes needs to be pointed out: the U.S., like any nation, makes alliances when it makes sense for its interests to do so, and does not (or at any rate, for its own sake, should not) pursue alliances when they serve no such interest. “An alliance,” Pillar writes, “does not do the United States any good merely by easing an ally’s worries. The United States is no one’s mother or therapist.”

Indeed it is not. Unfortunately, it does not matter. Easing an ally’s worries may, in fact, be a necessity, if not a benefit.

The U.S.’ relative military and economic power are waning relative to a rising China. Indeed, at least in the short run (over the long run China has troubles of its own that may check its geopolitical rise), the U.S. is going to have to contend with a China that is more assertive, more widely influential, and more powerful than before. The same now applies to Russia as well. In view of all this, and in particular in view of the U.S.’ fecklessness in the face of Russia’s ongoing takeover of Ukraine, U.S. allies have legitimate cause to question the U.S.’ relevance to them, at a time when the U.S. will need to retain its influence over them.

Historically, the way for a global hegemon to deal with a rising challenger was to build a coalition. The problem is that in the nuclear era, this is not really an option anymore – at least, not in the same way. There are at least three reasons for this.

1. We don’t want anyone else to have the power. In the first place, great power war is now something that has to be avoided at nearly any cost, because of the fear of a civilization-destroying nuclear war. As we saw in Ukraine, this means that whichever nuclear state moves to take territory first tends to get to keep it. But an even bigger problem is that, because nuclear weapons are seen as too dangerous to be allowed to proliferate horizontally and wind up in multiple hands, it is not really possible anymore to ask allies to do more. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the eastern European states, Saudi Arabia, and other states currently protected by U.S. alliances, guarantees, or soft assurances are all quite capable of defending themselves. Forced to do so, many of these states would choose to build nuclear arsenals; indeed, this is one of the few ways in which a state can meet a nuclear rival on equal terms and deter it. And the threat of a global nuclear arms race keeps the U.S. from telling these states to fend for themselves.

The U.S. historically had to persuade South Korea to abandon a nascent nuclear program; it also (famously, in the past few months) persuaded Ukraine in 1994 to give up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for now-worthless security assurances. More recently, claims by Saudi Arabia that it might have the means to acquire a nuclear arsenal were seen as a ploy to enlist more U.S. aid and reassurance in the wake of the initial nuclear agreements between the U.S. and Iran.

As I have argued, the U.S. really does not protect allies anymore because they cannot protect themselves and cannot be allowed to fall into foreign hands. As often as not, it protects them because they cannot be allowed to protect themselves.

2. Everybody wants something for free. The problem is compounded by another feature of modern life, which is the sorry state of prosperous nations’ finances. The developed world – and this now includes China, ironically – is heir to a number of economic and socioeconomic realities that make it very difficult for it to wage a conventional war, and therefore for modern states – particularly small modern states – to defend themselves.

The states of the developed world have low birthrates, most of them below replacement levels. The geopolitical forecaster George Friedman notes in his book, The Next Hundred Years, that in developed and even developing economies, children are no longer a form of productive investment – having more children does not make one richer, and one might also note that in developed countries, where economic growth is subject to diminishing returns, providing a better future for one’s children requires more and more inputs the richer one already is. As Edward Luttwak has remarked, this makes military conscription a tough political sell and makes even professional militaries casualty-averse.

The developed states are also mired in debt of various kinds – national debts have reached critical levels, private household debt has exploded (in the U.S., it went up from 70 percent of GDP to almost 100 percent between 2001 and 2008 and has fallen back only to 80 percent since), and with aging populations (which will continue over a generation given the aforementioned low birthrates), these states also have soft obligations in the form of pensions, retirement benefits, and even just the moral obligations of private citizens to look after their parents. Most of these states already have, by historic standards, very high levels of taxation and government spending, and despite this (for all of the reasons just discussed) prefer to spend very little money on their militaries; there is therefore not a lot of slack capacity in the system.

The need to ameliorate the effects of the recent recessions, and prevent future ones, has caused governments across the developed world to suppress interest rates, further penalizing saving and investment that could drive future growth. Moreover, as Tyler Cowen has argued in his book The Great Stagnation, once an economy reaches a certain state, within certain constraints, growth slows down in any event as there are fewer available ways to increase inputs – slow growth may be the new normal. The will to build weapons and fight is not what it used to be.

The problem, therefore, is that even if the U.S. could skirt the nuclear proliferation issue and ask its allies to do more to protect themselves, the allies have an incentive to push the cost right back in the opposite direction.

3. People have other options. The hard truth is that, at least in the short run, for many U.S. allies, when faced with a choice between accepting another great power’s influence and putting up the funds to thwart it, paying for a stronger defense actually looks like the worse option.

Many U.S. allies are in fact ambivalent about belonging to a U.S.-led coalition, the more so now that the ideological conflict of the Cold War is over and there is less reason to pick a side. France historically (ever since De Gaulle) has held reservations regarding its participation in NATO operations in the event of a war, and is not part of NATO’s integrated military command structure. Virtually all of the U.S.’ European allies, each for their own reasons, spend below the 2 percent of GDP required for NATO membership on defense; Germany, most notably, has had to wrestle with post-World War Two war guilt and pacifism, and since World War Two has never been enthusiastic about maintaining, much less deploying, powerful armed forces. Since the Cold War all of the European states have become heavily dependent on Russian natural gas, to the point that trying to suspend gas purchases from Russia over Ukraine (or a few well-placed artillery shells in that conflict) would trigger a global financial crisis. Oddly enough, they seem to prefer it this way; even Poland, close to the front lines in any confrontation between Russia and the West, recently proposed a collective bargaining arrangement among EU states for Russian gas, which, while theoretically a move to strengthen European states as a bloc against Russia, in fact means a conscious choice to maintain an extremely close economic tie. Changing this state of affairs would require an expensive (again) construction effort to build liquefied natural gas facilities, something no one is in any hurry to do. Anyone who wants the EU states to step up to deter future Russian aggression against the Baltics or elsewhere should pay heed.

Nor is Europe the only area where such ambivalence is found. In the Middle East, as Pillar himself notes, Saudi Arabia has been quite happy, while protected by U.S. security assurances, to promulgate a noxious brand of Islam throughout the Islamic world that is widely seen to encourage the kind of extremism the U.S. wishes to suppress. In east Asia, South Korea is in the historically anomalous position of being joined by the U.S. security umbrella to its historic colonizer and enemy, Japan, against China, with which Koreans have a much more complex historical relationship. Taiwan, which has never formally declared independence from China, is now heavily tied economically to the Chinese mainland.

This kind of middle-of-the-road posture is all the easier to sustain now that there is that much less to fight over. The end of the Cold War eliminated a lot of the ideological reasons for remaining in the U.S.’ camp – whatever one thinks of Putin’s Russia or modern China, it is fair to say that the differences between them and the U.S. are quite muted compared to what they were, say, thirty years ago. U.S. allies are therefore in a better position to shop for larger powers with whom to align.

Although it is not fashionable to say so, and although such matters are admittedly complex, one way to look at the U.S. alliance network is that it involves a set of payments by the U.S. to remain in its coalition rather than join a balancing coalition against it. For this reason, it is difficult to ask U.S. allies to do much of anything at all – their contribution is that they do not join a rival team.

Welcome to the post-2008 great power game

Despite Pillar’s assertions to the contrary, with so little at stake ideologically, there is in fact a greater risk now of U.S. allies defecting or acting against U.S. interests than at any point in the past. One might say that in fact such a process may be underway in some places. The lack of interest in Europe in containing Russian expansionism in Ukraine, which would continue even if the U.S. were to alter its own policy, is merely a case in point. If nothing else, U.S. allies have an incentive to demand more and contribute less.

One can argue that this is merely a reversion to the norm, and that the U.S. must make the best of it. The age in which the U.S. had most of the Eurasian landmass in its camp was probably not meant to last forever. And if, as may turn out to be the case, the U.S. is not in a position any longer to retain the support of all of its allies, it might be better for it to focus on the relationships it considers most vital, and pay what is necessary. This requires, in part, a recognition that keeping certain states out of rival camps and out of trouble that could involve the U.S. may be an end in itself.

The world is in the midst of its first post-Cold War power transition. The guidelines for it are simple: there is less to fight over and less disagreement on ideology, the dominant power is still very skittish about allowing new nuclear states to come about, and everyone is broke. The U.S. is in particular going to face some tough choices as it decides how to pay its bills domestically while remaining on top internationally – or decides between them. New coalitions, and new nuclear powers, might well emerge.

Let the games begin.

Martin Skold is currently pursuing his PhD in international relations at the University of St. Andrews, with a dissertation analyzing the political strategies of states engaged in long-term security competition.

The Fall of Pax Americana

This is the third article of our “Sacking of Rome” week: red-teaming the global order and learning from history.

“Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy…Next best is to disrupt his alliances…” Sun Tzu, tr. Samuel B. Griffith

This week, we are asked to consider what might bring down America’s global hegemony, considering for comparison the threats faced by Rome’s imperium over the course of its history.

The exact historical causes of the Roman Empire’s final fall (officially in A.D. 476, with the abdication of the last emperor, but arguably in A.D. 410, with the Visigothic sack of Rome) have been the subject of dispute since at least Edward Gibbon’s famous History was published, and will not be resolved here, but it is worth looking at some of the more plausible explanations. A rough consensus emerged in the late 20th century that by the end the Empire was bankrupt and unable to pay for its own defense. This led the anthropologist Joseph Tainter to argue the collapse happened when Rome’s subjects had the opportunity to defect to invading barbarians: the Roman state was too expensive to maintain and could not be made affordable, and the ferocious and appalling tax burden it placed on its citizens (which in extremis caused them to sell their children as slaves to pay their bills) caused them to look for any chance to join a different system; the barbarian incursions in the end were unopposed because, relative to the oppression of the Roman state, they posed less of a material threat. In Tainter’s view, the final collapse was, for the average Roman, a step up rather than down.

Despite the undeniable evidence (though we are, admittedly, working with archaeological specimens that are literally fragments and a handful of literary sources) that Rome was experiencing financial troubles throughout the era of the Empire (which caused it to debase its coinage in an attempt to get through seignorage what it could not through taxation), there is a contrary view, articulated most recently by the Oxford historian Peter Heather. In Heather’s argument, the Empire was doing relatively well financially at the end (the really burdensome taxation may have occurred more in the constant civil war of the 3rd century A.D. than the more peaceful 4th century, and may have had more to do with the depredations of marauding armies than the peacetime needs of the state), and was finally experiencing some domestic tranquility and normalcy. What brought it down was not its own internal rot, but a few well-timed heavy blows: just as Rome was having to arm itself to deal with a resurgent Persia, the Huns arrived in Europe, pushed Germanic barbarian tribes southward, and the combination of this and ineffective Roman diplomacy led to barbarian armies knocking at the gates. In Heather’s formulation, the final crash was simply the result of Germanic tribes operating in larger groups with larger armies in the field than they had previously, having been pushed in that direction by the Huns. Rome could not withstand the pressure, and it was defeated on the battlefield.

One could also point to the classic argument, which began with Edward Gibbon, that Christianity had made Romans less warlike, and that this, in turn, had made the Empire easy prey. This has been questioned in more recent times, but it may have had some effect.

Whatever brought Rome down, one can come up with a reasonably good synthesis of these proposed factors as a means of understanding what challenges await the U.S. One need only suppose that these explanations were all, to some extent, correct. Put in simple terms, the recipe for the downfall of imperium involves increasing need for defense spending, structural inability to cut costs, and a generalized apathy on the part of those within the “empire’s” bounds, combined with a changing geostrategic environment and war weariness at home. A few good, sharp knocks are then quite enough to bring it down. If one were looking for trouble for the U.S. in the near future, this is what one would look for.

At present, the U.S. is having difficulties maintaining its primacy and hegemony. Its defense budget, relative to its GDP, is in decline. Somewhat like Rome, its internal governing structure makes it difficult for it to avoid waste and intelligently allocate resources: at the moment, its political system is near-paralyzed, and whomever one may blame for this state of affairs, this makes it that much more difficult for it to respond to a changing strategic environment. At the same time, as I have noted in past posts, the U.S.’ geopolitical rivals have been rearming; one need only note the ongoing political maneuvers in the East and South China Seas and Russia’s incursions into Ukraine to discover that these rivals not only possess more power, but are increasingly unafraid to use it. In the face of these developments, the U.S.’ allies have remained apathetic: all of them likewise have internal political dynamics (the tradeoff between welfare benefits for aging populations and rearmament) that make it difficult for them to decide to do more, and in the case of Ukraine, economic incentives work against their involvement. The perception of U.S. weakness and reluctance to protect allies has not helped this dynamic.

The sharp shocks might come in the form of a series of crises in which the U.S. was unable or unwilling to act as the global guarantor that it claims to be. Russia under Putin is widely believed to have designs on the Baltic states, which on the one hand are demilitarized and notoriously difficult to defend, and on the other are NATO members that the U.S. is obligated by treaty to protect (the classic “can’t/must” dilemma personified). And while China’s actions with regard to the Senkakus, the Paracels, and (for that matter) Taiwan have to date mostly involved mere posturing, it is easy to imagine a future scenario in which China’s leaders were forced onto a more hawkish and nationalist path by factional rivalry within the ruling Party or by economic stagnation resulting in the need to distract its population.

What if a series of military moves by China and Russia happened against multiple U.S. allies at the same time? The so-called “two war doctrine” is now a relic, but the U.S. military’s capabilities are formidable, and it might be able to respond to attacks on, say, Estonia on the one hand and Taiwan on the other. If caught unprepared, however, it might be forced to cede initiative at least temporarily in one or more theatres, which might be enough time for either China or Russia to turn its takeover of a U.S. ally into a fait accompli. In effect, there is no guarantee that U.S. forces would be in position to stop an aggressive move before it was made and before it initially succeeded. At that point, the U.S. would face not only the cost of mobilizing for war (particularly if the military’s existing resources were inadequate to the task of retaking the lost territory), but also the risks associated with initiating or renewing a major conflict with two nuclear-armed great powers at the same time, possibly in the absence of immediate and substantive assistance from allies. Depending on the U.S. leadership, political situation, and public mood at the time, it is easy to envision political factions uniting around a dovish policy response, possibly with negotiation or ineffective sanctions used as a face-saving measure.

The consequences of such a policy would be disastrous for the U.S.’ international political position. Although the U.S. would retain its economy and (presumably) its armed forces, its allies would quickly make their own arrangements: a great power guarantor that has been shown to be uninterested in one’s protection is at best useless and at worst an unacceptable risk, and states that had previously relied on the U.S. to protect them from Russia and China might decide that it was safer to appease Russia and China. In two major geopolitical regions, the U.S. might quickly find itself friendless and alone.

Truly destroying a great power is difficult, but knocking it off its political perch can be done given the right mix of initiative and opportunity. The American equivalent of the Fall of Rome would be a world in which Americans awoke one morning to discover that they were no more influential than anyone else, and a good bit less than some in some places. The Pax Americana, like the Pax Romana, would give way to something new.

It must be stressed that this scenario is at the moment far-fetched, and far from inevitable. Avoiding it, however, will require a renewed commitment on the part of the American public to putting up the resources necessary to fulfill the role they want their country to play. A dose of political realism and willingness to compromise for the good of the country would not come amiss, either. Or, in Lord Macaulay’s memorable words about America’s mighty world-ruling predecessor: “As we wax hot in faction, in battle we wax cold.”

Martin Skold is currently pursuing a PhD in international relations at the University of St. Andrews, with a thesis analyzing the strategy of international security competition.

Troubles Of Our Own: Why 2014 Is Not Like 1914 (But Is Scary Anyway)

It has become fashionable, on the eve of the centennial of the outbreak of World War One, to ask, or worry about, whether it could all happen again. This vague sense of anxiety – this sense of how good we have it now, and how it could all be gone tomorrow – is perhaps fitting, given that it has become an accepted (if debatable) point of history that neither the decision-makers nor the publics of the various European powers expected a prolonged and civilization-devastating war. Such anxiety has a long pedigree: Kipling, writing a poem for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee a mere decade and a half before the war broke out, chose to quietly shelve his now-infamous imperialist tribute, “The White Man’s Burden,” for another occasion, in favor of publishing the more sombre and (at the time) jarring “Recessional,” which reminded its reader that all glory is fleeting and God alone is permanent (“Far-called, our navies melt away/On dune and headland sinks the fire/Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/Is one with Nineveh and Tyre…”).

In fact, the war’s outbreak and subsequent course probably were predictable in advance, and if anything reflected what we would now call a failure of analysis, either on the part of the leaders of the European states, or on the part of their people. The prescient military analyst Ivan Bloch had warned that carnage, stalemate, and industrial exhaustion were practically inevitable in modern warfare; the general staffs on what were to become both sides were at least dimly aware of this reality. Diplomatically, Europe had bounced from crisis to crisis in the preceding decade. Its people were all trained for war and (particularly, but not only, in Germany) cheered their respective militaries and military leaders with a fervor now reserved for football fans. One would have had to be blind not to see it coming.

Millions were. Millions paid.

In that spirit, it would be foolish indeed to believe that major war is now a thing of the past, or that a terrible catastrophe could not befall us. Indeed, the belief that such catastrophes are a thing of the past appears to be a prerequisite for their occurrence. And the rise of other military powers relative to the U.S. should indeed give us pause: this is the sort of time when we should be worried.

But for all that, there are key differences between the modern world and the world of 1914. They suggest that, at a minimum, the kind of wars we have seen in the past are unlikely to repeat themselves. Something altogether different awaits us. This in itself is ominous, because there are no recent historical models to guide us or point the way; avoiding repeating the past is not as simple as learning from a mistake. This, too, is a lesson of the past: World War One did not resemble the Napoleonic Wars, and Europe in 1914 did not resemble Europe in 1789. But understanding the present in light of the past is necessary all the same.

I therefore submit, for consideration, some key differences between 1914 and now.

1. We have nuclear weapons now, and we don’t make light of them. Two points must be understood. In the first place, invading the home territory of an adversary in a modern war between great powers will sooner or later (and probably sooner) result in the destruction of both. Notwithstanding innumerable debates about when, exactly, it would be “rational” to employ nuclear weapons in self-defense, the presence of nuclear weapons places an upper limit on warfare between the major powers. Marching on Paris (or Beijing, or Moscow, or Washington, or Brussels) is less an inevitable goal of military operations than an exercise in playing with fire (or plutonium). And, in the second place, this point is understood by most of the decision makers involved: the carnage on the Somme was a distant hypothetical in 1914; the devastation of Hiroshima can be viewed online.

Of course, decision makers can miscalculate. Just as the European political leadership in 1914 and after were apparently unaware of how to stop what had been started or how bad things could get, so too it is difficult in a crisis for modern decision makers to know where the lines are. That, of itself, may point the way to where things will (may?) someday go wrong. The possible future addition of other nuclear states to the mix will merely make things more complicated.

2. It is more difficult to hold onto conquered territory now, and less useful to do so. A mainstay of European warfare for probably two centuries or more prior to World War One had been the assumption that land could be taken for sovereign use, that a treaty at the end of the war would legitimize the winner’s gains, and that docile civilians would sit by and not care too much to whom they ultimately would pay taxes. In fact, the Napoleonic Wars (which saw the first nationalist partisans) and the Franco-Prussian War (in which German troops had to contend with irregular “franc-tireurs”) had already called this issue into question by 1914, and it is significant that Bismarck, in an earlier era, sought to avoid peace treaties that required Germany to integrate too many non-Germans. But whatever problems European states had in this area by 1914 are multiplied tenfold now.

The world is awash in cheap former Soviet weaponry, and it is all too easy for a rival power, if it decides it is worth its while, to arm an insurgent faction anywhere where government is less than perfectly stable. The tactics and strategy of insurgent warfare were perfected in the wake of World War Two by Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap, the Algerian FLN, and others; mass-casualty terrorism was perfected by Al Qaeda. As Thomas Hammes notes in The Sling And The Stone, modern communications technology and cheap transportation make coordinating an insurgent group much easier. Since the Arab Spring and the Euromaidan, a viable model exists for coordinating quasi-peaceful, quasi-violent opposition to a government; it is now more dangerous than ever for a government to be both weak and illegitimate at the same time, and this is the position a conquering force effectively starts from. Twitter, YouTube, and a sympathetic globalized media ensure that atrocities committed to quell a rebelling populace will receive widespread attention, even as they allow protesters to coordinate their actions. If a state does succeed in overcoming all of these problems, it is less certain now than in 1914 (notwithstanding anything else one might say) that its actions will have international legitimacy. And, needless to say, the destruction wrought by resistance to occupation renders any conquered territory inherently less valuable.

This is not to say it is impossible for a state to conquer territory in the modern world and hold it. It is to say that the costs of doing so have gone up and the benefits have gone down. This, rather than anything the international community did, may be the main reason Vladimir Putin chose to overtake parts of Ukraine by fomenting unrest and sending covert thugs rather than by force majeure: a country roughly the size of the American Midwest with 44 million people is difficult to swallow even in part, and certainly not with only a few divisions.

But it is also easy to see how these changes could pave the way for the next conflict. If invading another great power’s territory is out of the question, indirect methods may be the preferred course. Therein may lie danger.

3. There is no military conscription in most great powers today, and there are demographic and technological reasons why it is unfeasible. In Europe in 1914, every able-bodied male citizen of every great power except Britain and the U.S. performed military service upon reaching adulthood, and was subject to reserve service and periodic refresher training thereafter. Older men carried military identity cards that told them where to go if called up. This was an accepted way of life in virtually every European state, and there was even a movement in favor of conscription in Britain. It did not dampen public enthusiasm for war when war came, and may have inured the publics of the various states to war’s hardships.

Except for Russia, no great power employs military conscription today. Nor can they. As Edward Luttwak has noted, low birthrates and smaller families mean that losses are more keenly felt in wartime; this of itself makes drafting eighteen-year-olds impracticable; indeed, historically wars have been fought by states with rising populations, not populations that have plateaued or are falling. In the west, public cynicism over Vietnam and Iraq further dampens enthusiasm for any sort of civic militarism that imposes costs on the general public.

If the teenagers of the respective great powers are reluctant to serve, the militaries in question are reluctant to receive them: not only are discipline problems associated with unwilling recruits, but mass conscription of its nature implies a choice of quantity over quality – in modern, technologically reliant armies, training a soldier to use his equipment well takes more time than the average conscript would normally spend in the army, and requires more training resources than would be available on a universal basis. The Russian Ground Forces’ experience with conscription is the exception that proves the rule: draft-evasion is rampant, morale is low and discipline is often shoddy (a situation abetted by horrific hazing practices), and readiness is affected by the need to achieve technical proficiency that cannot be learned in the time available.

Some of the factors driving the trend towards professionalism and away from military conscription might be reversed, while others are more permanent – but the kind of national mobilization that was part and parcel of early twentieth century warfare is not possible at the moment. What applies to manpower applies to machines as well: as is readily apparent in observing the procurement process for ships and aircraft, the replacement of lost equipment will be a more complicated matter in any future war than it was in 1914.

It is ambiguous what this might mean for great power war in the future. On the one hand, it is indicative of a more pacific-minded public; on the other hand, it means that the costs of such a war will be borne by a few until they are borne by many.

4. The great powers are broke. With the possible exception of Russia, all of the major powers are carrying huge loads of public and private debt – including national debts, provincial and municipal debts, and private debt. (Yes, this includes China; it’s just that in the latter case the figures are more carefully hidden, which is in itself terrifying.) Economic growth is slowing across the developed world, including, most ominously, in China, which relies on double- or high-single-digit growth to appease its restive population and provide jobs for its surfeit of young men (the combination of the One Child Policy and traditional sexism having run its logical conclusion).

In financial terms (and solely in those terms), the world today more closely resembles the world before World War Two than it does the world before World War One. This is not necessarily reassuring.

5. Finance is globalized. The great powers’ national debts are publicly traded. It is tragically amusing to note that a war with China would mean the U.S. would have to find a new foreign creditor, and quickly. This is in stark contrast to the financial world of 1914, in which governments overwhelmingly owed money solely to their own citizens, and the purchase of government debt in wartime could be sold to the public as a patriotic duty or contribution.

6. And finally: people are older, richer, more heavily taxed, more heavily subsidized, and more cynical. It’s quite obvious, but it must be said: a prolonged war today would require financial sacrifice from the publics of the various great powers that they would not easily make. Government spending and taxation relative to private income is stratospheric compared to 1914 levels, and in the West the overwhelming majority of this spending is repaid to the public at large via entitlements. The percentage varies from great power to great power (it is higher in Europe), but it is high across the board. All of the great powers have aging populations that are, on average, much older than in 1914. All of their populations, in a period of prolonged great power peace, have structured their lives (particularly, the size of their houses and the size of their debts) on the assumption that current levels of income, taxation, and benefits will be roughly stable. The sacrifices necessary to pay for a war (even the economic damage caused by a disruption of trade in the event of a war) might be less severe than in 1914, but would be felt more keenly by publics that are not only used to comfort but in fact rely on it. (One cannot make one’s house smaller and easier to pay for, magically reduce one’s mortgage, or easily accept early twentieth century levels of medical care.)

Such sacrifices are bearable if a war is about something. But whereas in 1914 the publics of the European powers believed in all too many cases that the nation was an end in itself, modern publics are less idealistic. Particularly in Europe, but also in the U.S. and to some extent in China, if only because of the experience of two world wars, let alone the more recent experiences of Vietnam and Iraq, calls to sacrifice for the nation when there is money to be made and a comfortable life to be lived will ring hollow, particularly if the war is not about anything. The levels of nationalism that drove the world to war in 1914 are not only absent today, but are often the subject of derision.

This is not to say that war is impossible for this reason, either. As was the case before World War Two, we may yet decide that war is not worth fighting only to find ourselves in a situation where we have no choice. Cynicism and complacency are rarely wise.

But it is to say that today is not yesterday. Those who fear that 2014, or the coming years, will be like 1914 can probably rest easy. Today’s problems are not like yesterday’s.

They are different.

Martin Skold is currently pursuing a PhD in international relations at the University of St. Andrews, with a dissertation analyzing the political strategies of states engaged in long-term security competition.

NATO on the Edge: Obama’s Reply of Honorius?

Sometime in the year A.D. 410, Honorius, the last Roman emperor to rule the Western Roman Empire before the sack of Rome by the Visigoths that year, received a request for military aid from Britain, then a Roman province.  The island was under attack by barbarians.  We do not know exactly what the letter to Honorius contained, but Honorius’ response, now referred to by historians as the Reply of Honorius, essentially told the Britons – theoretically Roman citizens who could count on the protection of the Empire – that they would have to make do on their own; Rome had troubles of its own and could not send help this time.

The Reply of Honorius is often considered to mark the end of Roman rule in Britain, as well as the end of Rome’s military dominance over any part of the empire.  Rome had all it could do to protect itself; imperial clients, whatever their legal claims to help from the central power, would have to fend for themselves.  Though the Roman Empire sputtered onward for another two generations after Rome was sacked in 410, this was the point where the central tenet of Roman rule – that Rome protected its own – was exposed as a fiction.  Nothing was the same after that.  Where Britain was concerned, the island was cut off from the Empire and never returned to it; it did, indeed, fend for itself.

There are a lot of bad comparisons made between America’s worldwide defense posture and the Roman Empire.  The two do, however, have one obvious thing in common:  in both cases a powerful state made promises to defend far-flung territories.  As with Rome, the U.S. is finding out how expensive such promises can be to keep.

As of this writing, Russian forces in Ukraine have seized the Crimea.  Ukraine is in the process of a general military mobilization, but Russian forces are already securing the strategic Perikop isthmus to the north of the Crimea, which controls access to the rest of the country; unless Ukrainian forces, with or without assistance, can similarly entrench along these lines, Russian forces will be able to break out of the Crimea and move toward strategic crossing points along the Dnieper river.  If that is the case, protecting Kiev will become very difficult, if not impossible.  It remains unclear how many Ukrainian units are even active at this point; units in the predominantly ethnically Russian east of the country have already defected or surrendered, including the Ukrainian navy’s flagship frigate.  There are an unknown but sizeable number of Russian forces on alert along the northeastern border of the country, leaving open the possibility of a general invasion.

President Obama has publicly stated that Russia would face “serious costs” were it to go forward with plans to invade Ukraine.  It is a matter of speculation what those costs may be, although it is becoming clear that there is little that the U.S. and its allies can do to stop the invasion without intervening directly.  As German Marshall Fund analyst Joerg Forbrig has remarked, there is very little evidence up to now that Putin’s government is motivated by an economic cost-benefit analysis, as opposed to nationalism and, perhaps, calculations of security.  Although the majority-ethnic Russian east of Ukraine may indeed make more sense as a Russian satellite than a fractious part of Ukraine, it is likely that Russia will seek to take Kiev, both to send a message (as was the case with its seizure of Gori in the 2008 invasion of Georgia) and because, as the ancient capital of one of the earliest Russian kingdoms, it has sentimental importance for Russian nationalists.  There is little reason to believe sanctions, or any similar actions, will stop Russia from seizing at least a part of Ukraine, or inflict any meaningful punishment on it for doing so.  Indeed, such sanctions will be hard to impose:  Europe is more dependent on trade with Russia (most notably natural gas shipments, many of which go through Ukraine) than the other way around.

From the point of view of several of the U.S.’ NATO allies, on the other hand, imposing “serious costs” on Russia, even if it could be done, means the game has already been lost:  the challenge is to prevent Russia from taking Ukraine, not punish it once it has done so.  This especially applies if Russia is not content to take the Crimea and the pro-Russian east, but decides to seize Kiev and control the entire country.  Ukraine borders on four NATO member states – Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania – and up to now has served as what might pass for a buffer zone between the Alliance and Russia; Russian ground forces in Ukraine in force – particularly western Ukraine – are therefore literally too close for comfort.  What applies to these states applies even more strongly to the three Baltic states – Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia – all of which are also NATO members, have minimal strategic depth or defensible terrain, and share a border with Russia – and are therefore quite concerned about U.S. resolve in the face of Russian aggression.

It might have been advisable in the past to debate or question the appropriateness of NATO expansion or consider the merits of negotiating an arrangement with Russia with regard to eastern Europe; now, however, the U.S. has given its word to defend practically all of eastern Europe from Russian military attack, Russia is now expansionist and hostile to U.S. interests, and the eastern European states are understandably curious whether the U.S. is serious about its commitments.  The legal argument that Ukraine is not a NATO member and that therefore the U.S. has no obligation to it is a hair they are unwilling to split.  What they see is an American patron that was caught flat-footed by a crisis, made empty threats, was unwilling when the time came to confront Russia, and was not substantively concerned about their well-being.  If the situation in Ukraine is not quickly brought under control, America’s nominal allies in eastern Europe may make the same difficult calculation that Finland made in the last century:  that no outside ally can be relied on, and that they would do better to make their peace with Russia.  The result would be a hollowed out NATO, perhaps even leading to a disintegration of the Alliance over the longer term.

Although eastern Ukraine, as a pro-Russian region at odds with the new government, may be too far gone to save, and although its detachment (de jure or de facto) from the rest of the country might in any case form part of a negotiated settlement, there is a rapidly closing opportunity to stave off the worst possible outcome of the crisis – Russian conquest of the country with no meaningful U.S. response.  To deter Russia from making further inroads into the country, the U.S., with Ukrainian Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s consent, would need to deploy a rapid reaction force to western Ukraine, effectively signaling that it might become involved if Russia moved to take the western half of the country, and hopefully deterring Russia from moving on Kiev.  (It might still be possible to secure the neck of the Perekop Isthmus and block off the Russian forces’ main route out of the Crimea, but if reports are true, it may be too late.)  The next best option could be the placement of a similar force along the border of any of the neighboring NATO states, as a precaution and show of resolve, and to preserve some options if the situation got worse.  (CIMSEC’s Robert Rasmussen has eloquently summarized the available forces and possible order of battle.)  Unfortunately, the window for action is closing, if it hasn’t already:  it would take a while for forces from EUCOM to get to Ukraine, and time is becoming scarce; arranging logistics would likewise be difficult.  If there was a time for action, it was when Russian forces along the border went on alert for an “exercise” last week – precious time has been lost.  As goes the U.S., so will go other NATO states.  The NATO states that border Russia and Ukraine will be watching what happens.

It may well be the case that a negotiated solution to the conflict is both the best option and even the inevitable one.  Unless the U.S. moves directly to deter a general assault on Ukraine, however, there will be little to negotiate with.

But in fact the U.S. faces a much more difficult set of options than even all this would suggest.  Russia and the U.S. have been cooperating on Afghanistan; as has been noted, Russia is a major link in the tenuous supply line that supports U.S. operations there.  Confronting Russia over Ukraine could jeopardize not only operations in Afghanistan, but potentially the safety of U.S. forces there.  It might be possible to find alternate supply routes, but not at short notice.  The ugly reality is that the U.S. might have to choose between breaking its promises in Afghanistan – drawing down faster than it otherwise would – or failing to demonstrate sufficient resolve in eastern Europe.  At least in terms of preserving a global balance of power that keeps America safe and powerful, Europe is undoubtedly more important – but it will hurt either way, if the choice does ultimately have to be made.

Either way, the U.S. is in danger of issuing its own Reply of Honorius – those whom we have promised protection may have to rely on their own resources.  There may still be opportunities to make the best of this situation and even turn it around, but time is fleeting:  what happens this week may make all the difference in the world.

Martin Skold is currently pursuing his PhD at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, with a dissertation focused on analyzing long-term security competition between states.